Maaliwalli Muse

How I used Permaculture to design my life…

Two and half years ago, my life looked very different from what it does now. My marriage, my relationships, my career, my finances were all falling apart and I was floundering for answers. 

At that time, and I’ve noticed - at most other times - my anchor and my only real source of inspiration was my farm. It is the ultimate back-up. If all else fails; I have a place to go to where I can live in happiness for the rest of my days.

And all else had failed.

With the last of my money, I decided to go for my first PDC (Permaculture Design Course). If I was going to go live on my farm, I had better know how to take care of it. I signed up at The Panya Project  (http://www.panyaproject.org/)  a beautiful self-sustainable community in Northern Thailand. It shared the same climate as my land did and was the closest, cheapest option. It was bang in the middle of (a torriential) monsoon, but I was determined. It was my way out. 

Permaculture Design Principle No. 1. Observe and interactBy taking time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

By taking time.

I guess the best way to get out of your own little problems is to distract yourself with bigger ones…and coming back to Bombay city presented me with plenty of them! I came back with new eyes and a head full of ideas. I had successfully ‘engaged with nature’ and was now seeing solutions everywhere. 

Compost Bombay’s garbage. Grow more green to improve air quality. Use balconies and terraces to make the city prettier. Grow food gardens to connect people with their food. The list was endless…

Like in nature and all things permaculture, the change didn’t happen overnight. A friend offered his terrace for me to work on, and I literally learnt on it. Learnt that even though a mechanic has no use for an old tire, if I ask - he will charge me 10 bucks for it. Learnt that it requires a lot of labour to carry soil up 4 flights of stairs (and that it is expensive). Gardening in the city is a whole different ballgame. 

Permaculture Design Principle No. 2. Catch and store energy: By developing systems that collect resources at peak abundance, we can use them in times of need.

So I got myself a gardener that worked for me on a permanent basis (cheaper than daily labour). I used more sugarcane waste from the gannawalla (sugarcane juice man) which was much lighter than actual soil (and free) and I found the dump where the old tires went. 

I had my systems in place after having completed my first garden. But made no money off it. I was in need. It was time to put them to use and apply…

Permaculture Design Principle No. 3. Obtain a yield: Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

started my own permaculture design consultancy (https://www.facebook.com/permaseed). It was Bombay’s first and was soon making urban terrace gardens and plant installations for the who’s who of Bombay. I had used the permaculture principles to design my business plan (thats another blog post) and it was working! I was able to do what I believed in, create a difference in the city and make good money. 

I loved it. It was grounding to be working with my hands, interacting with nature and at the same time inspiring to have to be creative, always creative, with the limited space and time in the city. I was getting featured in magazines and campaigns; I even received an award for being a female entrepreneur  and became a brand ambassador for a company (http://womanforsociety.com/simrit-malhi/). 

My marriage ended and I rented a house in Goa which I would run away to every time I finished a job in the city. The work I was doing in Bombay was important and sustainable; but the lifestyle it required from me wasn’t. I would be working long days on site and then come home and work out accounts and bills on the computer.  

Permaculture Design Principle No. 3.Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

For me, this is one of the most important permaculture principles. Always take stock; notice what is and isn’t working. Accept what isn’t. Then fix it. 

I was still living in the city. In an apartment high above the ground. And I was stressed out and overworked.

Something needed to change. 

Something important permaculture had taught me was, if you observe, interact and plan well enough - you can continuously obtain a yield with half the effort. For me, this meant letting go of the notion that it takes hard work to make money :) Being overworked means I was doing something wrong.

I had an employee that was fully trained in all my methods.Soon, he was doing jobs that I was getting paid for while sitting on the beach in Goa! 

Permaculture is a very practical, hands on approach - like all farming techniques have to be. But its effects run so much deeper. I have studied several organic farming traditions and techniques from Bio-dynamic farming to Agnihotra and the One Straw Method. They are all amazing and I continue to use them in my work. The thing with permaculture is that you can apply it to your life

It’s first principle is to Observe and Interact

Which taught me reverence.

Reverence for the sheer intelligence/beauty of nature. Watch how nature does it, and then replicate. Don’t try to fix something that took millennia to evolve.

It has taught me responsibility

If something isn’t working, it’s because you got it wrong; not nature. And, sure, you will make mistakes. But mistakes don’t come cheap in a garden- you are working with Life. Living Beings. So take the time to sit down and think things through.

There is enormous scope and potential for permaculture in the city. But it isn’t for me. I know it sounds pretentious to say it, but I can’t help but be aware of how much permaculture has affected my life..how much more abundant, more fertile my life has been since.

So, here I am. I now live permanently in Goa in a beautiful home surrounded by rice fields. I share this home with a partner I thought I could only dream of; who has the same reverence for nature and is the father of the child I am carrying inside me. I’m working on setting up an organic soap and cosmetics company, designing it according to permaculture again, but this time taking in the mistakes I made last time round. I finally have my own garden that I can grow at the pace nature intended (and not according to a clients schedule).

I walk the earth every day and it makes me want to banish concrete. No matter what time I sleep at night, the bird that lives on the tree outside my window wakes me up at 7 every morning.

I am more in tune with nature than I have ever been before; and happier and healthier and more aware. And when I look back to where it all started, all arrows point to those two months in Thailand in 2011. 

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Are Vertical Gardens Sustainable??

Vertical gardens aka green walls aka living walls aka mur vegetal (the creator’s French) and even “Vegetation-Bearing Architectonic Structures and Systems” are the biggest, newest…’coolest’ thing to have happened to the gardening world right now. Trending big time.

Patrick Blanc, a French botanist who specialises in tropical plants, with an obviously creative flair - he has green hair! - hit upon the idea during his numerous trips to the tropics. He noticed that as long as there is water available throughout the year, several species can grow without the need for soil. Plants were growing on rocks, tree stumps, cliffs, even caves. For instance, in Malaysia, 2500 of the 8000 known species grow without soil. 

There were species with naturally curved branches, which indicated they originated from natural steep surfaces and not from flat areas. Putting two and two together – he realised it was possible for plants to grow on virtually any vertical surface nearly free-of-ground, as long as there was no permanent shortage of water.

And so..voila! 

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From the jungle to Emporio Armani

I took this photograph at the Siam Paragon in Bangkok, Thailand almost 2 years ago. I had walked in for some last minute shopping and was astounded at finding this wall of nature, made by the master himself. It was breathtaking and I was convinced that this was the future. 

For a young urban permaculturist like myself it made perfect sense.  The endless walls of concrete in Bombay were waiting to be made into gardens - perfect for cooling down buildings, providing some much needed oxygen and all round making the city beautiful. I was convinced.

Until I started getting the calls.

It started with hotels and offices; but I was soon asked to measure peoples’ bedroom walls to see if it was possible. I was neck deep in the logistics of making my first vertical garden when halfway through negotiating the price of metal with a contractor, I realised there was absolutely nothing permaculture or even sustainable about what I was doing. 

Mr. Blanc’s method is to attach a metal grid onto the entire face of the wall; this is lined with PVC to waterproof the building. Finally there is a layer of felt onto which the plants are planted.

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Taken by me at the Athenaeum Hotel in London

The felt layer is constantly supplied with mineral-rich water from above which the felt absorbs and stores for the roots to take in as needed. 

Besides the plants, the walls are basically made of : Metal, Plastic (man made felt is made of rayon = plastic) and Copious Amounts of Water.

Permaculture teaches us to keep every step sustainable - ends do not condone the means. I couldn’t calculate whether the amount of water needed for a wall in Bombay could be compensated for by using less energy for air-conditioning, nor whether the metal and plastic used would be made up by the oxygen the walls provided…but I suddenly realised why it was only posh hotels, Armani stores and French government buildings that had Patrick Blanc’s work. Vertical Gardens are bloody expensive. 

I sat down to think about it and used permaculture’s first rule when in a dilemma - observe, observe, observe.

 On the same trip to London, I had seen this beautiful building with a green wall and more…

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Ivy! 

Ivy that changed colour in autumn!

Creepers and climbers were and are the easiest ways to get a wall green. You could use something really clingy like Ivy, or with the help of a trellis you could pretty much grow anything. But maybe that’s a bit boring…maybe you want something for the indoors? Something with a bit more of a ‘design’ element? 

This is something I created for a recent client. 

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@ Greko, Mumbai (the plants are still young but I’ve decided not to wait three months before taking pictures coz otherwise they never get taken!)

I used old mango crates (practically free) which were varnished for waterproofing and made a super lightweight soil mix of composted cow dung (it’s lighter than soil and more mineral rich - in India we call it khaad), coco-peat - coconut fibre and husk that has been wet with cow dung slurry and some thermacol that I found lying around at the office. Thermacol keeps it light and absorbs water that the roots can use when needed. 

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I planted different kinds of money plant that are guaranteed to grow well indoors and are known to improve the air quality inside your home (or, in this case, restaurant).

On a parting note - I have absolute respect and awe for the work Patrick Blanc does. As a botanist, he is one of the finest and there are few who can compare with his brand of bringing science and creativity together…

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One of my favourites — Patrick Blanc for Jean Paul Gaultier :)


     

 

                     AGRICULTURE, SUSTAINABILITY AND SEEDS - “THE GIFT”

 

Continuing to introduce my eco-warrior buds from around the world — I bring to you Jean-Marc Abela. I will always be thankful to him for being the first to introduce me to permaculture (many years back during an idle conversation on a beach in Goa). He was then and still is an amazing story teller, cinematographer and most importantly, wise enough to use his talents for the betterment of life on this planet…

 
This three minute film was made about Dan Jason, a seed farmer on the West Coast of Canada, because for 25 years he’s been sharing an important message with the world: we have lost 93% of seed varieties in the last 100 years Having varieties in our food crops offers our bodies the various nutrients we need. Using wheat as just one example, we’ve been eating an industrialized wheat that has been modified for maximum production, not for maximum health benefits, and we can now see the results in our health. But Dan grows about 20 varieties of wheat, many with low gluten levels and others with more resistance to pests and drought.
 
 
Dan’s work and message – the focus of this short film – is one beyond just seeds and sustainable food: it is a message of creating a world where we can all feel comfortable because this world is based on a scale and pace of life that brings people peace, well-being, and happiness.
 
 
What would a world look like where no one thought about the world of Monsanto and instead we immersed ourselves into the world of nature? 
 
What is possible when we return to our roots and our seeds and start to realize the very source of agriculture sustainability, food quality, and the living plants that are so essential to our survival and health?
 
 
You can learn more about Dan Jason’s amazing work at www.saltspringseeds.com