Dear Dr. Geiger, I’ve really enjoyed your naturalhomesteader videos on YouTube! Thank you for making and sharing them!
My name is David. I’ve lived and worked in northwestern Cambodia since 2006. About a year and a half ago my wife and I bought 1-hectare piece of land. The land is similar to yours being surrounded by rice fields. Our soil appears similar to yours in Thailand as well. Like you, we raised our land about a meter, but we used soil coming from the three irrigation ponds we’ve dug in the last year.
The reason I am writing to you is to inquire about large fruit tree planting (farm scale) in poor draining and infertile soils. We have a 20mx53m piece of land that we would like to make a food forest on. Do you have any advice for planting fruit trees on highly degraded land with poor drainage?
Owen: In Thailand, there’s lots of info but most is in Thai. One good way to learn is researching online — search individual topics like Jeff Lawton’s compost method, best tree planting methods, pruning, Korean natural farming, etc.
You might want to visit the Asian Institute of Technology, a major university near Bangkok, Thailand that teaches all courses in English. They must have a good library with lots of books in English. The main keywords to search for are Mixed Agro Forestry. This is the Thai term for forest gardening.
Our first forest garden uses wide beds. Then we switched to mixed agro forestry and that’s when the light bulbs in my mind turned on. The new garden consists of 2-meter wide beds with wide swales/pathways between. For a farm size operation the process is much like planting rows of corn, etc. You could use the same trees and plants that worked well in our first garden, but now they’re organized in orderly rows on raised beds with swales in between wide enough for wheelbarrowing compost, mulch, harvesting, etc. In our case, the work has progressed 100x more efficiently with the help of a tractor and an old farmer. (More details in these old blog posts here, here and here.
Our garden looks very good after 5 years even though we’ve lost quite a few trees over the years. The heat and insects are brutal, plus there’s an occasional accident where we cut or broke a tree when it was little. That was no big deal because we planted them very closely. My advice is to stick primarily to the most common trees and plants in this area — things like bananas, mango, pineapple, limes, sapodillo, sugar apple. Add some lychee, mulberry etc. here and there for variety. Plant lots of papaya and bananas to shade the little trees. Thin them out later in a few years to let in more sunlight. Also, I would add some dwarf coconuts. They are super producers. Strange things like Indian gooseberry are not so popular and probably not worth growing unless you want 1-2 for variety. Figs can be good/great but I made a blunder and damaged ours…
Things like durian, oranges and avocado are tricky, high risk and most get sprayed to fight diseases. Avoid trees like rose apple that prefer cooler climates. Instead, plant mostly easy to grow hybrid bananas and papaya (between every tree) and you can start making a profit from the first year. Plant the dwarf variety of bananas if possible because they are super easy to harvest with big bunches right at chest height.
Lime trees prefer good drainage. Most farmers in the area grow them in 1m diameter concrete pipe. We have 10 of them growing now very successfully. They’re one of the easiest fruit trees to grow. Highly recommended. Especially good cash crop because limes are popular in Thai dishes.
***Important: try to cover the ground with as many plants as possible such as sweet potatoes, several kinds of beans (I found red, black, black eyed peas, white and mung grow best), vetiver grass on the edges of beds to reduce erosion, lemon grass, lots and lots of pineapple because they are real hardy. Later (maybe year 2 after the soil has improved) add squash, tomatoes, herbs, cucs, etc.
I heard 70% of soil regeneration comes from roots in the ground interacting/feeding the soil microorganisms. Bare soil is slowly depleting nutrients into the atmosphere or washing away. Compost adds the other 30%. The most efficient way to add compost is to compost in place. Just keep adding organic matter year after year. Use whatever you can get cheap — rice hulls, straw, manure, etc. Make some super duper Jeff Lawton compost for the tree holes. Mix with soil and the low cost compost described in the following paragraph.
I suggest getting a GIANT pile of rice hulls to break down over the rainy season. In the winter mix in manure, rice hull ash, shredded coco coir, some decent soil with microbes, and ideally some sugar cane compost that’s already composted. Mix with tractor and let sit for a few months until you’re ready to plant right before the next rainy season.
Plant lots of plants to shade the ground and baby trees, and thin things out later as needed.
Also plant some non-invasive nitrogen fixing plants throughout the garden. Look up suggested trees online. Prune vigorously and use as green mulch (drop in place).
Tip: you might want to plant a few harder to grow, more delicate tree varieties once the farm is established and the soil improved.
Another important note: I went wild on the first garden and brought in 60+ truckloads of organic matter. Our newer land only uses a fraction of this and it’s still doing OK. Just be sure the tree holes are big and deep enough and have sufficient fungal dominated compost.
Get an auger on a small tractor if possible or at least a 2-man gas powered post hole machine to speed the hole digging process.
These are just the basics. Now I want to learn the details, get the best books, and visit successful farms in SE Asia. In Thailand for instance they’ve been doing this for decades as part of the Royal Project. It’s EASY to find trashed farmland in Thailand, and probably Cambodia too. Buy cheap, create a profit generating paradise, use it to teach other farmers, and help the environment. The soil will improve indefinitely once the garden matures. Win/win/win
One last word of encouragement: our old blog posts about forest gardens in India show how Indian farmers got rich by starting farms like this 10, 20, 30 years ago. Startup is rather slow but long term forest gardens are the most productive farming system in the world. Just like in nature, forests are the climax ecosystems.