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.

 

Student Internship at Logan Botanic Garden

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Logan Botanic Garden in Dumfries and Galloway, one of the four Royal Botanic Gardens of Edinburgh, offers internships for students of horticulture and related subjects. In March this year, I was lucky enough to be given a 5 week internship and the experience was absolutely excellent; rich in learning opportunities and incredibly enjoyable.

The garden is famed for its tropical atmosphere and the fact that it is full of exotic Southern Hemisphere plants, all growing outside despite the fact that it is in Scotland. This is due to the fact that the peninsula it is located on is warmed by the Gulf Breeze, creating a climate that is much milder than other parts of Great Britain, with few extreme temperature fluctuations. The area also very rarely reaches freezing, meaning that tender plants can be grown outside throughout the year. Throughout the entirety of my internship, the weather was incredibly mild, particularly considering it was March in Scotland, and there were many days of clean, bright sunshine.

Students are provided with free accommodation as part of the internship; a clean, comfortable bungalow conveniently located right inside the gardens, meaning waking up for work in the morning is a breeze and there are plenty of opportunities for peaceful, after-hours strolls around the grounds. They are also driven into town twice a week to do grocery shopping as there are no shops in the surrounding area. The closest large town is Stranraer, (about 12 miles away) and though there are a few villages dotted along the nearby coast, none have anything beyond a single post office. Whilst I was there, I borrowed a bike, which I found to be the best way of getting around, as the local bus is a little erratic.

We worked the same hours as regular staff, which are 8.30am-3.30pm during the winter, and a 4.30pm finish in the summer months. The team at Logan is small, so each member of staff is involved with several different aspects of running the garden.

The garden itself is stunning, and completely unexpected. Coming in from the gorse speckled hills and muted palette of grey’s and sea green of the surrounding countryside, to suddenly find yourself in a bright, tropical paradise is pleasingly surreal. The long, winding driveway up to the garden is lined with hundreds of Cordylline australis, giving you a taste of what is to come. Inside, you are immediately surrounded by spiked heads of Trachycarpus fortunei, hot pink Fuschia majellanica, beds laid with a geometrically patterned carpet of purple, matt forming Aeoniums and bright blue Ceanothus creeping over the whitewashed office building. An extravagance of jewel-bright colours that makes an energizing introduction to the garden.

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The garden is full of whimsical touches, curved paths and secret doors. Based in the center of the garden, there is a large Victorian style glasshouse, glittering in the sun and overflowing with rare tree heathers and a Pelargonium collection. Inside the walled garden, there is an immaculate stretch of velvet smooth lawn, dotted with a number of stout Dicksonia antartica. A shady walkway leading off to a secluded seating area, is lined with a mixture of Camellia japonica and Camellia sasanqua, the brick floor littered with the crimson and blush pink petals of the showy blooms. A large rectangular pond is filled with carp, lazily drifting along in metallic flashes of gold and silver, the mirror sheen of the water reflecting the slender arched trunks of the surrounding Cordyllines.

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Working there everyday was honestly a joy, and tasks as simple as weeding was totally absorbing, when working in beds filled with rare ferns and one-of-a-kind Rhodedendrons. The internship allows you to get involved with the work straight away, and the staff ensure you try a variety of tasks each day, broadening your learning. It’s hard to overstate just how giving Richard Baines (the curator) is with his time, especially considering how many different projects he has on and all the students coming through the program.

It’s such a cliche to say, but the 5 weeks honestly went by much too fast and I left feeling I had learned a huge amount, but also only really skimmed the surface of all the knowledge that Richard and his team have to share. I felt it really consolidated all my past horticultural experiences, as well as teaching me a huge number of new skills. Anyone looking to further their horticultural learning, I would recommend it absolutely.

Logan Botanic Garden Internship

Check the website to download an application form, and send to the curator Richard Baines. Applications can be made throughout the year, and tend to be with 1-4 months. Accommodation is provided for free, but students must buy their own food.

Port Logan,

North Stranraer

DG9 9ND

 

Logan House and Garden

logan houseOriginally all one property, Logan House was split up into Logan Botanic Garden and Logan House and Garden in the 60s. The botanic garden is now the more famous, but if in the area, Logan House and Garden is most definitely also worth a visit.
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The place has a truly epic scale, with no beds of massed, mixed perennials, but only stunningly huge shrubs and towering trees, which gives the whole place a lovely, strange slightly Alice in Wonderland feeling, as if you’ve wandered into the garden of a giant. Araucaria araucana with ruler straight trunks, taller than houses, holding out their long, arrow spiked arms, miles above. Rhododendrons with frilled heads of flowers as big as your hand, and wide lawns presenting an immaculate sweep of spotless green. The whole place is, astonishingly, managed by just one gardener. The size of his task is pretty mind boggling. 

 

The garden is split between the formal, and a much larger woodland area. One it’s most impressive aspects is it’s collection of huge, rare Rhodedendrons, one of which, the ‘Rhodedendron fortunei discolor‘ is actually a UK champion for size. 
The grouped heads of the Rhodedendron trees around the lawn make beautiful, cloudy heaps of cherry, cerise and mauve in the sky, punctuated by the spiked leaves of elegant Cordylline australis and lower down, golden swathes of Miscanthus sinensis

 

 But it is in the woodland area where the gardens charm really lies. Wandering through on a spring afternoon of warm gold, the syrupy light falling through the lush canopy made dappled shadows and there was a deep, resonant peace about the place.
Butter yellow heads of daffodils provided bright touches amongst the myriad greens of feathered fronds of ferns, and laid throughout the woodland was a moss carpet, velvety soft and vibrantly intense.
Here and there, I came upon an old crumbled wall, forgotten amidst the trees and beginning to be reclaimed by the woods, overtaken by the curling tongues of Asplenium scolopendrium and the soft, tumbling mounds of Soleirolia soleirolii.
 It is a fairytale woodland, filled with trembling shadows, glittering spots of light, the whisper of rustling leaves and the occasional glimpse of a rainbow headed pheasant, bossily strutting after a mate.
A secluded spot, well off the beaten track, it is certainly worth a visit when in Dumfries and Galloway.
Logan House Details
Adults £4, children free
Open Monday-Sunday
Mar-Sept, 9am-5pm.

Location:
Logan House Gardens are 14 miles south of Stranraer, adjacent to Logan Botanic Garden
Address:
Port Logan, Stranraer DG9 9ND
 You can reach it by local bus from Stranraer, or any of the smaller villages along the way to the coast.

Phlebodium aureum ‘Blue Star’

Now that it’s getting colder and more grey and miserable outside, I’m turning my attention indoors for green inspiration.

I’m a huge fan of all ferns, but to me, the silver misted leaves of Phlebodium aureum seem even more special than most. I have one in my room and it has been gratifyingly easy to look after, thriving with the most minimal attention.

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Like all ferns, it likes a moist, humid atmosphere, so ensure it doesn’t ever dry out. (but also don’t let it stand in pools of water!) It also doesn’t require much fertiliser, so don’t over feed it, perhaps just a couple of doses max, in the growing period.

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It’s leaves are pinnatifid, with an elegant, arching shape. It doesn’t require much direct sunlight, originating as it does from deep rain forest. It is endemic to parts of the Americas, and is an epiphyte, meaning it lives harmlessly off another plant for the sole purpose of support and not negatively effecting them.  They draw their water and nutrients from the air, therefore when planting at home use as loose a growing medium as possible, such as for an orchid.

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Their deeply curved leaves with their misty sheen look almost like seaweed, and the tentative, uncurling of it’s tiny, brand new leaves is beautiful.