Permaculture in Java

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Indonesia is an astonishing archipelago of around 17, 000 islands, consisting of a range of ecosystems from rainforests to tropical beaches, highland and lowland mountain areas, and even grasslands, all of which contribute to making it the second greatest biodiversity on the planet. The number of endemic species of both plants and animals far exceeds that of most other countries, but it is also being destroyed at a truly alarming rate. The incredible fertility of the soil is proving to be a double edged sword for the country, with their ability to produce a wide array of crops now being exploited by the global market, and vast swathes of the country being given over to destructive mono-cultures.

I visited Bali last year, and was dazzled by the variety of flora there, and I was curious to return to explore some of the less touristy islands, to see for myself more of the problems this stunning array of wildlife is facing. And hopefully, learn a little more about the solutions being implemented. I therefore organise to go and live and work with a permaculture garden near Salatiga, in the East of Java, the most densely populated of Java’s islands.

 

 

After landing in Jakarta, I take an 8 hour train to Yogyakarta, and through the window I am immediately introduced to the extraordinary, lush greenness of the country. Acres and acres of vibrant forests and hills blanketed in greenery, pass us by in a blur. Once in the city, it seems the concrete is barely able to contain the earth’s overflowing vitality, and life sprouts from the paving stones, creeping ferns reclaim walls and even the roads are starting to be softly overtaken by green. But the issues are also clear. Every city is strangled by 4 land motorways, clogging the air with pollution so thick you can taste it. Development is fast, unsympathetic and unstoppable. The population is booming, and it needs to be housed. And fed.

I arrive in Salatiga and find a mid-sized town with all of Indonesia’s usual charms and problems. Houses painted in candy-bright colours and ringed by banana trees, all of which is dulled by the grey dust pouring off the traffic speeding past day and night. The permaculture garden is set back, a little walk through some rice fields and heading into the hills. Suddenly, the air becomes clean and sweet, and the traffic roar is replaced the rustlings and chatterings of the forest.

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The land looks wild and uncultivated, but it it is in fact, a garden, as the young men running the place are quick to tell me. They are all from Jakarta, passionate, well-educated, and saddened and inflamed by what is happening to their country. They decided that they would take action by showing that another way of living that is beneficial to the planet is not only possible, it’s preferable. So they have set up here, to live a life that is kind to the earth and enjoyable for them. It’s an idyllic prospect.

The basic premise of permaculture is a method of farming that mimics the patterns of nature, meaning it is sustainable, and through continued use, benefits the environment rather than depleting it. Mono-culture, the practice of intensively farming only one crop, destroys the natural ecosystem, as there is not a variety of food available to sustain a broad spectrum of insects and bacteria in the earth. This leads to a gradual depletion of the nutrients in the soil, and a breakdown of it’s structure, meaning it becomes necessary to maintain plant health through chemical means, further exasperating the issue. Mono-culture in Indonesia is mainly rice and palm oil, crops which are causing devastation across the country.

 

The boys in Salatiga are enthused by their visions of a permaculture future, as they explain their ‘food forest’ to me. It is based on a strictly ‘no-dig’ system, as leaving the soil alone is something they are evangelical about. The soil is left to improve it’s own structure and become rich in nutrients, through the breakdown of fallen leaves and dead insects etc, on its surface. They aid it by planting many nitrogen fixers, legumes such as Calliandra calothyrsus, with its beautiful, pink silken flowers, or pinto beans. The ground is already thick with spiky Mimosa pudica, another member of the Fabaceaea family, with it’s tiny, shimmering pom-pom flowers and peculiar, sensitive leaves.

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They plant their forest to include as much height and variety of genus as possible, maximising food for animals and humans, ensuring a year-round canopy for wildlife shelter and a range of nutrients to rot down into the soil. It creates a virtuous cycle of production and once established, minimizes work for the farmers. As the boys continuously tell me, a real forest doesn’t need anyone to look after it, and it supports a much wider range of life than any field of rice or oil palm trees.

The forest is in early stages, so there is still some planting to do. We go out in the blazing heat and I help out with planting Bananas, Jack Fruit, Papayas and Mangos. There are endless Cassava plants, which is being touted as the eco-friendly carbohydrate alternative to rice, as it grows so quickly and is much more energy efficient. The forest is pulsing and throbbing with tangible life, as it should be. The boys live harmoniously with all the surrounding nature, in a simple wooden hut, all their energy provided by solar panels.

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Ducklings enjoying the permaculture dream

The whole experience is affecting beyond measure, really giving me a huge amount to ponder about where I want my horticultural career to take me. If I am going to work with plants, it has to be in a way that is beneficial to the planet, which unfortunately, large sections of the horticultural industry is not. There is an overuse of chemicals in the industry, heated greenhouses which waste huge amounts of energy simply so we can grow plants out of season, and we are becoming increasingly out of touch with the natural patterns. My 2 weeks in Salatiga has taught me how much I want to be a positive force in protecting the planet that produces all these beautiful plants that we admire so much.

 

Tree Ferns

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Dicksonia antarctica at Logan Botanical Garden

Tree ferns capture the imagination in a way no other plant does. They are jurassic, tropical and strikingly beautiful. With their hairy, gnarled trunks and elegant feathery fronds, they add a wild, primal feel to any landscape, transporting us to prehistoric times.

They can definitely be enjoyed in a British garden, but some care needs to be taken. Throughout the winter it is best to wrap the trunks in fleece or bubble wrap to protect them, and ensure the plant is never allowed to dry out. They do not like exposed spots, and prolonged periods of bright sunlight is not ideal.

I’m currently carrying out an internship at Logan Botanical Garden, and so have had the chance to see a truly unusual mixture of tree ferns, all possible due to the mild micro climate that the area enjoys.

Cyathea dealbata (below) is one example, a stunning, silvery, feathery thing, the national symbol of New Zealand and a deeply significant plant in their culture and politics. The top is the usual rich, mid-green, but when flipped over, the pure moonlit, colouring of the underside reveals itself.

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Cyathea dealbata

One of the most fascinating thing about tree ferns is the fact that their trunks are not actually trunks in the sense of most perennial plants, in that they are not stems that undergo secondary thickening. They are a slim central stem, surrounded by the dead mass of old plant growth, through which adventitious roots grow. So the roots are all entangled up the length of the trunk, instead of buried underground.

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Cyathea medullaris

Tree ferns generally belong to either the Dicksoniaceae and Cyatheaceae families. The Dicksonia’s tend to have a hairier looking trunk, which is the mass of roots growing around the base of old fronds. The Cyathea’s have a rougher, spikier trunk, as the old broken fronds are not softened down. Cyathea’s are also considered to be a little more cold hardy than Dicksonia’s.

The photo above is of the unusual Cyathea medullaris, commonly known as the ‘Black tree fern’ due to it’s stunning coal black stems, which contrast so strikingly with its rich, emerald foliage.

 

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Above is a photo of the Cyathea’s strange and beautiful fiddlehead, tentatively preparing to unfurl, a peculiarly speckled alien claw.

Like buds, fiddleheads are a gratifying and uplifting sight, the sign of new life preparing to open out into something incredible.

Tree ferns can be both richly lush and reminiscent of dark, damp, steaming rainforests, or when viewed alone and simply admired for their quirky shape, can add a whimsical, slightly outlandish element to the garden.

They are a plant that makes us think of the ancient, of a time when no humans marred the planet, but only dinosaurs stalked its surface.

Bryophytes

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Sanzen-in moss garden

I always think that we don’t love moss enough in this country. Some people do appreciate it’s magical emerald touch scattered across a green space, but in Japan, they’re crazy about it and cultivating it is an admired art form. They recognize it’s ability to add an established feeling, as well as a sense of calm and tranquility to a garden.

There’s a moss garden in Ohara near Kyoto, in the Sanzenin temple and it is undoubtedly one of the most charming and ethereal places, once seen never forgotten. The monks there have cultivated 100’s of different types of moss. It’s an otherworldly spot, tucked away on a mountain, the garden dotted with strange little stone statues poking their heads through the rich, velvet moss carpet, the place hushed under the canopy of trees, the only sound the rhythmic drop of a raindrop sliding down a leaf and into the still ponds. It awoke in me an absolute devotion to moss, and all the mysterious, shadowy and green places it inhabits.

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Patchwork of Moss and Lichen on a tree trunk

On a recent visit to the Cotswold, on a glum November weekend, I was happy to encounter plenty of moss, looking particularly enticing and vibrant in the rain.

Moss is a Bryophyte, which means it is the most basic form of plant life. It does not have a vascular system,  which means it lacks xylem (for water transport) and phloem (for sugar and mineral transport) tissues. They mainly absorb water and nutrients from their tiny leaves, which are only one cell thick. They do not have proper roots, but tiny hair-like rhizoids which help them anchor themselves to their growing surface. moss-1Moss also has no seeds or flowers, and reproduces by spores, which means they can spread quickly and with ease. This is part of what makes them a pioneer species, the first plants to start colonising an area after the eco-system has been damaged.

That’s why I love moss; it seems to encompass a lot of what it is that I love about plants. Their tenacity, their determination to return; even after we have absolutely ravaged an area and left it ugly and broken, they’ll come creeping back in without our help, bringing back the life and the greenery. Moss provides more carbon offset than trees, yet we insist on trying to scrape it out of our gardens.

When you put your face close to moss, it’s like looking into a tiny world. You could imagine people a few centimeters high sitting on the furry hummocks. When you take the longer view, and see an ancient building or devastated ruin with a velveteen covering, you can see nature reclaiming her land with silent, creeping fingers.

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Mossy monkey in the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest

Autumn

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Autumn is coming to a close and we’re moving slowly into winter. But it has been a stunning season. We’ve had the usual junk weather that England likes to throw around, but we’ve also had crisp, mild days with diamond bright shards of sunshine, and clear, azure skies.hyde-park-4

These low temperatures and bright sun have given us gorgeous autumn color; trees dripping with bronze, gold and ruby reds and that sweet, slightly melancholy, nostalgic scent of cold, of damp leaves and rich, wet earth. Breathing it in, we know the year is older, sadder, full of memories and ready to turn in for the night.

Autumn is characterized by it’s burning bright colors. It’s a result of the chlorophyll in the leaves being reduced in response to the shorter days, and the other chemicals such as anthocyanin (red) and carotene (orange), become more dominant.

Like these Japanese maple leaves above. Acer palmatum var.dissectum ‘Garnet’ (left) and Acer palmatum (right). Blood red stars, like holding a flame in your hand, they are rich with colour for a few more days, then will drift off on the breeze for another year.

At the base of the petiole of each leaf, the pectins start breaking down. Soon all that is securing the leaf to the stem is the xylem strands, and a strong wind is enough to tear these apart, leaving the leaf free to float away. The torn off xylem leaves bundle scars on the stem, and the tree is bare until the budding spring the next year.

prunusMany plants really come into their own in the Autumn, and it a season with nearly as many decorative merits, horticulturally speaking, as spring and summer.

Robinia psudoacacia (left); a common street tree of vibrant, lime green leaves through the warmer months, as the weather turns, it’s branches are drooping with festoons of golden coins that are pure butter yellow and soft to touch.

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Or Cotinus’Grace’ (above). It’s a deciduous shrub, with simple, obvate leaves that turn from deep plum to crimson as the year comes to a close. Throughout the spring it has an iridescent sheen on its leaves, and in the summer, the same cloud like plumes as the Cotinus coggryggia.

Autumn suits London particularly well, a final chance for it to gleam in the crisp sunlight before the real darkness begins.