Maybe you have joined a permaculture course and are eager to start your own food forest, or you are living in the tropics and want to set up a permaculture food forest.

A permaculture food forest is not just about plants; it is also about collecting rainwater, setting up a grey water system, a water purification system, installing solar panels and batteries and building compost toilets. It all depends on how far you want to take it, and it depends on your circumstances.

Christiano will tell us all about it: he has been setting up a permaculture food forest for eighteen years now, on the volcanic island of Ometepe, in Nicaragua. Christiano regularly teaches a permaculture design course at his permaculture farm, called El Zopilote.

In this video Christiano breaks it down for us:

A herbal spiral on El Zopilote

Hello Christiano, please tell us a little bit about your place, El Zopilote.

‘Hello. We started twenty years ago when we bought this land. I did not have a background in farming, and permaculture was introduced to me in 2006. Right then and there I understood: this is the way forward, this is truly sustainable. I started practising permaculture on our land, and I learnt a lot from experience, from trial and error.

If you look at a tropical forest, the way it is built with all the layers within it, it is so perfect. Permaculture mimics that, and what is more, it is more productive in the sense that in permaculture we make use of edible plants. We work with nature and learn from nature.’

Can you tell us about the challenges of setting up a permaculture food forest in a tropical climate?

‘The main challenge consists of the heavy rains: they can wash away small plants, such as vegetables and herbs. Of Course, we like to have herbs, to use in the kitchen and for medicinal properties. We make use of a microclimate, such as with the herbal spiral (see photo above): the herbs that need the most sunlight and as little rain as possible, are planted on top.

One of the solutions within permaculture is to make use of perennial plants: they usually last four to five years. They are stronger than, say, tomato plants. We can grow tomatoes here; but the harvest is not that great: too few and too small tomatoes. Instead of losing so much energy trying to grow a few tomatoes, we like to focus on crops that do grow very well here. This takes time.

A hibiscus flower next to a banana plant on El Zopilote

Plants that require a lot of water are placed close together; we do not spread them out on the land, because it would take too much time to water them all.

We have discovered which species of vegetables survive: a lot of it is experimenting.

We also overplant: so we just plant more than we need. This way, when plants succumb to the rains, we will still have plants left that have survived.

We also have a nursery. Seedlings naturally need sunlight; however, the heavy rains would wash them away. So we provide a net with small holes in it, this way the seedlings have water, but not too much. The bigger seedlings can handle the heavy rains, they do not need that kind of protection. It all requires creativity and logical thinking, to deal with a lot of sunlight and rain.’’

What are the advantages of engaging in permaculture in the tropics?

Big plants grow very well: fruit trees and shrubs, such as banana plants, plantain, mango, palm trees, papaya and avocado. Trees that can climb and grow high have a very good chance of survival in this climate.

Of course, we have plenty of sunlight, and plants love that.

We also work with the permaculture principle of guilds: the properties of one plant can support another plant. For example, we plant hibiscus next to a banana plant (see photo above), to let the hibiscus profit from the water that a banana plant can retain.’

How do you deal with the dry season, and not having much rain most of the year?

‘We mulch, in order to retain water and to keep the soil moist. There are plenty of bamboo and palm leaves on the ground: we leave them there because they keep the soil damp and nurture it.’

We plant during the wet season: this way the small plant has plenty of water to grow and will be strong enough to withstand the dry season once it arrives.’

Grey water

‘We have also set up a grey water system: all the grey water from our property – kitchens and showers – is used to irrigate the land (see photo below). We use communal water, but we are saving 1000 liters a day because of our grey water. The grey water is filtered in tanks filled with plants and is led to big plants that use up a lot of water, such as banana plants.

We do not wish to make much use of the communal water supply and place a burden on the community. There is not a lot of water on the island, we need to deal with it wisely.’

Swails

‘We have a lot of rocks on the property, this being a volcanic island. We use the rocks to make swails. During the rainy season, the swails lead the water to water tanks. Here it is distributed. This way we prevent the land from being flooded, and we make use of the excess water. The water is retained.

Sometimes we let plants grow along a swale: they can profit from the excess water.’

A water tank with irrigation pipes leading to big plants. You can see plants in the tank, filtering the grey water.

Final thoughts

Setting up a permaculture food forest is perfectly doable in a tropical climate, we can conclude. As long as one pays attention to the impact of heavy rains and periods of drought, it is certainly possible to set it up. 

A vegetable garden is a bit more challenging, but even that can be accomplished with a little extra attention. 

Plants and trees will grow rapidly, and the food forest will mature quickly. 

We hope that you have been inspired by this article, that you will soon embark on your own permaculture adventure, or that you will have gained insights for your permaculture project. 

For more information on the food forest of Christiano, or on working and staying there as a volunteer, check out www.ometepezopilote.net

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