Blog // Tales from the trail
We found ourselves back in Phuket, chilling at Chez-Hunt and taking the opportunity also to clean up my camera, refine our packing lists, back-up some photographs and numerous other small tasks that had eluded us whilst 'on the road'.
We were contemplating our next steps, as we had assumed, nearing the end of our 30 day entry permit we would need to leave Thailand - if just to re-enter again. Top of our list had been to start using our permaculture skills and set up a community garden project in Chiang Khong (north-Thailand), the focus of team Awesome-Sauce's design project at Panya; however our contact had been eerily silent since we broached the subject of actually turning up and doing it.
Did we chance turning up? Was it worth a border run? Or was it time to move on?
In the end the solution appeared, bizarrely, because of a round of golf. 'The Looies' were keen to show off a new golf-course near Phong Nga, however the first available date for tee-off was a day after we had to exit Thailand. Thus, we were promptly whisked off down to the immigration office and, after a respectable fee, left with a 30 day extension to our stay - without having to cross a border!
Briefing our other PDC team members, 'Awesome Sauce' on our potential trip back up north, Paul, our American bear hug of a chef team-member, told us he'd found an interesting project to work on - building some wicking beds at a very impressive looking eco-house just outside of Chiang Mai.
Inspired, we booked ourselves on a plane back up north, with the aim of spending a couple of weeks building some wicking beds before gate-crashing Chiang Khong to see what was going on. We did also sneak in a quick mini-project at the Looies, a small worm composting station in a modified chest of drawers to turn all their organic kitchen scraps into soil for the garden - gooo permaculture!
Landing back in Chiang Mai we felt at ease again as we topped ourselves up on ice-coffee, massages and street-food, before meeting up with Paul and Keira (our host) in a waiting Songtao, ready to whizz us back to her home. And what a home it was, a curvaceous bamboo roof almost floating above lovingly-sculpted adobe walls that outlined each room. I say outlined, as they opened into the roof space, topped only by a mosquito net pyramid which allowed air to freely circulate in and out of the rooms underneath that impressive roof.
Instantly our minds were racing, whilst potentially ambitious for a first project we were all keen to try and create something worthy of sitting next to her home. Keira however was much more laid-back and, after introductions to her 2 lively children and beautiful Alsatian Naga, felt it was more important we relaxed with a beer and 'settle in', before heading out to grab some street food.
The next day we started clearing the land and marking out the contours (along with marking locations of existing pipes/tanks in the garden) so we could work out where the new wicking beds could go. Meanwhile Keira was keen to start getting stuff ordered, knowing only too well that delivery times were approximate to the nearest day. I did some quick sums, surely we can't need 8 tonnes of dirt and 10 tonnes of stones? What did that even look like? I treble-checked the numbers; OK time to trust the maths and get on with it!
The numbers proved correct and the next two weeks flew by - and definitely had a work-hard, play-hard vibe - Keira also super keen to get stuck in, between her day job and school runs. Days were spent moving dirt, stones and sand (we certainly have a better grasp of tonnes now!), diddling, filling, laying and then tamping earth bags or figuring out the subtle details of the plumbing system connecting our beds. Never, ever underestimate the amount of work it takes to build walls using earth-bags! Once the walls were built (a chain of barbed wire between each layer to prevent the bags slipping), the walls then had to be rendered with a concrete mix to make them waterproof. All in all, a big job, but they look great!
Nights on the other hand we were well and truly spoilt; our head-chef Paul cooked up, with flare, just about any feast anyone desired, whilst we all drank beers and over-ate, before wearily and achingly rolling into bed.
Sadly we didn't quite finish our project before we had to move on because of Keira's lovely house being rented out on airbnb, but we got the plumbing working and all the beds prepared and tested - just need some finishing topsoil and plants now! Either way all were pleased with the results and we'd cracked our first permaculture project - for those who are interested in the theory of a 'wicking bed' please read on...
Wicking Bed Design
Whilst the brief was to create wicking-beds, we saw no reason why it couldn't be a beautiful garden to enjoy also. Thanks again to Keira for trusting and letting us loose her garden...
Unlike conventional beds, wicking beds supply water to plants from a built-in reservoir below. This is sucked up through capillary action, with the aid of a 'wicking' layer (e.g. straw), to effectively provide a giant, self-watering pot underneath the garden bed.
An inlet pipe provides the water and distributes along the bed and a precisely positioned overflow pipe regulates the water level in the bed. In our case, rainwater would be collected from the roof into a holding tank and then delivered into a series of linked beds (overflow to inlet), which would 'cascade' down the hill and essentially regulate themselves.
We also decided to build the beds 'on contour' to minimise the digging effort, as it is essential the base of each bed is level to enable even distribution of water. The bed at the higher contour could also then gravity feed the one below. This also provided organic lines, in keeping with the house.
Contours mapped and marked, all we needed to do now was dig the beds out!
Building the wicking beds
Below shows the distribution pipe, connected directly to the inlet tube, the dug out beds were lined with PVC to create our giant underground tank, leveled with sand, before dropping in large quantities of river stones. These could then be covered with weed liner (to prevent soil sinking later) and the wicking-straw was added afterwards.
The walls themselves were built from many-many earth bags, enabling the lines to be created at low cost, before rendering to finish.
Beds connected and filled
Unfortunately time was against us, however we managed to connect up all beds and test the self-regulation of the water;
...this left just one last bed to render, before adding the topsoil back in with additional compost. If the soil is good, seeds can be sown directly in - hopefully we'll have some photos soon!
Comments on this posting: