Stilted eco-hut at Taino Farm

Huts at Taino Farm are an example of sustainable housing in the tropics.

This week at Taino Farm, Charlie Durrant (our permaculture designer and educator) gave us a lesson on the main differences in Zone 1 Design in Permaculture in tropical, dry and temperate climate zones. In permaculture practice, Zone 1 consists of the main building and the area nearest to it. It is the most controlled as well as the most frequently visited area. Alongside the main building you will often find herb gardens, a nursery or small animals in Zone 1.

A chicken tractor in a tropical farm

Chicken tractors are an example of small animals in Zone 1

In Zone 1 of tropical permaculture gardens, it is especially important to have multiple layers of growth to decrease the intensity of the sun and slow down the leaching effect that heavy rainfall can have. When building in tropical climates, the main goals are to maximize airflow and minimize the sun’s exposure to thermal mass (such as walls and roofs).  Houses in the tropics are often stilted and have large windows to increase airflow.

In dry climates when building sustainable eco-housing, the emphasis is on insulation. Though the climate is similar to the tropics in that it is often extremely hot, seasonally and at night it can become quite cold. Solar chimneys are often implemented for use in the summer. You can find an explanation of Solar Chimneys here. Permaculture gardens in dry climates are usually sunken beds and use the wicking bed system to prevent evaporation during watering.

Temperate climates are in many ways more complex, as you have more factors to consider in environments that experience all four seasons. However, Charlie explained that there are also incredible benefits to growing in temperate areas. The soil is often much richer and the growing season is productive because daylight hours are longer. He also pointed out the benefit of growing deciduous trees around a living space: It can help reduce the potential for the sun to heat the thermal mass (walls etc.) in the summer yet because they lose their leaves, still allow sunlight onto and into the building in the winter.

Permaculture Education in The Tropics

Charlie Durrant teaching us about the benefits of Temperate Climates

While all of this is valuable information, the prominent lesson this week was bigger than just Zone 1. Charlie’s lesson showed us that learning about permaculture is practical and interesting no matter where you are from. When we return home, whether that be to the Czech Republic, Haiti, the U.S. or right down the road, we are all sure to come away knowing principles that can help us maintain a more sustainable lifestyle.

Volunteers from the Czech Republic and Haiti

Volunteers from the Czech Republic and Haiti learning about Zone 1 planting

Biodiversity in Tropical Permaculture

Biodiversity in Tropical Permaculture

Biodiversity is an extraordinarily important aspect of tropical permaculture and creating a sustainable organic farm. This week at Taino, Charlie (our permaculture designer) and Victor (our maestro farmer) took us on a meander through Los Brazos to collect native seeds.

finding seeds

Victor’s daughter, Nicole and her friend collecting seeds.

 

Increasing biodiversity by planting a variety of native flowers and legumes is beneficial in many ways, not only do they attract native wildlife like birds and lizards, they also help to create a resilient ecosystem. For example, there are thirty varieties of the Moringa tree, if we were to have only one kind, a disease could come along and wipe out one of our most important crops. Biodiversity also helps to provide us with a more reliable/sustainable yield of organic food because different species and varieties of plants produce at different times. We may have an avocado tree that produces fruit from September to October and another variety that goes from October to November. In doing this we both maximize our yield and maintain a healthy ecosystem.

native seeds in the dominican

A cup full of guandule and other native seeds

Flowers and plants like Sunhemp are beneficial because they are short lived, aerate the soil and fix nitrogen for the other plants (and they feed our bees!). Part of Charlie’s permaculture lesson this week was on companion planting. In the tropics, there is no shortage of pests so strategies like companion planting help us to deter them without having to use harmful chemicals. Whether it means planting a tall plant next to one that likes shade or a plant with a strong odor like basil next to one that is susceptible to pests like tomatoes, we want to plant crops together that will be mutually beneficial.

Blue flower from the dominican republic

Caption: These blue flowers are beautiful and edible!

nitrogen fixing roots

Charlie showing us how to identify nitrogen fixing roots.

We are blessed to be in an area where plants and people thrive and benefit from each other’s existence. Many of the seeds we collected were from Victor’s Mother’s house and at the end of the day we were invited to share a cup of coffee and meet the whole family. Four generations are living in their lovely home, including a two year old boy and his 104 year old great grandmother! We were all touched by their kindness and I left feeling so grateful to be planting seeds that were given and will be planted with love.

dominican farming family

Charlie with Victor and his family

… and other fast changes on a permaculture farm on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic

When you see something daily, it is usually hard to spot the change. However it is different on a farm in the tropics where you can see visible changes every day. Even you as a person can ‘grow’ here. You could almost say “plant in the morning, harvest in the evening”.

Fast growth in the tropics

Fast growth in the tropics

Unfortunately not only things you have planted grow and that is why the weeding lovers are always welcome :-). However, when we get the permaculture going in full power, we won’t have to worry about weeding any longer.

One of the most potent and exemplary designs in tropical permaculture is the banana circle. Building a banana circle in the tropics can be really fun if you get some friends involved. In order to make a banana circle you need to dig a hole in the ground, usually 2 metres wide and 1 metre deep using the middle as the composting area. When constructed correctly, it serves mainly as a spot to cycle the constant flow of organic matter. The earth that is dug is drug outwardly with hoes and shovels to form a mound about 60 cm wide. This gives plenty of planting space for the bananas themselves and the subsequent guilds. The mound will support five to seven bananas equidistantly planted around the edge on top of the mound. Bananas are very hungry plants and will thrive off the abundant cycling of organic material as well as the moisture inherent in its design. From there, a myriad of plants can be inserted but the main ones used in this guild still are providing physical shelter, nutrients, assist in pest control, and reduce root competition. And on top of this the guild will also produce food!

building a banana circle on taino farm

building a banana circle on taino farm

Apart from banana circles, we also make hot compost piles at Taino farm. Although they are slightly different than the ones we know from our grandmas’ gardens and which can take up to one year to mature. Materials that are used to make a compost pile consist of so called “brown” material such as cardboard, dried leaves, straw, branches etc. that are high in carbon and rot down very slowly. Materials that are high in nitrogen are typically moist “green” materials such as grass, fruit and vegetable scraps, animal manure and green leafy materials that rot down very quickly. In order to speed up the process we should turn the compost pile periodically. With the right care you can make a perfect compost in the tropics in 18 – 30 days which is incredible!

hot compost at taino farm

hot compost at taino farm

You can spot how everything is pulsating also when you see how quickly the coulour of the Rio Yassica changes after the heavy rain or when you notice the arrival of a newborn calf in the herd. Moreover, when you time your volunteering right i.e. autumn 2013 you get to experience a great opening party of the Mojito Bar restaurant at the Extreme hotel as well!

The Rio yassica changes colour

The Rio Yassica changes colour

Pregnant cow and baby calf at Taino Farm

Pregnant cow and baby calf at Taino Farm

And since we should not forget the local wood workers, we have to admit that they can do their job very well and are willing to try even the impossible for you :-).

Agro Tourism in the Dominican Republic

Our stilted huts floating magically

Life on a Permaculture Farm in The Dominican Republic is full of life, growth, and joy. Let me try and capture the experience here on Taino Farm:

The Dominican Republic is alive!  It is alive all day and well into the night.  It is an aliveness that permeates through the people, the children, the dogs, the cats and most especially the roosters.  Moto Conchos are in constant movement; the  colmados serve as a meeting place for locals to gossip or extend a simple “hola”; the streets contain all of the above and the occasional herd of cattle.  The aliveness is carried in song swaying from a melancholic ballad to a rhythmic bachata and further heightened in energy with an accordion accompanied merengue.  All life, whether human or animal, ebb and flow in this dance and add to the splendid wonder that is this island and its people.  But it is within the gates of Taino Organic Farms that I’ve found myself surrounded by a different and wondrous aspect of life and aliveness.  It is the secret life of plants beckoning to be witnessed and known.

Cattle in Los Brazos, Dominican Republic

Cattle in Los Brazos, Dominican Republic

From the moment I arrived I could feel the magic and tranquillity and pure energy emanating from the farm, from the land within this gate and barbed wire fence lines.  All the noise and sounds outside the gate, while still heard, don’t seem to affect the reverence and calm within.

The farm itself continues to be developed in zones within the Permaculture philosophy so perhaps this in part contributes to the overall harmony of life within, but daily moment by moment, I feel there’s more.  The green of the leaves is a little brighter, the fruit from the trees a little sweeter, the vegetables from the earth a little more substantial.  Walking and working from zone to zone; from food forest to annual gardens, I am able to watch, witness, contribute and learn first hand the cycle of life, simple in all it’s complexities.

It is not only a farm, but a jungle as well and this being the Dominican Republic where humidity and moisture never cease everything grows…in abundance…this is life in abundance.  The jungle aspect can and will take over as I find myself liberating fruit trees from wayward jungle vines and wayward trailing pumpkins from waist high grass.  This could easily be considered a chore or simply an aspect of daily farm living, but to me this is nature’s way of communicating…without looking up to take note of the encroaching vines, I could have easily missed out on the bananas forming on the trees or the guandule pods waiting to have their dried seeds harvested and replanted nor would fresh pumpkin soup have been in last weeks dinner bowls without further investigation amongst the overgrowth.

Carambola in bloom

Carambola in bloom

Daily I am fascinated, in awe, overwhelmed with appreciation, exhausted by heat and fruitful labour, inspired by the fresh harvest of food for the kitchen and always excited to see what vegetables and fruits and lessons the next day is going to bring.

I am alive here amongst all the other representations of life on this island finding my own rhythm to the songs being sung by nature within the walls of this farm.

 

Our first impressions on permaculture at Taino Farm:

When you come to the Taino farm in Los Brazos for the first time and moreover when you come from somewhere in central Europe, almost everything is new for you. What strikes you is how amazingly green all the plants and trees are and how quickly everything grows. The temperature of local fall is twenty degrees higher than what we are used to and as soon as you get out of the plane you are overwhelmed by the humidity you are faced with. However, a week later somehow it all seems natural to you, as well as getting up at the dawn. You get to learn a lot about the farm during just a week and so you can actually do things on your own. And if you have any doubts, you can always ask one of the locals who are working on the permaculture farm as they will willingly explain everything you need to know – well, if you can speak at least some Spanish:-)

Abiu fruit at taino farm

Abiu Fruit at Taino Farm

 

Local people are in general very easy-going, relaxed and always smiling which makes you smile too. Our usual day starts at dawn, we do some work in the garden as it is much cooler in the morning than it is during the day, then breakfast, some work in the house, time for a swim in the river, fun and time to get a bit lazy 🙂 and in the afternoon when it is breathable again, we do some work. For the most part we have been taking care of the Annual Garden, keeping the beds clean of weed, doing a lot of chopping and dropping (a permaculture technique covering the beds with branches so that the soil doesn’t get so dry quickly and the nutrient stay there), watering the plants if it doesn’t rain and planting new plants and seeds, mostly the sweet potatoes and cow peas.

planting cow pea seeds

Honza planting cow pea seeds in the Nursery

Planting oregano to deter mosquitos

Karin planting oregano to keep the mosquitos away by our hut

Our big project is also the new compost, which is taken very good care of as we want to get the best nutrient rich soil for our plants :-). We learned from Charlie, the permaculture designer that we can build a hot compost pile and in 16 – 30 days it will be ready to use! One of the great benefits of living on a farm is all the fresh fruit and vegetables you get to eat. There’s plenty of avocados, papayas, star fruits, abius (amazingly sweet fruit which we never heard of before), cherries, plantains, passion fruits, lemon mangosteins (little cherry-size a bit-sized sour mango), yuccas, pumpkins, sweet potatoes etc. And all that you get to eat. Fresh, healthy and sooo tasty. Yum! 🙂

Auyama pumpkin

Auyama pumpkin

Apart from all this, there is one little thing that saves you a lot of time – good gnomes which locals call “wiremen”. These strange creatures have always been present on this farm and they are always trying to help. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of them planting new seeds in the nursery or taking out the rubbish. They also like helping with preparing lunch meanwhile they themselves are not demanding at all when it comes to food. Apart from work they also love travelling  and thanks to yoga practice they don’t take up a lot of space in your luggage. That’s not all, since they never sleep they have enough time for practicing martial arts during the night so you don’t need to worry about your safety in their presence. Their help is simply invaluable and life on a farm goes really smoothly with them around. We are looking forward to you meeting them!

yoga at taino farm

Wiremen yoga: he needs to work on his flexibility.

wiremen at taino farm

The wiremen are especially helpful in the nursery because their little metal hands can plant seeds so fast!

the wiremen

The wiremen help even when you’re not looking!