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In the beginning.

Posts: 24
Location: Sedona, AZ & Koh, Chang, Thailand
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I'm throwing this out there and asking you lovely Tropical PC guys/gals for some advice.

Here is a short video of the 1.8 acres I have purchased on Koh Chang, in Thailand.


My questions relate to where to start and so I should explain my long-term goals for the site.

* Establish a modest dwelling
* Dig a well - locals tell me 8m is all I will need to go
* Water piped in from the local river - local chief will take care of that - fruit farming neighbours already have access to the pipe.
* Establish a food forest (already has many mature coconut and banana)
* Growing food beyond my needs. Giving excess away to the local community and temples
* Sustainable off-grid existence
* Educational demonstration site once systems are in place and succeeding

First question: The land appears flat.  What is the best way to map the topography of this land so that I can plan irrigation? I would prefer to rely on swales (and hugelkultur) and not the pipe.

Second question: Considering the following weather stats, can anybody comment on what sized earthworks I may require.  Wasn't it Geoff Lawton who said earthworks in the tropics are generally small?


Third question: Any thoughts on the Food Forest.  How to begin? Establish an understory and sow a ground cover of nitrogen fixers?

Fourth Question: Tropical soils tend to be lacking nutrients due to a large amount of precipitation.  Any thoughts on how to reverse that? biochar? Mulch? Compost? Sea Water?

Fifth Question: What would be the most appropriate sustainable technique and material(s) to use for a dwelling in the tropics?

Any and all thoughts are welcome.  I cannot pretend to know anything for certain.

Thank you.

Posts: 406
Location: Victor, Montana; Zone 5b
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Hi Simon, beautiful looking property.

1) Land is hardly ever flat, find the contours using an A-frame level https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0DxX2d4L0A which is extremely easy to build and use. Swales will work best to slow, spread and sink your moisture into the ground. Plan fully the entire area before doing any work or you may have to undo what you put hours into. Swales can work really well for generating a food forest--see attached photo.

2) I"m not sure if that was Geoff who said that, but considering the small size of your property and the relatively low profile, I would go small.

3) It is said "do your earthworks first". This is good practice and will help develop your food forest. Swales will create a zone to begin planting your overstory, establish crops and ground covers.

4) I don't think you should have too much of an issue increasing nutrients on your property. It looked like you have a lot of organic material that can be put to good use in creating a very healthy forest floor. Remember that not all you initially plant in a food forest goes to production, a majority goes to benefiting your future food producers.

5)not sure about this. what are others in the area building? What resources do you have at hand to build a sustainable building with?

You also mention using hugelkultur. While it is great for retaining moisture for plant beds and also creating wind breaks and privacy, the main function is long term--to break down large amounts of organic material that are otherwise without use and eventually use that to benefit the surrounding soil. I wouldn't focus too much on doing hugelkultur unless you have a lot of large timber or brush that can't be used as mulch directly.

Post photos--it sounds like an awesome project.
[Thumbnail for 2199023089bf75725b0784bd137d80da.jpg]
Posts: 3113
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even Soil:SandyLoam pH6 Flat
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1)I would place rocks or branches on contour, or if I do swales, they would be less than 12inches deep. You can do flood irrigation.

2)Based on the weather with 28inches in only August. I would not recommend too much swales, more stone/log berms to catch organic matter/soil

3)For me a food forest start with the soil. So water, carbon, soil life, minerals, covercrop. But to answer your question I would plant the "fruit trees" now and also plant a legume groundcover, maybe peanut, make it super dense. 2 Bee Hive, Chicken Coop, Fish Pond (size =4 tree space, with pond liner), Herb+Vegetable Garden near house. I like dwarf cultivars (easier to harvest) of fruits/nuts trees.

4)So back to soil, in the tropics mulch does not last long, so the best option is to do biochar. But mulch is better than nothing. You can also apply natural sources of minerals: rockdust, sea90, compost, manure, fish gut, hay/straw/chop and drop. Soil life from compost tea, worm tea, mushroom slurries, forest soil tea. And finally to keep what little fertility that you have onsite by keeping the soil covered (peanut, sweet potatoes, squash, etc).  I particularly like pigeon pea for nitrogen fixing even though it is more of a shrub and less of a ground cover. like say sweet potatoes or temperate dutch clover.

5) Herb+Vegetable Garden close to the house. This also creates some space around your house where tree branches are not falling on your house. Solar Panel-Electric. Water Purification system with just a 24ft well. Outdoor Kitchen for Rocket stove, Rocket Oven, Solar Dehydrators. Huge Propane Tank, Clothes line-Solar Dryer. Greywater System. Sewer???. As for the building material I like earthbag, they can also be filled with rice hulls too. Below is a floor plan for a "6 room' dwelling each 12ft by 12ft. for a 24ft by 36ft building. With a wall diving the bathroom and laundry/mechroom.

Simon Scott
Posts: 24
Location: Sedona, AZ & Koh, Chang, Thailand
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Hi Daniel and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

I am about to show you how green I am, and I do not mean environmentally friendly!

Regarding your advice to my first question about finding the levels and the contours.  I have seen the A-Frame video and it makes complete sense.  I am confused about this point though.  How do I decide which direction my swales should run on almost flat ground?  Do I measure which vector has the most rise/fall, then work at 90 degrees to the direction? Ie. Most rise fall is NS, so swales generally run EW on contour?  

Next, I would like to know how you decide which side to put the earth mound and what height that generally would be in the Tropics?  Again if we presume the swale is running EW and the overall slope is from N to S, would the earth be placed on the south side?

In the diagram, there seems to be organic matter (and tree trunks) buried in the swale mound.  Is this something which you are not advising? There is a significant 3-4 month dry season in Koh Chang and I can only presume that the tree trucks would facilitate more available moisture in the mounds.

As to your other advice, I agree with it.   Here is my loose plan during my March/May visit:

* Map Topology
* Decide on final home site
* Sink Well
* Create swales (after creating some biochar to put in them)
* Plant cover crops thickly
* Create thick mulch layer with available materials
* Plant some fruit trees (have to figure out if cultivars are readily available in my region) - any advice on what kind welcome - the coconut is very well established so I guess I am looking for the next layer to install and plan for.  medium/large nut/fruit trees?

In May I need to come back to the States for a few months.  I have a couple of friends on the ground to give me updates and check in on the trees.  

I promise to post many photos once I get back to the land and start the project.  I truly appreciate the heart-centered nature of this board, feels like family.  
Simon Scott
Posts: 24
Location: Sedona, AZ & Koh, Chang, Thailand
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Dear Bengi,

Thank you for taking the time to write.  

"I would place rocks or branches on contour, or if I do swales, they would be less than 12inches deep. You can do flood irrigation."

Yes, I think small mounds of rocks (there are plenty in the river bed), branches and trunks (hopefully decaying and loaded with fungal matter) with small swales could be a great idea.  I do have to be careful about creating a mosquito nightmare.  Obviously, I cannot put fish in the swales so do you know of any other way to prevent them from breeding in the swales?  I am trying to avoid flood irrigation as this often requires pipes (and an outside source of water) - I'd love to be more self-sufficient and keep the water on the land.

Can you explain the difference between a ‘stone/log berm’ and a hugelkultur mound, to me they are quite similar, but I imagine the mound for the swale would be much smaller than the average HK mound?  Is the definition just a matter of scale?

Completely agree with your sentiments about soil and building the nutrients on the property

“Bee Hive, Chicken Coop, Fish Pond (size =4 tree space, with pond liner), Herb+Vegetable Garden near the house.” - agree with those ideas please explain what you mean by “size =4 tree space”.  And in your mind, what is the pond really for? Habitat? I would not wish to eat the fish.

“So back to soil”, excellent advise in this section and I am on board with all of your suggestions. I have been researching compost, compost tea and all of that good stuff.  There is plenty of fish waste available from the nearby Fisherman’s village, there is sea water (1:10?), and probably seaweed but I have not found it yet.  I have also yet to find rock dust, but these things can be researched once I am there. There seem to be many folks making teas and compost and then there are those who say unless you make it a specific way, check it under the microscope and confirm the right mix of goodness that you can, in fact, be wasting your time.  I’d love to know what the middle way is, the path of least resistance and expense.  One soil scientist charges close to $5,000 for her course on compost, tea, soil, and microscopy.

Love your advice for the house, I am looking into this:


Also talking to local people about the best designs for the tropics.  I think I will favor a more open plan, bringing the outside in.  Large overhanging roof (for shade and rain protection) with few internal walls for airflow, temperature regulation, and mold prevention.  I am trying to design away from needing AC or anything too 1st world.

Earthbags with rice hulls, some hardwood and perhaps some rammed earth could be a good combination - in Thailand termites are a problem and therefore the house will defiantly need to be elevated.

Thanks for your ideas, it feels good to have your input.
Posts: 1808
Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
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As for what kind of fruit trees..........
Look around to see what grows in your area. If you are seeing coconuts, then I'm guessing banana, guava, jackfruit exist in your region. Most tropical areas have lots of fruit types, although you may not be aware of them. If there is a local produce "farmers market", checking that can give you ideas and connect you to some local growers.

As your local homeowners have suggested, an open house will be a better idea. Tropical houses are designed for good airflow and good roof overhangs. Termites are a serious thing to take into consideration. So your construction should be easy to termite treat and easy to replace termite damaged units. I don't know if termites would use rice hulls for housing, but they would eat the wood. And thick walls would be hard to access for treatment. Mold is a real issue in the tropics. Again, construction design needs to take that into consideration. My own home was built so that we can easily find any insects or mold starting up. And we can replace lumber or finishing if it needs to be, all without any complicated efforts. We used insect resistance cedar (imported and expensive) and borate treated standard lumber.
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