Environmental issues and Permaculture at a Buddhist Monastery

On the invitation of the Rangjung Yeshe student society at Kanying Shedrub Ling, Govinda Sharma gave a an introduction to permaculture at Utpala cafe in Bouddha, Kathmandu.

At the time of the Buddha, monks have famously gone for alms begging in the surrounding villages. There are also instructions found in the Buddhist texts that monasteries should not be build too close to settlements, nor too far away. This rule was obviously purely made for that time’s context, where monks and nuns had to walk from the monastery to the village and back each day for alms. When Buddhism moved to other countries, for example China, the situation changed however, and monastics in some monasteries in China had to grow their own food, since going for alms was socially not so much appreciated as compared to the situation in India. In Tibet, at first during the time of the Tibetan empire, the king assigned seven families to take care of each monastic. After the collapse of the empire, in later ages and in some cases up to the present day, monasteries own huge swats of land which are then worked by lay people, very much like the feudal system in Europe, or lamas go out on tours through their area to collect food and funds.

But now we have entered the 21st century, Buddhism has spread around the globe and the situation has changed again. Buddhist communities such as Lerab Ling or Gomde Pyrenees are slowly growing and are becoming large centres. How should such communities be fed? Also, given the current environmental crisis, what is going to be an ethical way (perhaps we can say in accord with the Dharmic principle of not harming) to feed such communities? What is the Buddhist ethics of the 21st century? If we buy all our food from the global market, what environmental impact does that have?

Now of course there are many environmental problems and hopefully also many solutions. As Buddhist, there is no reason to be philosophically invested in one particular solution. To deal with some modern day problems, we might occasionally need modern day solutions. One of them is permaculture. Permaculture can be defined as a “set of design principles centered on whole systems thinking, simulating, or directly utilizing the patterns and resilient features observed in natural ecosystems. It uses these principles in a growing number of fields from regenerative agriculture, rewilding, and community resilience.”

Govinda Sharma is one of the top permaculture teachers in Nepal, has over three decades of teaching experience, and also has a degree in organic agriculture from the renowned agricultural university of Wageningen in the Netherlands.

Govinda Sharma

Before starting the lecture Govinda was shown around the Saturday farmers market at Utpala cafe, which is becoming increasingly popular.

Govinda at Himgiri organic hub stand

Govinda talking with leading figures of the monastery Buchung and Shedrub Gyatso

Govinda was also given a tour through the monastery. The monastery is currently exploring the possibility of starting the production of ornamental flowers and food according to permaculture design at a barren plot of land.

Shedrub Gyatso showing the nursery

Inspecting the composting 

This little monk was trilled when a walnut fell out of the tree right in front of him

Then the lecture commenced. The first part of the lecture looked at the question ‘why is permaculture needed’? This consisted mostly of looking at a wide variety of ecological problems such as deforestation, massive use of pesticides, eutrophication through an excess of nitrogen, increase of floods and droughts, global warming and so on.

Eutrophication causes algae to bloom and suffocates all live in aquatic bodies  

 

In the second part of the lecture Govinda looked more at what permaculture can offer in terms of solutions to these problems. He mainly emphasised that even small things which we can apply immediately in our lives such as refusing plastic back is also permaculture

A full room at Utpala

The last part of the talk consisted of some practical tips in the field. We looked at soil, sun, water, wind direction and much more. 

In the fields

You can listen to the talk here.

Permaculture in Nepal

By Rachel See & Tim Albares

A few weeks ago, a small group of RYI students, faculty, and friends visited the Hasera Permaculture Farm in Patlekhet, a small town nestled in the foothills outside of Kathmandu. There we met Govinda Sharmma and his wife Mithu.  Govinda, with a view of the valley below as a backdrop, gave a brief introduction about himself and the practice of permaculture. Govinda began practicing permaculture in 1986 and created the “HASERA Krishi Farm” in 1992. In 2009, the farm was renamed
“HASERA Agriculture Research and Training Center,” and now serves as both an active farm and a training site. Students from more than 80 countries have now come to HASERA to live for several weeks and study the fundamental techniques that ensure a successful permaculture farm. HASERA stands for Hariyo, Seto, Rato (Green, White and Red in Nepali) signifying plant, dairy, and meat products.

The Group Enjoying A Cup of Milk Tea Before Govinda’s Introduction to Permaculture

So, what is permaculture?

“Permaculture is an art and philosophy of designing a livelihood system where the material and non material needs of human beings are produced with the efficient use of the available resources without damaging the production potentialities of the future.” – Govinda Sharma

The word itself was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgrane in the early 1970s, and is meant to relate the concept of “Permanent Agriculture.” Rather than monocropping – planting the same crop on the same land year after year – permaculture entails planting a diverse number of crops, allowing for food security throughout all four seasons. This concept is by no means new, but the work of Bill Mollison, and Govinda Sharma alike, takes these ancient principles of year-round successful farming and applies modern technology and modern means. Each Permaculture farm is different and there are many factors, such as location, climate, soil quality, etc., that factor into the design of the farm.

After talking a little about himself, Govinda described how the farm is divided into 5 zones. The zones requiring higher levels of labor are located closest to the home, while the low maintenance zones are farther away. Zone 0 is the Living House and its surroundings. Govinda stressed the importance of the home as the heart of the farm. Without a balanced, sustainable, and fruitful home, the rest of the farm could not function to its full potential. Another important aspect of zone 0 for the Hasera Permaculture Farm is that it houses the Seed Bank.

Creating a seed bank is a wonderful way to preserve and utilize the abundant diversity of seeds that nature has to offer. Unfortunately a small number of companies, like Monsanto, now dominate the seed industry and have vastly reduced the variety of seeds available for purchase. Seed banks like Hasera’s help to protect the otherwise dwindling diversity of seeds, and promote their accessibility. After all, as with the home, the seeds are the very foundation of the permaculture farm.


HASERA Agriculture Research and Training Center Seed Bank

At the end of Govinda’s introduction, his wife Mithu led us all on a tour of the farm. We walked to Zone 1, the area visible from the house which requires daily visits. A spiral herb garden is located very close to the kitchen. The herb garden is surrounded by an earthen wall which absorbs water when it rains and releases water when it is dry. Next to the herb garden is a buried terracotta pot. This pot works in a similar way, collecting water when it rains and releasing water into the soil when it is dry. From the house Mithu led us to a vegetable garden planted using a “keyhole” technique. This way of planting vegetables allows you to water the plants without having to step on or over them. Therefore a higher number of diverse vegetables can be planted in a relatively small space.

Vegetables Planted Using the Keyhole Technique

Mithu also discussed the importance of planting companion plants and herbs for increasing soil quality, ensuring pollination, providing habitats for useful insects, deterring harmful insects, and maximizing use of space. Here it is useful to grow a variety of common and uncommon vegetables. Asparagus, for example, is rare in Nepal, and will therefore sell for more money. This is especially beneficial when common vegetables, like cauliflower, fluctuate with the market. From the vegetable garden Mithu led us a little ways away to the man-made pond. One of the major purposes of this rainwater-collection-pond is to attract unwanted insects like mosquitoes away from the house. At night a light is hung out over the pond to further attract these bugs. Frogs in the pond also eat the unwanted insects.

Pond for Attracting Unwanted Insects/Water Collection

From here our tour was led up to through the terraced ridges of the farm to Zone 2. Mithu described to us how the terraces keep the farm, which is located on a steep slope, from eroding. She then showed us the Zone 2 Hugelkultur mound. This mound was constructed by stacking pieces of decaying wood on top of each other and then placing compostable materials on top. As both the wood and the compost break down, the soil’s quality and ability to absorb water improves.

Mithu Describes the Hugelkultur Mound

As described above, the plants found in Zone 2 require less maintenance than those in Zone 1. HASERA has cardamom, barley, and other cereals planted in this zone. Mithu told us that zone 2 is also where they plant their tea.

Mithu Discusses the Plants in Zone 2

In Zone 3 we visited a shaded garden. This area had a diverse number of vegetables. Here, Mithu told us about the importance of singing to your plants. She said that happy plants are healthy plants, and that it can be detrimental to enter the garden in a bad mood. Plants also prefer natural pesticides. Mithu explained how HASERA made their own pesticides by combining both sweet and bitter plants. Another variation of composting was located in Zone 3. This simple style entailed piling organic waste around a large stick. The stick is occasionally moved in a circular motion to aerate the compost pile. Afterwards, Mithu discussed how the farm collects their livestock’s dung and urine to use as manure.

HASERA’s Shaded Garden
Circular Compost Pile
Piping System for Livestock Waste Collection

Next we walked to Zone 4, the zone with the plants that require very little maintenance. HASERA has mostly fruit trees, like figs, planted here. There were a number of other plants and trees in this zone as well, including snap peas. Zone 4 also had an artificial swale. The swale is a large hole dug at the base of one of the terraced ridges. It acts as a natural deterrent for erosion and ensures water runoff levels are kept at a minimum. As water is collected in the swale it slowly seeps into the ridge below, providing irrigation for the plants and nutrients for the soil.

Walking in Zone 4
Fig Trees in Zone 4
Peas in Zone 4

As with most permaculture farms, Zone 5 at the HASERA Agriculture Research and Training Center was a wild area of untouched and unfarmed land. Upon our return to the house, Govinda answered some questions and gave us more information about the Learning Center and their goal of spreading the ideals/techniques of permaculture all over the globe. He spoke of how a permaculture farm is interconnected with caring for people, caring for the earth, and reducing consumption. Afterwards the group enjoyed a wonderful organic meal prepared in the HASERA kitchen. This was truly the perfect end to a peaceful and informative experience.

  • For more information about permaculture, you can read Bill Mollison’s book Permaculture – A Designers Manual.
  • You can also visit the HASERA farm in Patlekhet and purchase their Hand Book for the International Permaculture Design Course

“Permaculture is a practical concept applicable from the balcony to the farm, from the city to the wilderness. It enables people to establish productive environments providing for food, energy, shelter, material and non-material needs, as well as the social and economic infrastructures to support them. – Bill Mollison

Vermicomposting in Boudha

By Timothy Albares & Rachel See

Are you interested in a more efficient and beneficial method of composting?  Have you ever heard of vermiculture?  Vermiculture is a composting process that uses earthworms to break down organic waste.  Not only do earthworms substantially speed up the process of breaking down food waste (composting), but they also create two useful byproducts known by many as “worm tea” and “worm leachate.”  The overall health of your plants can be considerably increased by adding worm tea or worm leachate to the plant water.  Here is a list of the items you will need to start your own vermiculture project here in Kathmandu:

            1. 3 Plastic Bins

            2. 1 Cloth Shopping Bag

            3. 3 plastic yogurt containers

            4. Worms (200 Grams to start)

            5.  Organic Food Waste

     

Bins for Vermiculture

These bins can be found at most plastic shops around the stupa, as well as at Bhatbhateni supermarket.  Each bin will be placed on top of the other—the top two containing compost and the bottom bin collecting the “worm leachate.”  Both the top and middle bin will need to have holes drilled in the bottom to allow your worms to travel freely throughout the compost.  If you do not have a drill, Ka-nying Shedrub Ling Environmental Committee has access to a drill and can assist students and faculty in preparing their bins.

Example of holes drilled into bin

A cloth shopping bag will need to be duct-taped to the bottom of the middle bin.  This bag will act as a filter for your worm leachate, allowing the nutrient rich liquids to collect in the bottom bin without any clumps of compost (or worms) falling through.

Common cloth shopping bag used as filter

The 4 plastic yogurt containers will be placed upside down in the tea leachate collection bin (bottom bin).  This will elevate the top two compost bins, allowing your leachate to collect freely.  Of course you can use other handy objects to elevate your top two bins—yogurt containers are simply a suggestion.

Upside-down yogurt containers in worm leachate collection (bottom) bin

The most important aspect of vermiculture would be the earth worms.  It takes approximately 250 grams of worms to start your vermiculture system.  To purchase worms contact Melanie. Worms are 3,000 rupees per kilo, so expect to pay 750 rupees for your start-up batch (250 grams). Before your worms can move into their bin apartment, you need to add a base layer of compost to the top two bins.  The base layer should be made up of a combination of paper clippings (no color ink), bits of cardboard, pieces of leaves, dead plants, and some soil.  Add a small amount of water to this base layer to create a moist and rich environment for your worms.  After putting together the base layer you are ready to start adding compost. 

There are a few things you should never put into your vermiculture bins such as:

  • Cooked Foods
  • Dairy Products
  • Meat of any kind
  • Bones
  • Avocado pits
  • Pet Manure
  • Chemicals
  • Metals
  • Glass
  • Poisonous Plants
  • Plastics
  • Soap

*THESE MATERIALS CAN DAMAGE OR DESTROY THE VERMICULTURE SYSTEM*

            Worms particularly enjoy eating fruit scraps (seeds/peels/actual fruit) and vegetable scraps.  Citrus fruits, however, should only be added on occasion.  Remember to never add cooked food.  Here is a helpful list of materials that are good to put in your vermiculture bins:

  • Crushed up Egg Shells
  • Cardboard Shreds
  • Fruit/Vegetable Scraps
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Coffee Filters
  • Tea Bags
  • Paper napkins/towels
  • Paper Bags (shredded)
Healthy Vermicompost

For a more extensive list of items that can be composted visit https://www.smallfootprintfamily.com/100-things-you-can-compost

You should always avoid overloading your vermiculture bins.  The worms need time to work their way through the food. Allowing too much compost to pile will create a foul smell. Two important aspects of vermiculture to keep in mind are temperature and moistness.  Do not sit your vermiculture bins out in the sun.  This will dry up the compost and kill your worms.  Do not let your vermiculture bins sit in the rain or flood your compost with too much water.  Too much water will drown your worms.  The bins should be kept at a temperature between 12 and 25 degrees Celsius (55-77 Fahrenheit).  If possible, you should keep your vermiculture bins in a shaded area.  An outdoor shed or closet works best.  If your only option is to keep your worm bins exposed then you should cover the tower with a plastic tarp or any similar type of covering.  If possible create some shade—your worms will thank you. 

            To get the most out of a vermiculture tower you should add the broken-down food waste (compost) to your gardening soil and water your plants with worm tea or diluted worm leachate.  IMPORTANT! Before removing this nutrient rich compost you must first ensure that your worms have moved out of the bin.  You do not have to be a worm whisperer to accomplish this feat.  If you simply leave old food waste in the middle bin and add fresh food waste to the top bin, your worms will migrate through the drill holes to the new/fresher materials.  After removing the compost you are ready to make your worm tea. 

To do this you simply soak the compost overnight in a bucket full of water.  Rather than having to strain the water from the bucket afterwards (a time consuming and dirty process) you can wrap the compost up in an old t-shirt or a burlap sack—anything that will allow the nutrients to be released into the water without filling your bucket with clumps of compost.  The great thing about worm tea is that it does not have to be diluted.  You can just pour this dark, nutrient rich water right onto both flowering and food-bearing plants.  Worm leachate—the liquid that is collected in the bottom bin of your worm tower—is slightly less beneficial than worm tea, but it can still be used on flowering plants. 

           The worm leachate often contains materials that the worms are unable to break down.  This increases the risk of the leachate containing harmful pathogens.  For this reason you should avoid putting worm leachate on food-producing plants.  Worm leachate is also very powerful and should be diluted before it is put onto your flowering plants.  One part worm leachate to two parts water is a reliable ratio.  To collect your leachate it is helpful to have a spout added to the leachate collection bin.  Most plastic stores around the stupa will install a spout for you.  Otherwise you can simply pour the leachate into a separate container when your bin is full. 

Bin with spout installed

The worm leachate collecting in your bottom bin is a good indicator of the overall health of your worm tower.  If too much leachate is being produced, it is a sign that your vermiculture system is out of balance.  Draining the worm leachate should not be required every day.  If this is the case, you should add more dry bedding and use less food waste for a day or two. A well balanced worm tower can prove to be a very effective method for composting.  One kilogram of worms can consume one kilogram of food waste each day!  With the added benefits of worm tea and worm leachate, you will never look at composting the same again.  Instead of simply throwing your food waste away, taking up space in landfills and releasing harmful gases, vermiculture allows you to convert waste into compost that can be used to make your plants healthier.  Happy vermicomposting!