Like most soils in Yangon, our soil is clayey, similar to the type you would normally find in a paddy field. The land was previously used to grow rice, amaranth, and mustard so we knew it was arable. But when we first started farming the land, we discovered that some areas produced large, vibrant green vegetables while others yielded scraggly plants with few leaves. There was an obvious nutrient imbalance on the farm.
We have been working to improve our soil health since, adding compost, organic litter, and animal manures to promote microbial activity in the soil. Our mission is to mimic the way nature cycles nutrients through the ecosystem.
Getting the soil ready
Immediately after moving in, we selected two areas and tilled the top 6 inches of soil using hoes to create vegetable beds. We did it during the rainy season so the soil was soft and clumped easily. We overturned the weeds and built raised beds about 5 inches in height, with troughs between them.
If we had more time, we would have gone a step further and broadcasted sunn hemp and white clover seeds over the raised beds. These plants are known to fix nitrogen and other nutrients into the soil and “naturally till” the soil further with their deep-penetrating roots. Waiting for them to mature would have taken us another 6 to 8 months so we opted to go for a more traditional Myanmar approach instead.
After creating the raised beds, we mixed in cow manure and watered the beds for about four days to help it dissolve into the soil. The vegetable beds were ready for growing.
As sustainable farmers, soil health is our utmost priority, and the existence of bacteria, earthworms, and microbes is very important for us because they help break down organic waste and release nutrients for the plants. We have noticed plenty of earthworms in the soil, which is a great sign that the soil has a balanced pH of around 5.5-6.5 and a high biodiversity content.
We try to maintain this complex soil ecosystem by keeping the soil continuously moist and covered with compost, rice husks, and straw mulch so the microorganisms are protected from the sun and have food to live on. In areas where we have not done this, we have seen a marked difference. Basil, radish, eggplants, and other vegetables grown in exposed, unfertilised soils grow short and produce seeds early, indicating a rush to reproduce prematurely to ensure the survival of future generations.
Growing healthy vegetables
Our compost pile made from cow manure, dried straw, and green vegetable waste. © Gazunmyo
To ensure our vegetables grow full of flavour, we follow a simple process that gives them all the nutrients they need from natural sources: first, we mulch the beds with dried straw and rice husks, then we broadcast the seeds or transplant seedlings from our nursery to the vegetable beds, and we follow this up with the addition of a 1-inch topping of a chicken manure and coconut coir mix over the seeds and seedlings. We water everyday for about two weeks until the seeds germinate and the seedlings grow taller and then we add a 1-inch layer of compost for a food boost.
This simple recipe has been the key to our success growing large, flavoursome leafy greens. We source the chicken manure, straw, and rice husks from around our farm and make the compost ourselves.
Making compost is very easy and every farmer should do so instead of buying synthetic chemical fertilisers. We just layered cow manure, dried rice stalks, and wet vegetable waste. It took us about 2 months for it to turn into compost, which we applied to our crops.
We do our best not to disturb the soil ecosystem to keep the soil microorganisms protected and happy.