Sunday, March 15, 2009

Our Yarden

Although our Chiang Mai home comes with a two-acre lot where we raise some goats and chickens the actual garden space adjacent to our house is quite small; approximately 14 x 11 yards. Roughly 88 square yards of this area is what one might generously call a lawn. In other words, though small, it's open and somewhat grassy (at least during the rainy season).

Planted between the three-sided garden wall and small lawn, the rest of the this area is a U-shaped mixture of tropical ground covers, gingers, bananas, vines and small trees. And many of these perennials offer edible products.

Back home it seems that American homeowners often work from a landscape trichotomy that's divided into three three fairly distinct zones; the lawn, what we call "the garden" (i.e., a plot of annual flowers and/or vegetables) and shrubbery plantings (either beds of woody perennials or scattered individuals). But without a doubt the major feature of most American landscapes would be the lawn.

These days, though, lawns are increasingly criticized as wasted space and often money holes. Either planted in pure stands of various lawn grasses or tended as mixtures of such grasses and weeds, American lawns can be vast, requiring considerable labor and expense to maintain. In this period of economic hardship, with threats of food insecurity, urban or suburban farmers reason that lawn space might serve us better as areas of small-scale food production. So what's to stop us from growing annual and perennial food crops or even rearing small-scale livestock such as chickens, rabbits and even goats?

Guess I forgot. Neighborhood associations would have a cow issuing warnings and threats towards anyone considering such a bold move. After all, conventional wisdom holds that agriculture and high home values are incompatible.

Yet American homeowners (and would be backyard farmers) might be surprised to learn that raising small home flocks of chickens, pygmy goats or hives of bees is permissible in many metropolitan areas (check out the recent National Public Radio story "City Folk Flock To Raise Small Livestock At Home"

Still, converting wasted lawn space into an edible landscape, or so-called yarden, is probably a much easier, less controversial option. After all, who can build a case against a yard full of peach, pear and apple trees or grape vines?

Fortunately, our Thai neighbors aren't too high strung about urban and peri-urban agriculture. It's common to see fruit trees and small container gardens in neighborhoods throughout Chiang Mai. And I dare you to find a place out of range of a rooster's crow.

Until the goats arrived we tended a garden in the corner of the large vacant lot adjacent to our house. To be honest, I put a lot of time, effort and expense into developing the small plot.

I learned that one of the easiest food-producing options is to plant local varieties of perennial vegetables; basically bushes that produce edible greens and pods. These plants require minimal maintenance and only a few bushes can provide significant veggies.

Still, Ellen is a real Southern cook and we like our comfort food. Fortunately, okra's easy enough to grow. But tomatoes, sweet corn, cabbage, snap beans and other back home crops are often hit-and-miss. So I ended up putting considerable time into evaluating vegetable varieties (both local and imported) that are adaptable to Chiang Mai's climate.

Unfortunately, there was no one willing to carry on vegetable garden efforts when our family was away for extended spells (furlough, etc.). And I became discouraged with the state of the garden each time we came back home. So we decided that goats, being fairly low maintenance and very effective against the annual rainy season onslaught of biomass, would be a better long-term choice for the vacant lot.

Within the walls surrounding the house our yarden is compact with little sunlight. And being the domain of dogs and boys, the potential for significant vegetable production is limited. Squeezed in with a tiny, low maintenance lawn the best gardening option within such a small space would be to make the vegetative strip as hardy, biodiverse and potentially edible as possible. Our models would be the local forest as well as traditional northern Thai home gardens.

Today the landscape of our rented home includes a canopy of four types of tropical fruit trees and a few tall palms with edible/usable products. The understory is made up of a viny yam variety, two species of native trees that yield edible shoots and flowers and two wild cousins of black pepper. Stalks of garden and forest banana are also scattered within. And purely ornamental plants, such as bird's nest fern, orchid, heliconia and various palms, are included as well.

With so many potentially food-producing plants it would seem that we wouldn't need to go to the market again. But truth is we rarely eat the produce (except for the fruit). There's rarely enough for a meal. And it's all so lovely that we pretty much keep things ornamental (which feeds the soul). But if push comes to shove...

A Walk in the Woods

Chiang Mai is a growing city full of markets, malls, schools and homes. And it's often easy to lose sight of its most prominent natural resource, Doi Suthep (Mountain of Angels). Over a mile high, this mountain is still covered with some decent tropical forest and offers a valuable watershed for the area.
This past Saturday a group of friends and I enjoyed a day-long hike originating from near the top of Doi Suthep (at its famous temple) whereby we followed a stream known as Huai Kaew (Crystal Springs) to the Chiang Mai Zoo at the bottom of the mountain.

With dry season air quality being so bad within the city, we enjoyed the lush, cool montane evergreen forest at the upper range of the hike. And we encountered several impressive water falls as we descended into the dry deciduous forest at the base of the mountain.

A mysterious, but friendly red dog of large proportions joined us the entire way, eagerly serving as a back up guide. We had no idea where Red Dog came from or where he was ultimately headed but he showed absolutely no anxiety about accompanying us on our jaunt through the forest.

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