The Most Beautiful Garden
Many of us eat what we can get, not what we choose. We go to small eateries or restaurants, buy produce at the local market or supermarket, and munch on snacks sold in packages. We don’t usually know where the vegetables and fruits or the different ingredients for the ready-to-eat food come from, or how they are grown. My family is no different. And for a long time, I have been a part of it, until I learnt that organic, home-grown food is the best bet for one’s well-being.
Since January this year, I have come in touch with books, articles, and people teaching me about permaculture and the knowledge on the dangerous effects of different chemicals as well as GMO products used in food cultivation and processing. From that point on, I have dreamt about making a productive garden in my parents’ backyard, so that we can rely on it for most of our daily consumption need.
Since July last year, I have also learnt about feng shui, namely the art of creating and adjusting spaces in one’s home to bring about balance, confidence, and comfort. If you know feng shui and you visit my parents’ home in Bantul, Yogyakarta, you will see a lot of things that need fixing. So when I sat at the back porch of the house and began drawing the design for the permaculture garden three weeks ago, I knew I had to incorporate feng shui as a start before I fix all the elements that draw bad ch’i inside. With two sets of principles that will be at work in the garden, not only will my family be able to eat fresh produce, but they also can take pride in one of the most beautiful backyards around.
Permaculture is an ecological design system that teaches us how to build natural homes, grow our own food, restore diminished landscapes and ecosystems, catch rainwater, build communities, etc. Building your own productive garden is a small yet empowering step toward permaculture’s big goal of sustainability for all humanity.
To transform the 9 x 8 backyard at my parents’ home, my design has to consider sunlight and shades, storm-water and gray-water flow, as well as access. To know where sunlight hits the backyard and where there are shades during the day determines what kinds of plants to be grown at which spots. For example, my mother wants to grow a lot of chili peppers, so they will need to be planted in locations that have abundant sunlight during the day. Once this is determined, we can decide on which companion plants to be grown around the chili peppers. They grow well with onion, garlic, or basil around, but not with nuts or peas. It is also important to learn about rotation planting, so as to keep balance of nutrients in the soil, as well as to confuse pests when they come to eat in the next planting season. This is important because rice fields are rampant in the area where my family lives, and most of them use dangerous chemicals. When you have an organic garden surrounded by chemical-laden plots, the pests are bound to prefer what you grow.
I have also designed a simple gray-water system, so that water from washing machines and sinks inside the house get filtered before it makes its way into my dad’s cat-fish pond, turtle pond, and finally leaves the property into the rice fields. One thing to also consider is where rainwater tends to become still. Once this is determined, simple landscape adjustments will allow water to leave the garden quickly so that your plants’ roots don’t rot, or let it stay a little longer in spots where you grow plants that require a lot of water.
My design for the garden incorporates natural shapes, but it doesn’t mean that I can go crazy about putting all different shapes together. One important thing to remember is easy access for the gardeners. If a no-till vegetable bed is too big, you will have trouble picking anything growing right in the middle of it, because you don’t want to step on the plants and especially not on the soil (it will become compact, and you might kill some cute little worms). One simple solution to the puzzle is to use your arm. Extend it in spaces where you’re going to have vegetable beds. Move your fingers as if you’re plucking a leaf or a strawberry. That spot over which your fingers move marks the farthest point in the bed from a side where you have access to walk around your garden.
In feng shui, you can divide the whole interior of your home into eight spaces called the Eight Aspiration Sectors using a device called the bagua, which you can make yourself. The imaginary lines of the bagua that divide the spaces can be extended outside your home through your garden. This way, your front, back, or side gardens become an extension of the different aspiration sectors, although they shouldn’t be considered as the aspiration sectors themselves.
Using the Black Hat Sect’s method of applying the bagua, I saw that my parents’ backyard comprises extensions of the Wealth, Fame, and Relationship sectors. I have incorporated various symbols and colors that activate these sectors into the design. For example, I have decided to (later on) create stepping stones of rectangular shape in the Wealth sector, while the Fame and Relationship sectors will have triangular ones, in keeping with the Wood and Fire elements of the first two sectors, and as Fire activates the Earth in the last sector.
Wood is nourished by Water, so the gray-water channel runs mostly in the Wealth area, with the control/collection pond and two vegetable beds on this side being in the shape of water drops. The beds on the far left and immediate lower side of this sector are rectangular, while those in the middle and top-right corner of the garden have pointy tips. The keyhole garden and the compost box in the center, part of the Fame sector, is my play on the way sunlight and microorganisms “burn” down organic materials into nutrients, whereas the spiral garden is where ch’i is likely to concentrate considering the way the wind tends to circle around this side. The existing rabbit and duck pens are fortunately located on the extension of the Relationship sector. The animals are symbols of fertility and loyalty, respectively. Therefore it is only appropriate for the seedling shed to be built on this side as well.
When creating your very own organic, productive garden, it is advisable to use things that you already have, or you can responsibly collect for free from your surroundings. Under a thin layer of soil in my parents’ backyard are rocks, pebbles, lumps of concrete, as well as pieces of broken tiles. This is where the remaining materials from the processes of building and repairing the house (some parts nearly collapsed in the 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake) were dumped. We have used some of the rocks and concrete lumps for initial patterning and filling the lowest part of the bed where water needs to stay for a while. The pebbles will fill up the gray-water channel, and the broken ceramic tiles will be turned into stepping stones. The only things we had to buy were boulders and cement.
Having arranged the boulders into the main pattern dividing the pathways and the vegetable beds, we placed layers of organic materials inside the beds. Making sure that you use organic wastes that are rich in nutrients will result in a healthy soil for planting. Luckily, we got everything we needed for this part of the process for free.
It so happened that our only immediate neighbor is a furniture storehouse, and the owner decided to move his products to a different location. As the building was being torn down, we saw that much of the bamboo walls were rotting away, and wood chips had turned into compost in the storehouse’s backyard. The people working there allowed Odino and I to take them. The next thing we needed was manure. Luckily, my family lives in a rural area. Not too far away is a community cow and goat farm, and the owners told us to take as much manure as we wanted. The greens and browns, namely fresh and dry leaves or straw, were easily found in our backyard and the surrounding area.
Working on creating this garden is special for Odino and I as this is the first time that we work mostly just the two of us. It becomes even more special because this is going to be my family’s garden. The Sembirings have become very fond of Odino, especially my brother Aza, who helped us with anything his might allowed him to do. Aza’s most important job, however, was to ask questions, which he was never shy on doing. I thought it important that he understood what we were doing, so that the knowledge stays with him to be re-implemented and shared later on. A man we call Pakde, meaning older uncle in Javanese, came on the first few days to help us create the gray water channel. Pakde‘s wife and my family’s helper worked with mom in the kitchen to provide us with fresh drinks and hot food. Dad’s support and contribution of ideas was enough for me to keep on going. It also brought a tremendous joy to me that my housemate Diba and her boyfriend came to check out on the garden and gave some help on Day 7, while my dear friend Astrid came on the first day. The happiness I felt during this week reminded me that getting my hands in the dirt and my head in the sun while being surrounded by the people I love have really nurtured my soul.
The garden is almost done, but we have decided to take a three-day break so that we can see for sure what needs to be added to really turn the backyard into a beneficial and lovely place. See you on the next installment.