Making a garden in a swamp

Read about our project so far, it’s interesting! The October update here, the September one here, and the back story here.

New projects and  a ton of enthusiasm

Towards the end of October the monsoon peters out and finally stops. Well, there have been a few surprise storms and we’ve had to run in all directions to protect our small plants, but like everywhere else in the world, weather patterns are changing.

Foto: Jenny Harlen
On the way to our project in Ward 67 — always with an umbrella handy!

Living with a lot of rain half the year and no rain at all the other half of the year is just normal life here. Actually, there are two distinct climate types in Myanmar: here in Yangon we have the on-off monsoon climate, but in other parts of the country, further from the coast, the zones are drier. Mandalay and Bagan, two of the areas a lot of tourists visit, are part of huge regions that are more or less in permanent drought.

Either way, this puts enormous pressure on the soil. Whether it rains too much, or too little, it’s always the soil that will make the difference. A good soil, with a lot of organic carbon in it, will buffer water way more effectively than a soil with very little carbon. 

Carbon is the stuff we usually refer to as humus. 

Alive and healthy

It’s the stuff that makes soil good, gives it that special soil fragrance that you just know is alive and healthy. 

Soil doesn’t ever have as much carbon in it these days as you would think. If someone has 7 or 8 per cent that’s amazing, and kind of unheard of. Many farmers are struggling with levels of 2, 3 or 4 per cent. Or less. Usually it’s not measured and not discussed; the conversations we should be having about soil are replaced with orders to chemical fertiliser factories. 

So. Weather patterns. Climate. 

A soil with a lot of carbon can buffer water. If it rains a lot, the soil absorbs and manages the water and holds the top soil in place while the water has a chance to drain away. Strong soil like this is sort of glued together in the right way, it doesn’t just dissolve and wash away. 

A soil with a lot of carbon also drains better. And it hangs on to the nutrients that are in it. 

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Healthy soil, healthy bananas

Some parts of Myanmar have really sandy soil. That’s what we’re dealing with in Yangon. Actually, it’s not even sandy soil, it’s more like river sand. Former rice paddies have been filled with river sand to raise their levels. The sand drains well, great during monsoon, but it doesn’t hold nutrients well and is therefore not the most nutritional start for new plants. 

Other parts of the country have rich clay soil. Clay is full of nutrients normally, a fantastic resource. But clay can also be very low in organic matter, and this makes it difficult for plants to thrive. It gets waterlogged easily, and can become so sticky that it can’t breathe — hopeless for plants that need oxygen round their roots.

Adding organic material

Adding organic material to sand provides it with more nutrients. It helps those nutrients stay in place. And it gives the sand more glue to hold itself together. A good sandy soil will will drain well even if it rains a lot. But it will give plants a better base to grow in than just sand. 

Adding organic material to clay also provides it with more nutrients. And helps them stay in place. But it gives the soil a better structure, easier for plants to thrive in. It’s easier for the plants to breathe. And while the soil will still hold valuable water really well, the organic material helps it to drain better if it is too wet. 

The strange thing about this is that the solutions for troublesome sandy soil and troublesome clay soil are actually the same. Add more carbon! 

This applies just as much if you’re a gardener at home, a small-scale urban farmer, or a big-scale “real” farmer. More carbon into the soil works, every time.

So. Back to our project!

We got through monsoon and most of what we planted to test our bokashi beds is thriving. Now we have to learn how to water it every day! That at least wasn’t a concern when it was bucketing down all the time. 

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Collecting brown leaves, valuable carbon

Best combinations

One of the most important things we need to establish here in our project, before we scale it up too much, is what combinations of sand, food waste and brown waste (such as leaves and coconut husks) work best. What type of beds work best for the plants in the wet and dry season, and what is the best way of making large-scale bokashi beds: above ground or below ground? What proportions?

We have experimented with many different variations, and planted fairly randomly in everything we’ve made. We’re not professional gardeners by a long shot, but that just adds to the fun. And proves to us the value of having good soil — even if we don’t do things perfectly, our plants seem to thrive anyway, because they like the soil we give them. And if they don’t, we experiment some more, to find out what would work better. 

This is giving us a good base to stand on. 

Time to scale up and move on to the next challenges!

The two projects we’ve got going so far – our own bokashi yard and the waste management/urban farm project at Ward 67 in conjunction with the French NGO, Green Lotus are going well. We’re consolidating what we are doing and looking at ways to increase the volume of organic waste we are handling. 

Foto: Inda Cakka
Our brand new handcart!

In our own yard, the best purchase we’ve made so far was a new hand cart. Exciting! Now we can more easily collect organic waste from the nearby markets without having to involve so many trishaw guys. At this stage we’re still doing all this ourselves; soon we’ll move to a bigger yard and get some help with the daily logistics. But one step at a time.

Every Tuesday we work with the team at Ward 67, in the eastern part of Yangon (Dagon Seikkan). The women there are filling two bokashi barrels per day with organic waste from the market, we hope to increase that soon. On our Tuesdays together we empty the barrels, layering them up with brown leaves and coconut husks that they’ve also collected. Top it off with sand and wait for it to become soil. 

The women have planted roselle and other plants in one of the new beds. So far so good, they seem to be healthy. 

We do have a problem however with kids messing up. So the next step is to involve them in the project, show them what we’re doing and why, and encourage them to grow their own small plants. Maybe later, even help them to start a small garden at home. 

This part of the project is being run by our colleagues at Green Lotus, the French NGO running the overarching project in this ward. We may be good at making soil, but all the social stuff that surrounds that is rather beyond us, so we’re really happy for the teamwork. And so are they.

Next project: corporate recycling

More recently we’ve teamed up with a Yangon-based company called RecyGlo. They provide recycling services to corporate clients on a subscription basis. The company just started last year, but the two founders have strong entrepreneurial backgrounds and a lot of skills, so the business is already running strongly. 

Until now, RecyGlo has focussed on paper, plastic, metal, glass, all the usual “dry” stuff. Wet waste, organic waste, has been an impossible task for everyone up until now. In best case, organic waste is trucked off to landfill, mixed in with everything else. In worst case, it ends up on the street, or in the river. 

Anyhow, the two founders came up to see us a couple of months ago, and have been trialling bokashi with some of their corporates. It’s working for them, and this month they are rolling it out to their other clients and anyone else who may be interested. 

Foto: Diana Tobias
First bokashi delivery to RecyGlo

Quite a challenge

A challenge, and an exciting one at that. There are some pretty big question marks, obviously. Are people really prepared to pay for this service? (remains to be seen). Can they learn to fill the bokashi barrels correctly? (we will be providing training — so far we’ve made a quick and easy video to explain what to do) And: where will the filled barrels go for processing? 

This is the interesting one. Our plan is, rather soon, to get a larger bokashi yard where we can receive organic waste from various sources. If RecyGlo gets it to us, we know what to do with the rest. We’ll combine this of course with the organic waste we collect in from markets. Ultimately, we’ll produce a compost-type organic fertiliser in our process. And a method that can be scaled up or down as needed.

We’re taking a step into new territories with this. But one that makes sense to us. It’s what we have on our vision map and, like all visions, the path from A to B is not always that clear. If it was, someone would have done it before. In this case, they haven’t. And it’s up to us to find out. 

Which is quite a cool challenge, and one we’re ready to take on.

So please follow us on this journey! It will quite interesting for all of us to see where we are at this time next year. 

We’re thinking big, acting small, trying not to let fear get in the way of anything we’re doing it. We would be a good ad for Nike actually, Just.Do.It. It’s fast becoming our motto.

/Jenny and the Bokashi Myanmar team

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Kids happy to be at school
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Even the water pump was under water
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Layering carbon with fermented bokashi
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Every deep bokashi bed starts with a layer of coconut husks
Foto: Aye Aye
It’s becoming a garden

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