Creating a productive permaculture farm out of a dusty piece of marginal land

By: John and Lulu Clark

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Our shamba is 18 acres on the north side of Lake Naivasha in the Rift Valley in Kenya. It is set a short distance back from the lake shore and has gently sloping well-drained volcanic soil with rocky sections, with an average annual rainfall of approximately 650 mm, which falls mainly between April and June and again in October / November. It naturally has an abundance of leleshwa and yellow fever (acacia xanthophloea) trees, and a scattering of other indigenous shrubs and grasses. It is vulnerable to sodom apple and lantana, which we have partially controlled by digging out over the years.

One of the main challenges we faced when we decided to go into permaculture farming was what to do about the hippos, buffaloes and other wildlife that freely roam within the area; we had planted trees before, none of which survived. So the first thing we had to do was put up an electric fence around the property, which was a fairly major capital outlay. We were sad to make the decision to keep the wildlife out however the land was denuded from heavy grazing over the years and, apart from actually during the rains, it was not much good for the wildlife anyway. We have left one acre unfenced, and we are growing some fodder within the fenced area to help out the wildlife during the dry months. Smaller species such as dikdik, reedbuck, duikers, African hares and spring hares can pass through the fence and still come and go freely on the plot.

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The second big challenge was water and especially getting through the long dry seasons; the domestic supply piped up from the lake was barely adequate to keep our moderate household going, so we decided to put in a solar borehole, which was another major financial outlay. We were lucky and we struck lots of great quality water at an easily reachable depth. Once the borehole was in place we put in water pipes around the boundary and connections across the entire property.

At this stage we asked Barefoot Solutions to help us with planning the project in more detail, starting with mapping, contouring and earthworks. We got in a professional digger to put in 5 reservoirs of varying sizes to service the current and future water requirements on the property, and once the reservoirs were in we dug several swales along the contours to hold the flow of water and direct it down the plot. We also put in a mobile piped irrigation system to water the areas in between the swales.

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Next came the planting - the swales were seeded with a mix of chia, basil, cow peas, pigeon peas, mulberry cuttings, pumpkins and squash. We also planted napier and vetiver grasses along the swales and around the reservoirs. Nitrogen fixing shrubs included: bean varieties, Calandra, sesbania, green heart, morninga olifiera and stenopotala.

We put in several banana circles, which were intercropped with sweet potatoes, chia seeds, sugarcane and cow peas.

A fruit forest was planted, with 140 seedlings and fruit trees: 

- Grafted - orange (pixie, Valencia, Washington, marmalade), mango (apple, tommy, Kent varieties), tangerine, sweet orange, avocado, guava, lemon, lime, plum (sweet, cherry, cooking, golden, red, yellow), pear, peach, apple. 

- Non grafted - golden sapote (Seychelles), picanto cherry, tree tomato, raspberry, wine berry, blackberry, mulberry, strawberry, edible fig, large non-grafted avocado, star fruit, lemon grass, sweet potato (four varieties).

Since then we have added custard apples, papaya, pomegranates, passionfruit, gooseberries, loquats and kaffir limes. 

Indigenous trees including hardwoods: Meru oak, podo, Cape chestnut, olive, cedar, African greenheart, cordia and croton.

We already had a (not very productive) walled vegetable garden with a small greenhouse; the Barefoot Solutions team helped us design a crop rotation program, intercropping with companion planting and also to set up a propagation area and a worm farm. We are now growing vegetables such as artichokes, carrots, spinach, fennel, leaks, beetroot, chilis, lettuces, red and white cabbages, radishes, asparagus and many varieties of beans, interplanted with tobacco and other pest controlling / nitrogen fixing varieties. We have not had much luck with tomatoes so far, and our cucumbers, courgettes and other squashes are being attacked by a certain wasp, which makes them inedible. 

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Our herb garden includes parsley, three different kinds of mint, coriander, sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, curry leaf, lemon grass and rocket.

Our mixed woodlot contains eucalyptus, cypress, sand olive, cedar, bottle brush and acacia.

The initial plantings covered approximately 2 acres; last season we expanded to approximately 4 acres with sunflower, bamboo, Hass avocados, more moringa, some coffee bushes, grape vines and most recently 100 Macadamia nut trees, which were brought over from Embu.

The swales holding water combined with the hippo fence have promoted a resurgence of native grass species and wild flowers, and last season we did an experiment with three varieties of indigenous wild grasses from Murray Roberts at Baringo, as well as sorghum, boma rhodes and alfalfa. We look forward to our bee hives becoming productive as they start to benefit from the extra flora now available.

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This last long rainy season resulted in an abundance of grass; a lot of it is turned into compost and we are using biodynamic products imported from South Africa in our compost heaps and on the land. The neighbours cattle come and graze from time to time, which very importantly fertilises the ground while keeping the excess grass short, and our chickens love being invited in to the vegetable garden to scratch around and help us keep the soils loose and fertile.

Barefoot Solutions introduced us to permaculture principles such as chop and drop, the importance of mulching and composting, methods of water conservation and using chemical free fertilisers and pesticides. 

We still have a long way to go but 3 years since we started we are enjoying a wide variety of organically grown fruits, vegetables, salads, herbs and berries on a regular basis, and this once rather bleak piece of land is well on its way to becoming a thriving and sustainable permaculture farm.

So far we have developed less than half of our property - we would love to find some like-minded partners to join us in developing the remaining area. johnandluluclark@gmail.com