Category Archives: Permaculture Design

Permaculture Design in the Tropics

We focus on tropical Permaculture and have started since 2011 the  regeneration of a land depleted and compacted by slash and burn techniques.

We already experience after few years of involvement in a rapid ecosystem succession, the intense pleasure of seeing a young forest growing. A forest made mainly of fruit trees, fertilizing trees, wind breakers, soil breakers, timber trees and endemic species. This young forest provides not only food but as well the fertility and the biomass which can be used for vegetable production.

Systemic approach is particularly important in the tropics since we  cannot rely on soil fertility (bacterial activity and organic matter degradation is 3 times more important than in temperate climate creating the need for constant regeneration) and every aspect of design is necessary to build a resilient ecosystem.

Our ambition is
– to explore as many Permaculture methods and techniques as possible in our current context,
– develop a concrete and usable know how on the field and
– share this know how by showing its genesis in the concepts of Systemic Approach using the Permaculture framework,

Permaculture is per essence an open and dynamic vision of the world, reason we include in our training a high level review of related concepts and domains; sustainability, thermodynamic, bio-mimicry, Cradle to Cradle and circular economy, soil microbiology, project methodology, information management, systemic simulation, economics.

Permaculture and New Technologies

internet-of-thingsBefore to develop the tight relationship between Permaculture and technology let’s consider what make the strength of Permaculture;

Permaculture is intricately related to a domain of science based on systemic approach. Systemic approach relies mainly in the control (modeling) and management (computing capabilities covering end to end processes) of information coming from complex system.

On the other hand what makes human specific ? may be it is not intelligence or consciences, we seem so close to our cousins the apes on this matter,  maybe it is a higher degree of conceptualization, emerging jointly with language and design formalization, which makes us so eager to learn, for our survival.

The capacity for conceptualization makes us intuitively aware that information processing is what differentiate us from the animal. If we appreciate advertisement as a mixture of information and human organic drives used by marketing, pushing for agro industrial products (humor and consumption of sugar, salt, drugs and sex…), we, as an enhanced animal, are still focused in looking for the right information, the one sticking to a realistic description of our ecosystem, making us able to better thrive or survive. Of course the modern world tends statistically (I personally think that there is no pilot in the plane) to change the context and create a reality where the marketing is fiercely informative; Knowing that the last Porsche XXX is able to reach the 100km/h in Y seconds becomes the right and useful information only because we are in a context where roads and traffic and the speed competition represent more than 50% of our reality. However with the constraints emerging from the fact that our planet is limited and the finance model is based on infinite growth (which is mathematically and physically absurd) some more pragmatic reality appears that compete with this artificial model and start to impose other perspectives.

2 factors become apparent;

  • a change in the way we process information, passing from an analytical reductionist way to a systemic approach and the identification of patterns and relationships. It is interesting to note that the expert in trans-humanism and artificial intelligence see the main threats not in the IA themselves becoming conscious but in the usage by corporations of these IA (which already start to think better than human on practical problems) using them in conjunction with the big data to develop competitive hegemony. If you have a critic mind you may as well wonder why Google and Facebook, the big data owner, manipulate the opinion and fuzz about IA.
  • a modification of our ecosystem where we cannot rely anymore on the externalization or resources (mainly air, water, biodiversity) by the economic sphere.

Permaculture benefits from these 2 factors and is not, as some may think a conservative way back to the old time, but more the embracing and fusion of technological progress into the biological  sphere. Technology may them be scrutinized, in the view and respect of ecology, in its real dimension as progress or digress.

Apart from the direct benefits of technologies designed for sustainability (solar panels, wind mill, …) here are some domains which could reveal useful in Permaculture farm design.

– 3D printing; Since Permaculture relies heavily on a library of established tools and functions, having a virtual library of Permaculture tools and their variations based on local context would be very useful. Metal 3D printing is now on the rise and some cooperatives could afford such tool in the close future. (read more about Permaculture and 3D printing)

– Sun light management; Nanotechnology allows now to be embedded in transparent panels in order
* to filter light polarity, intensity and frequency (/ light wave). It may permits for example to reduce infrared spectrum of light (thermochromic), meaning reducing heat in order to improve photosynthesis for most of temperate climate adapted plants
* to harvest light energy and use it later for increasing plant photosynthesis over longer period of time.

– Hologram; Many structural features (hedges, habitat, pathways) are design to help define animals schedules. By using holograms (maybe associated with sound, smells and hormones) we can imagine the digitization of the design setup. For example define boundaries on chicken path by preventing them on certain areas thanks to virtual predators (the same applies with chasing away unwanted predators).

– Issue with nanotechnology is the limited production capacity associated with high cost. However new materials appear which use small quantity of nano-structures for panel re-enforcement. The final products can be obtained at much lower costs. By having light, very strong and connectable panels we can imagine easy functions portability (animal habitat, fences, etc.) opening the possibility for flexible design.

– In case of large farms The Internet of Things (IoT) is a connectivity solution for sensors and data gathering for decision making (humidity, image recognition of animals and plants, temperature) and monitoring device for water and nutrients infrastructure, gates, etc. to pilot alarms and the automatic flows in the farm. IoT is already a reality in industrial farming (see external resource about John Deere). Extract from the press : Data help farmers discover when crops are reaching optimum moisture levels for timely irrigation decisions…

– In the future, ecosystem simulation software (see external resource : Moorea) will allow to optimize farm design (setup and evolution). The behavior of elements and their relationship with other elements (human, plants, animals, sectors and flow of resources and energy, terrain shape and constitution, water elements, …) will be weighted to help find the best combination/interactions within the ecosystem. These software will come with libraries of elements with dynamic description built over an open community sharing repository. These libraries will integrate as well designs of man-made functions to support the farm setup; e.g. green roof building (see external resource), dry toilets, dehydrators, chicken tractors, keyhole gardens, …

The 2 knots you need to know

What is a good knot ?

It is a knot designed in a Cradle to Cradle philosophy, meaning;

– have a good functionality : therefore will hold whatever the load you put on them

– are easy to disassemble in order to reuse the rope (and not cut it because it has been totally locked under tension): therefore easy to untie, even if you have put a tension of 20 tons on them

The knots you may use in the 2 most occurring situations are;

Bowline knot

bowline

The bowline is used to attached something loose at the extremity of the rope. You can not do it if the rope is under tension. Once done you may apply the tension, it will just lock immediately. Once the tension is released you can untie it very easily.

Clove Hitch knot

clove hitch

This one may be used to create or maintain a tension between 2 elements you tie together. It is the knot the sailor use when docking a boat. In construction it can be used to stretch a cord for leveling a wall for example. More than 2 loops can be made to increase the adhesion to the support.

Biodiversity management in Permaculture

The term Biodiversity encompass 3 perspectives;

– The number of species
– The genetic diversity
– The ecosystems variations

These 3 perspectives are 3 different paradigms with different natures, epistemology and complexities.

A species is the set of animals having the capability to interbreed and give life to fertile offspring. Bacteria species definition is different because of their character asexual. Viruses are excluded as well due to their specific nature.

Genetic diversity is the variation in alleles of genes within and among populations of individuals.

Ecosystem diversity is the variation in the complexity of a biological community. It represents the largest scale of biodiversity due to its systemic dimension. Complexity emerging from the multitude of relationships between the elements, biotic and abiotic.

The main focus in Permaculture is the ecosystem diversity, the relationship between elements being more important than the elements themselves. However the design of the domestic part of the ecosystem relies on the knowledge of the species introduced or attracted taking into account their specific functions and behaviors.

The design of the domestic biologic community in Permaculture may be influenced by

– The cost, capability and quantity of individuals of a species to fit inside a specific sub-ecosystem (adapted niches and schedules)
– The number of functions and positive interrelationships a species may have within the sub-ecosystem (positive relationships includes collaboration with productive elements and competition against counterproductive elements)
– The autonomy (including breeding) of the species (reduction of human monitoring)
– The opportunities the species may bring (food or resources production)
– The architecture and the potential niches of the ecosystem
– The permeability and ecotones between the sub-ecosystems and in particular with Zone 5

In every of these considerations we must have conscience of the possible lack of knowledge and the necessity to step in very carefully every time we introduce a new species.

The mechanisms at play in biodiversity related to the species and their environment are;

– Speciation : mechanism of life differentiation through evolution. (specialization, adaptation to a niche, emergence…) Mobility of a species and time spent in a specific environment are the two predominant factors of speciation
– Extinction : due to niche change, competition with more adapted species, food chain or food web perturbation (new predators, diseases, lack of food and resources, …)
– Migrations : immigration of new species in a specific ecosystem, emigration to other ecosystems .

Here are some drives in the construction of a biologic community in Permaculture;

– Use local species (species found in local ecosystems similar to the type of climax we may direct our ecosystem to).

– Limit the organisms introduction to few individuals at start and observe the group evolution and the impact on the environment. The early identification of niches allows as well to monitor the best ratio population size / allocated area.

– Time of reactivity after the emergence of an invasive species (extinction hosting) is an important factor to consider in order to reduce future maintenance.

– By favoring the introduction of perennials plants and large elements (trees) we facilitate the control of possible invasions (e.g. competition against grass or easy management of invasive perennials due to their slowness of propagation), multiply the number of niches (3 dimensional ecosystem) therefore the number of species (speciation hosting) and introduce a factor of stability favoring species settlement on the long term.

– Permaculture farms usually gives a preponderant role to aquatic ecosystems by their capacity to distribute water, produce resources and increase biodiversity both in the aquatic ecosystem itself and through its interface (ecotone) with connected ecosystems . Water ecosystems plays an important role in wild life attraction therefore biodiversity through natural (im)migration.

– Acceptance of balance in the impacts. A recent studies showed an increase of plants health in an ecosystem after bear introduction. The animal being a predator of ants themselves impacting negatively plants through different type of fungi culture. If introducing a bear in urban Permaculture for example is maybe not the best idea other examples can be found where accepting some impact can open bigger opportunity in the global balance.

– Increase the variations inside and in between species to enlarge the scope of opportunities. E.g. Having different fruit trees species or varieties spreads production over time.

– Get inform about or test the settlement of guilds.

– Resources about the benefits of biodiversity in ecosystems functions (services) :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiversity#Services_enhanced_by_biodiversity

Dehydrator

The function of a dehydrator is to dry food (fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, …) for conservation or food preparation purpose. It is a very sustainable solution since using sun energy and having a very low footprint with recycled materials.

The principle is relatively simple; a wooden box (drying chamber with trays) connected to a sun heating chimney.

secador-05

Once again check the relative location of your dehydrator with the context. Here the summer and winter sun courses and the vegetation around which could cause shade are the main elements to take into consideration. Check as well the windy rains sector to avoid humidity on the drying chamber. This can be avoided having a vegetation wall (here giant bamboo in the back).

The sun heat the interior of the chimney through the glass. The hot air circulate then up into the drying chamber to dry food.

If you want your system to be efficient you need 2 additions to this design.

A wavy corrugated metal sheet to increase the heat exchange with the circulating air inside the chimney:

secador-15

This will make a huge difference since the increased area of heat exchange will boost the temperature of the air flow.

The second feature to incorporate is 12 volts ventilators to speed up the airflow. You can get this into a computer hardware shop. The one in the photos cost 2 US$ each since they are second hand. It comes with a small transformer to 12 volts.

secador-20

 

These 2 easy to add features will make the difference between a poorly design solution and a very efficient drying system. If you want to slow down the capacity of the system and monitor either the temperature or the air flow speed you can switch off the ventilators and/or remove the corrugated sheet (therefore they should be easily removable) and/or add a sun filter on the chimney.

Some precision on the air flow : the bottom of the chimney has a trap to manage the quantity of airflow going in and the chamber has a trap to manage the quantity of airflow going out.

You may put a kind of mosquito net inside the chimney to prevent insects like ants climbing to the chamber and protect the basis of the structure as well with ants traps. The airflow going up, there is usually no food smell attracting insects on the basis of the structure.

secador-12

Swales

A man built swale is a low tract of land following a contour line made to harvest rain runoff on a slope.

Here is a swale filled in by rain water run-off;

swale-variations-01

View of profile ;

swale-profile

Swales are the most convenient way to store water in presence of a slope.

When a land has been deforested no tree can prevent erosion any more. The water run-off remove in few years the top soil. The vegetation may then take decades or even centuries to settle again, constantly removed by new run-off and by the difficulty to settle roots in a hostile subsoil.

Swales, by creating a water channel help the process of water capture and infiltration in the soil. After only few years the vegetation settle again and the topsoil regenerate.

Swales are not eternal and erosion will still impact this earth-shaping architecture if no trees with deep roots are planted to take over with the erosion prevention. Various methods exist with regards to the location of the trees and the swale. Planting the tree on top of the bern of the swale allow quick root settlement since the soil is soft. However this location tends to dry rapidly so this needs to be done at start of the humid season. Planting the trees just below the swale allow to use the bern as a platform to access the swale and harvest the fruits of the trees.

A swale follows a contour line meaning that its construction needs to be done using adequate leveling tools. Two tools are mainly used;

– a “A” shape tool. In this case you need to tare it initially using a horizontal surface and mark the position of the vertical string on the horizontal bar of the “A”
– a transparent hose filled with water which is the most convenient tool if your swale is longer than 5 meters.

swale-leveling

 

In some cases you need first to remove the vegetation to access to the most probable point on the contour line. In order to avoid removing too much vegetation not being very sure where to go horizontally, the best way to assess this with your eyes alone is to locate yourself in a perpendicular position with regards to the contour line. Only in this position you may have a good guess of the horizontal plan. Trying to evaluate the horizontal position of a line looking in the same axes that the line infers mistakes.

The swale by capturing water will deeply modify the humidity and structure of the soil down the hill. A water lens or water plume is created which shape depends on the geological layer composition and the angle of the slope. Here is a description of the typical evolution of the water storage inside the ground.

swale-plume

If you need to control and reduce the level of humidity generated down the swale the best way to do so is planting trees to monitor the water plume. This is a sensitive matter if you build a swale up the hill of a house. The humidity concentration could provoke water infiltration in the soil of the house.

Swale Overflow

Swales may include an overflow channel to redirect water to another swale or into the existing overflow network.

Water overflow channel needs to be covered using a non erodible material (e.g. plastic, … see picture below). Excavating the overflow channel without a protection from erosion will have the effect of the channel being dug up by the rain when overflow happens. The erosion will deepen the overflow channel until its bottom goes at the same level than the bottom of the swale, making the swale ineffective in holding the water.

Swale Overflow

The stones (as shown in the picture) ensure that the flow of water will not pass underneath the sheet to create erosion. The water level of the swale will be defined by the lowest border of the swale, in this case the channel protected by the sheet. To increase the swale water volume capacity the channel needs to be leveled up, taking care that it remains always the lower point of the pit borders.

 Swales customization

In places with high erosion the swale will gather a lot of sand and sediments. This earth can be used either to be transferred in locations where soft soil is needed or even be used as sand for construction. A third solution is to use this earth to transform the shape of the swale in order to create a terrace. Sediments will help create a light and humid earth bed showing potential for growing crops.

The following section mainly the different types of swale you may create depending on the situation.

First of all it is important to differentiate a swale harvesting water run-off from a sandy sector or from a vegetation established situation.

The former will be filled over time by sand, silt and organic matter. As shown on the picture below.

swale-harvesting-sand-and-silt
swale-variations-02

The erosion has brought sand (seen in the middle of the photography) and silt (on the down/right side) which are being harvested and brought to another location where sandy soil will help root development.

In this context it is necessary to let the swale empty of vegetation or mulch in order to have easy access to the sand and silt and shovel the accumulated materials for different usage. In this case the swale plays an additional role which is harvesting certain textures of soil (sand and silt) which can be very useful, for example;

– to add sand in banana circles shape in a compacted soil. Or any earth-shaping requiring good drainage(e.g. Biodigestor evapo transpiration).
– to get sand, in certain cases pure enough, to use with cement.
– to get silt to mix with earth for additional fertility.
– to transform the swales into terraces by moving the sand down hill (see the photo below)

swale-terrace

A secondary swale (e.g. located down from the former) will not receive sand because the first swale make a barrier for the sand. In this case the swale can be filled in with mulch to better keep humidity and help reconstitute the top soil on the bottom of the swale or can be used as a German pit (HugelKultur in pits). In this case the vegetation settled there will need to be adapted to a swamp ecosystem with long periods of water logging depending on the rain water accumulation. (see photo below)

swale-terrace-up

The sand and silt accumulated from the upper swale can be mixed with the earth taken to make the terrace.

A swale always need to follow the contour line in order to keep the water in. However it may play as well a different  role and have an additional specificity;

– Channeling water, to a pond for example, (see photo below)
– Have a depth variation in order to monitor the quantity of water infiltrating the soil. (see photo below)

swale-sizes

 

In case of channeling it may be necessary to add gates to monitor the overflow debit to the desired location. If let open the water flow will most of the time fill the pond and not stay at swale level. The priorities between pond level and water accumulation in the swale can be managed through simple gates. Once the water reach the top of the gate the overflow starts to fill the pond. The overflow of the pond can be avoided if necessary by having a water overflow evacuation point on the swale at the same level than the maximum desired pond water level.

Location of the plants on the swale system

Trees root system allow to fix the earth shape against erosion over time. It is then important to plant perennials, big enough to fix the swale. Over time the swale will disappear and the perennials will play the erosion control function (roots, mulch, humus, cover ground). If the slope is important deep tap root trees should be preferred.

Trees can be planted down the swale so that the mount can be used as a platform to access the fruits. In this case medium fruit trees can be planted (see photo below)

swale-plantation-down

 

If planted on the mount the fruit trees may be smaller to compensate the elevation (see photo below). The mount is usually soft since the earth has been dug up from the swale. The root system will develop easily there. The only drawback is the tendency of the mount to quickly become dry.

swale-plantation-up

It is unadvised to plant trees inside the pit since the soil is usually less fertile and very compacted. The bottom of the swale suffers as well important hydrometry variations which could impact the tree. To resolve this you may create a German pit as described above (only on secondary swales).

When defining the contour line before digging the swale it may happen that you encounter a tree on the way. It is then not necessary to remove the tree. You may dig the swale down or up the tree on the specific portion where it stands. By doing so you must make sure that the bottom of the swale and the top of the berm stay at the same level. When the slope is sharp the best alternative is digging the swale up the hill to skirt the tree. In both solutions a previous analysis of the tree root structure is necessary (size, resilience, age).

Designing the Forest Succession

When conducting the process of reforestation we may consider two kinds of trees;

The support species, in charge of creating the nurturing framework of the forest ecosystem (soil fertilization through nitrogen fixation with leguminous plants, strong root penetration for soil breaking, nurturing and ventilation, rapid biomass production for mulch production and topsoil reconstitution, wind breaking and moisture capture, etc.) and

The productive species, in charge of food production for human and animals and side products generation like timber, fibers, etc.

At start 80% of planted trees, bushes and cover-ground are leguminous (support species) in order to boost the ecosystem capability to develop, and 20% of productive species are planted taking into account their capacity to adapt and resist to the first years of a non fertile and often dry environment. The support species are planted in various sizes and  over-density and will be pruned or removed over time to produce mulch and allow productive species to receive light.

How to proceed in term of design

80% of the support plants, mainly leguminous, will disappear, either naturally or pruned or removed, to create mulch and biomass.

The design needs to show on paper the species that will stay in fine in the food forest. They are mostly productive species and 20% of supportive species (for fertilization, wind break, mulch production, etc.) The location per zone of the different productive trees needs to be defined.

Then if the support species can be spread in the field surrounding densely the productive species they don’t really need to be included in the drawing since they form a nurturing placenta evenly distributed.

The distribution of support species may be compared to the construction of a grid, mixing homogeneously the different supportive species in size and shapes. Later the landscape architecture will operate negatively and remove the unnecessary plants.

It is on one part; classical landscape drawing, in the other; design by negative space in the landscape architecture. The supportive species which will remain (not been removed) are plants with particular positive interaction, health and robustness and capability to act as a permanent species, in size, shape and adaptability (pruning recovery, propagation capability, weather adaptation, …).

In Time

With regard to the time scale it is to be considered that some (most ?) productive species have poor pioneering qualities and will be able to settle only after a buffer of time, requiring the protection and the fertilization from pioneer species.

In this case either you have resources and may invest for each plant enough organic fertilizer, enough labor (modify the soil texture at the plant location if necessary), enough biomass to ensure global moisture and carbon availability, enough money to invest in infrastructure, e.g. “Groasis Waterboxx” See external resource.

or you may schedule the plantation following some strategies;

– Pioneer productive species are planted at the same time than the support species, at start of the reforestation . They will not grow quick but will resist and settle, ready to use in the future the resources provided by the support species.

– Productive species will be planted following a calendar based on their need for fertility, humidity and protection and on the resources available. The calendar is based on global fertility of the land improved over years by the support species and on the different specificity of the various location (An outdoor shower will provide with constant humidity, an existing tree will protect from the sun, a roof may concentrate rain falls or help to water zone 1 by rain water harvesting, etc…). Resource location (swales, pond, compost, chicken tractor, dry toilets, etc.) is as well key in the way to orchestrate plantation over time.

– Recent studies show that reforestation at large scale is better done by planting clusters of trees and not spread them homogeneously. The many small forests will nurture their close environment and help the settlement of trees in their peripheries, till the clusters extend and reach each others. As an habitat for seed gathering animals the tree cluster will support biodiversity in the forest propagation.

In space

A domestic variant of the cluster distribution is to stretch vegetation in strategic directions once settled. Various techniques can apply;

– If you have the capability to harvest branches and leaves (3rd / 4th year) you may over-stack the soil in between the sun course and the tree cluster, close to it, with pruned material. The material must be 1 meter high ideally and will protect the young seedlings from the sun and represent a reserve of biomass fertilizing the soil and keeping moisture. The presence of the tree cluster will provide with fertility on its periphery and wind absorption.

– On the other side, where the shadow of the tree cluster bring humidity and cool down the temperature seedlings do not need a lot of attention and no mulch is needed. The growth is the most reduced where the shade is the most intense.

Other fountains of resources (gray water treatment, swales, dry toilets, stable, ponds, etc.) can see their flow orientated in order to nurture vegetation extensions. In this case the slope play a determinant role associated with the sun course.

In all cases the prevailing wind and wind sectors need to be taken into account in the stretching directions.

Knowing the result in space and time of the stretching process for every tree cluster or resource fountain, this knowledge can be used to anticipate the design and influence the location of the resource fountain and tree clusters themselves.

New plantations are done at the start of the humid season. Exception can happen for zone 1 where watering can be done easily.

Flora

Leguminous species

Large : Acacia Mangium (see reforestation with Acacia Mangium)…

Middle size : Inga Edulis, Leucaena, Samsao do campo…

Small size and vines : Pigeon Pea, velvet Beans, Jack beans, Crotalaria…

Cover-ground (perennial) : Amendoin Foragera…

Some pioneer productive plants:

Mango, Jackfruits, Acai, Coconut trees, Dende, lemon tree…

Plants needing a fertile soil:

Banana trees, papaya, amora, goyava, caja, graviola…