Making Compost

A ‘heap’ compost pile at Never Ending Food

Making compost is simply a way of copying (and speeding up) the processes that are found in most natural ecosystems. When organic matter falls in a forest (e.g. leaves, flowers, manure, grasses, etc.) it begins the process of decomposition. Organic matter is broken down and used in a way which is similar to how we, as humans, eat. The first process is ‘physical breakdown’. We chew our food, and in nature we find small animals, insects, and invertebrates (like worms) acting as nature’s ‘teeth’. They physically break organic matter into smaller pieces. Next is ‘chemical breakdown’. When we swallow our food, the enzymes, acids, and other digestive juices in our stomach work to break this food into nutrients. In nature, we also find enzymes, but also fungi, bacteria, and microorganisms which break organic matter into nutrients. When our bodies need to use nutrients from the food we eat, these nutrients are absorbed into our blood, through our intestines, and carried throughout our body. In nature, nutrients are absorbed through the roots of plants and carried to where they are needed.

There are many ways to make compost. The job of a good Permaculture Designer is to pick the right ‘tool’ for the job. You can make compost through worm farming, liquid manure, or composting toilets. You can also use bins, pits, barrels, heaps, or commercial units. Here at Never Ending Food we use a combination of many of these ‘tools’. For basic compost piles, however, we find the ‘heap’ method to be the easiest. This simply involves stacking a variety of organic matter into layers on top of the ground.

The more nutrient-rich materials that you use, the more likely it will be that your plants will get the diversity of nutrients needed for proper growth and development. As you layer the pile, you should add some water for moisture. When the pile is complete, you can also cover the pile with grass or large leaves to prevent the pile from drying out too quickly.

We often stick a wooden pole into the middle to act as a ‘thermometer’ to test whether or not the pile is heating up and working properly. You can pull this stick out of the pile after about a week and it should feel warm to the touch. If it’s not warm, this could mean that the pile is too wet, too dry, getting too much air, or too little air. If this happens, you can turn the pile over in layers and rebuild the pile. Normally, we turn a healthy compost pile after about three weeks (adding more water as needed), and in another three weeks it is ready for use. By building a new pile every three weeks, we have one we are building, one we are turning, and one we are using.

Commercial composting bins at Child Legacy, Malawi

A great deal of organic matter in Malawi is wasted due to poor resource management. Some of it gets mixed with plastics and buried in the ground, and many more resources simply go up in smoke when people burn organic matter in markets or around homes. If these resources were converted to compost, it would help to feed the soil, reduce the amount of money spent on synthetic fertilizers, and rebuild the soil structure (which helps to prevent floods and droughts).

If you are not already making and using compost, give it a try! It is a simple, safe, and cheap way to feed your soil and improve the health of your ecosystems. With a little practice, you’ll quickly become a pro!

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Plant of the Week – Wild Custard Apple

Wild Custard Apple (Annona senegalensis)

The wild custard apple (Annona senegalensis) is also known as the ‘African custard apple’ or ‘wild soursop’. In Chichewa, it is called ‘mposa’. This small tree (2-6 meters) has numerous nutritional and medicinal benefits.

Nutritionally, the wild custard apple has been analyzed and shown to contain nutrients such as: fat, fiber, protein, and carbohydrate. In addition, it contains many minerals, such as: potassium, phosphorus, calcium, sodium, magnesium, sulphur, chlorine, aluminum, silicon, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron, nickel, copper, zinc, selenium, brome, molybdenum, and iodine.

Medicinally, it has been reported that the wild custard apple has been used by humans as: a stimulant, pain reliever, anti-oxidant, antidiarrheal, antimicrobial, antiparasitic, anticonvulsant, antimalarial, antiinflammatory, and an anti-snake venom. The leaves have been reportedly used for the treatments of tuberculosis, yellow fever, smallpox. The root is effective in treating gastritis, reproductive deficiency, snake bites, impotence, erectile dysfunction, tuberculosis, and infectious diseases, and in the management of diabetes and malaria.

Jesse Williamson reports in ‘Useful Plants of Malawi‘ that: “Rope is made from the bark; leaf tips and bark for colds; poultice of leaves for pneumonia; roots boiled with sour orange for stomach aches; and, bark is pounded with water and used to dress women’s hair.”

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Fish Farming

Brick-and-cement fish pond at Never Ending Food

Fish farming can be a beneficial addition to any Permaculture site. The nutritional value of eating fish has been linked to better heart-health (through omega-3 fatty acids), and the reduction of malnutrition by providing a source of nutrients such as: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, zinc, iodine, magnesium, and potassium.

Fish farming can be implemented in many sizes and styles. These can range from small household water features and farm-sized ponds, up to large-scale management of lakes or even ocean fish-management zones. Most Permaculture sites range from small ponds to larger commercial-sized reservoirs.

There are also aquaponic systems which integrate fish farming with the growing of plant foods. As with other types of fish farming, aquaponic systems can include small in-home units, or large-scale systems like Growing Power in Wisconsin, USA which produced enough food to feed 10,000 people on just three acres of land in a temperate climate with harsh winter conditions.

Aquaponics system at Child Legacy in Malawi

Here at Never Ending Food we have several different types of fish ponds that we have built. Some are just small water features, which help to attract beneficial wildlife, such as: birds, frogs, toads, dragonflies, lizards, spiders, bees and butterflies. These shallow ponds generally have a small pump to turn the water and keep them oxygenated. They also contain small fish (like tilapia or goldfish) to eat mosquito larva which may breed in the water. We don’t generally eat the fish out of these smaller ponds.

Our larger ponds are designed to provide edible fish as a source of nutrition. Due to their deeper depth (1.5-2 meters), and the addition of water plants, these ponds don’t generally need a pump for additional oxygen. We have also chosen to raise local catfish, which are incredibly hearty, fast-growing, and can tolerate fluctuations in oxygen levels.

Our largest pond was created from the hole which was dug when we were getting soil for our rammed-earth classroom. This pond is two meters deep with a one-meter ledge to provide a support for potted water plants. It was lined with bricks and ‘shined’ with a thin layer of cement to make it waterproof. This pond is also integrated with duck farming and the manure from the ducks helps to feed the fish.

If you haven’t considered fish farming as part of your Permaculture design, now is the time! It can be a great way to add beauty, function, and nutrition to any site. Our fish ponds even allow us to relax with a fishing pole and come back with a meal!

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Microclimates and Niches

Microclimates are very important in Permaculture

There is a lot of talk these days about ‘climate’. When climate changes, it affects the long-term weather patterns of entire regions. ‘Microclimates’, however, are generally the climatic conditions that are measured within specific areas, and which affect environmental variables such as light, temperature, wind speed, moisture, etc.

Permaculture designers must take the long-term effects of climate into consideration, but they also strive to identify, enhance, and create microclimates throughout each site. Microclimates can assist us to harness the energies of a site, they provide diverse habitats, they can help certain species to grow better, and they serve to replicate the patterns of natural ecosystems.

Microclimates can include things like: upland and lowland areas of a site, forests, grasslands, wetlands, unique vegetation, structures, surface materials, urban green space, edges, water features, hills, slope, windfalls, geological features, microhabitat, etc.

Microclimates also help to protect and conserve ecological ‘niches’. A ‘niche‘ in environmental science, is generally defined as the role an organism provides within an ecosystem. Niche species are vitally important to the health and resilience of ecosystems. They can include the microscopic communities of organisms that live in the soil; the fungi which helps to break down organic matter; the termites which assist in nutrient cycling, and even the roles that larger plants, animals, and insects play in their daily lives.

Every good Permaculture design should integrate microclimates and ecological niches. The more time that you spend in nature exploring the interactions of living organisms, the unique habitats in which they live, and the environmental purposes that they serve, the better you will be able to create sustainable living systems for humans.

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!

Plant of the Week – Denje

Jute mallow (Corchorus olitorius)

Jute mallow (Chorchorus olitorius) is known as ‘denje’ in Chichewa. It is also sometimes called ‘Jew’s mallow’, ‘Nalta jute’, and ‘Bush okra’. It has been cultivated and has grown wild throughout Africa, Asia, and India for thousands of years. It was recorded to have been used as a food in ancient Egypt.

Nutritionally, the leaves can be eaten either raw or cooked. According to the World Vegetable Center, they are a rich source of beta-carotene, vitamin E, riboflavin, folic acid, ascorbic acid, calcium, iron, and protein. The leaves produce a mucilaginous texture when cooked, which is where it gets its name ‘bush okra’, or in Chichewa ‘therere‘.

The leaves have two distinct spikes at the base, which makes identification easier. The small black seeds grow in elongated pods which split open when ripe, and they are also edible. Research has shown that these seeds seeds contain: protein, carbohydrate, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin A.

Jute mallow leaf with two spikes at its base

Commercially, a fiber can be obtained from from the Jute mallow plant, which is called ‘jute’. This naturally biodegradable fiber can be made into a wide variety of products. It is also environmentally friendly as it can be grown without all of the chemicals which are currently used in the production of cotton, and it has been estimated that a hectare of Jute mallow can absorb up to 15 tons of carbon dioxide, while releasing up to 11 tons of oxygen.

Malawi does not use this plant commercially, but in India, where numerous products are manufactured, the economic value of the jute industry is around 37 billion rupees (over 450 million US dollars). This is more than two-and-a-half times the value of Malawi’s entire tobacco industry, which generated $174.5 million US dollars in 2020. India now makes, sells, and exports jute products such as: rope, mats, baskets, flower planters, shoes, clothing, handbags, lampshades, and much more.

When we learn to use our resources to their fullest potential, we can quickly bring an end to things like malnutrition, hungry seasons, and poverty.

If you would like to support Never Ending Food, just click on the PayPal button below. All donations go directly towards helping to spread Permaculture solutions throughout Malawi. Every little bit helps, and even a little can go a long way!