My Bali Permaculture Course

Perma…what? I’d heard this many times in the past week, when telling people why I’d be abandoning the annual Singapore highlight of the year, Formula 1, to go to Bali, alone. And to be honest, the concept wasn’t that clear until a friend of mine in the green industry told me she was going to expand her knowledge on permaculture on a two-week course in Bali.  This had to be good I thought. For a smart woman like her to break up her time with work and family for two weeks, surely it would be more than digging and planting, seeding and harvesting.

And of course, a bit like when you desperately want a baby and pregnant women appear everywhere, ‘permaculture’ now popped up, also when I wasn’tI looking. I began to do some research, and the idea of replacing my computer for some soil searching and education started to grow on me.  And then, as I went on one of my repeated online green-envy searches at the Green School website, there it was again.  A 5 day-course with everything from gardening and mushroom growing to fermenting and creating home care products.
Right. I decided to click on the sign-up button to see what this permaculture was all about…with the added bonus of a break to Bali, just me. 

Arrival Day

First one to arrive at 1pm. An early flight, a bit of work in the airport before using the my already installed GoJek app for an easy transparent ride up north. After a small sleep, I wake up to an oasis, and upon entering many small lanes and palm trees, the sign appears, The Kul Kul Farm. The name sounds fun, like someone here has a sense of humour, which I think I’ll need when doing a course I feel is a little out of my depth. Yes, I grew up with vegetable gardens and composting, but what if the other participants are just here to extend their already very green fingers and all I can talk about is my hydroponic herb selection on my balcony?

A couple of hours for me to adjust before the 4 pm start, and it seems like I’ve landed in the right place. I see my name on a map of huts, and I spot that I’m sharing accommodation with Frances. Seeing the huts only minutes later I really hope Frances is nice, as we’ll be more or less spooning, well,  just a couple of feet apart.
That said, the look of the place is everything I hoped it to be. I’m welcomed with my own name tag carved in wood and I get a short tour of the facilities before I retreat to my new home the next 5 days, well, with Frances obviously.

Although close comfort, the facilies are beautiful, all carved out of bamboo and the style is rustic. For some perhaps too rustic, if you take into account that our toilets are compostable and you need to add sawdust to your poop when you’re done! Outdoor showers, 10 thoroughly explained recycling bins and solar panel for our electricity is almost to be expected in a place like this, but the detail of it still impresses me. And in all honesty, the toilets don’t bother me after my first try. In fact, it brings back memories of my days as a scout, when we had to empty the toiletbins into a pool of…well yes…let’s just say you didn’t want to jump on that lid…

First person I bump into is Marianne. Danish incidentally, but in contrast to me, she’s come all the way from our home country to do this course. The case for many in our group: Canada, Mexico, Kuwait, Germany, Austria, Colombia, India, Philippines…all have taken the trip to Bali, just for this. I wonder whether they are just curious like me, sick of being behind the computer, wanting to dig their hands into some soil…or more like…professional gardeners? Marianne says she has a garden, and sounds like she’s growing quite a bit more than my balcony herbs. But, she is also working fulltime with an insurance broker. So yes, phew.

We have a look around the rest of the farm, and the more I see, the more I feel this is the right choice, amateur or not.

“Let’s all gather in a circle”, I hear a voice say. 20 of us join on the benches by a long table making polite conversation, and now I get to meet my roomie. Frances from the Philippines is lovely, and after a brief chat, we join the circle of new global friends. Another phew, this can’t go all wrong.

“We’re going to start off with a Balinese greeting,” says Maria, co-founder of Kul Kul and our teacher. We close our eyes, take a deep breath and before I know it, I sense scented water and a sticky rice on my forehead. And as curious as it may sound, it’s a nice way to begin this course. Everyone losens up a bit, helped by the name game that follows,  that will prove a big help for the next few days and a good start for our first dinner together as the Kul Kul September seedlings.

And you do feel like a seedling when you hear the story of how it all began for Maria and Orin. Being the son of Green School founder, John Hardy, Orin has grown up with a shovel in one hand and a chicken in the other. But despite being spoon-fed love of nature, the journey has been one of much education and learning by doing, before the birth of the now 5-year-old Kul Kul Farm.  These are the two people who will be mentoring and giving away their hard-earned experience to us as our group.

What a story, what a place and what a week we have ahead of us.

DAY 1: Intro to gardening

5:30 wakeup. A rooster you might think… At first, I think it’s a phone gone wild until I realise that the curious pop-like music is coming from outside, and it’s… loud! …I trust that the initiator will look at his watch soon and stop the nonsense, but no, it goes on for 30 min., and it turns out that this is not a one-off. Apparently it’s a ritual to claim the land from Muslims who do their prayer at this time. If only it could be 5 min., like theirs.

The breakfast is beautiful, most from the farm, of course, yoghurt, eggs and colourful teas. We get invigorated by yet another circle game and then it’s time to find out why we’re here and get an insight to permaculture as a concept.

The bamboo-made classroom furnished with beanbags and bamboo chairs is the perfect setting for our introductory talk from Orin. A talk that takes us from the global problems we’re facing to how we can to create small eco-systems that will be part of the repair. An interactive game in teams encourages us to take a good think about how these systems can be implemented and get us out of our comfort zone of just being a listener.

The talk comes to life when Maria takes us around the grounds, from seeing the making of coconut sugar to the style home of Peanut the pig. The site is impressive and we’re going to dig into all the corners as the days go by.

It’s lunchtime, and Mexico is on the table. A vegetarian feast of tortillas and everything yummy you can imagine to go with it. I briefly speak to my husband – on his way to the formula 1 in the current haze – and 24 hours into my journey, I couldn’t feel more distant from Singapore. A car-race in the city with polluted skies, is quite the contrast to my veggie feast in a tropical orchard.

The afternoon is split into 2 sections: introduction to gardening and composting. And I feel relieved to see and hear that although my gardening experience is limited, I’m not the only one who asks the simple questions. Orin introduces us to worms, seedlings, seedsaving, papaya planting and blockseeding, and then, it’s our turn. For Claire, Gen and I, papaya planting is on the menu. We mix the soil and compost with water, then we fill up our bags with the mix, dig a small hole and add a handfull of papaya seeds. Done. The nursery is bussing with activities and everyone is engaged in their individual projects in teams. When we leave, I look back and see what amazing results we manage to achieve in just 1 hour. Just think what we can achieve after 5 days here.

Short break and now ready to get our hands real dirty. The comosting area shows off a range of composting levels and while learning the importance of mixing nitrogen and carbondioxide to get the perfect mix, we start layering our own bin, a bit like a lasanga. Greens, brown leafs, foodwaste, manure (animal poo), constant watering and then we start again. Our little miracle will take about a month to become nutritents for future seedlings, with a little help from mr. fork. We also see how this is used, when we turn a 3 week-old composting pile – as a way of speeding up the process. I’m intrigued with the composting and although I won’t be doing it this scale while in Singapore, I’m more determined than ever to get that balcony compost off its feet!

It’s 5pm and I feel loaded and exhausted with information. The shower does me good and once again, the beautiful dinner leaves us content for an evening in the beanbags, being educated and entertained by the documentary, Our Little Big Farm. 10 years of hardship before these guys get it right… I can tell that our future farmers in the room look a little dissillusioned. Perhaps my hydroponic system isn’t that bad after all.

DAY 2 – Permaculture in the home

My earplugs are firmly inserted, and the 5:30 disco-tunes only appears in what feels like a dream. 6:30 I wake up naturally to the tropical sounds of Kul Kul Farm and already excited that the day will start with a sun salutation and a yoga session with Maria. Nothing beats doing yoga in Bali. Something so right about working your limbs in a bamboo hut, looking out on lush greenery and listening to the beautiful sounds. And for me, knowing that there won’t be a child (or 3) disturbing you in the middle of your downward dog, is probably the biggest treat of them all. 

Invigorated we sit down to  fresh pancakes and frittata and today is the one day out of the 5 I probably look forward to the most. So, why not the gardening days you might ask? Don’t get me wrong, I do love that part, but living in Singapore, incorporating the tools we’re learning is hard when all you have is a balcony. I will, of course, do what I can to remember all for when I one day will have a garden again, but today, fermenting, mushroom growing and making natural home products is something I can take back with me, and develop on straight away. 

Pauline is our guest teacher, an alumni Green School mum who knows all about fermentation, and we have a busy schedule ahead of us in the next 2,5 hours:

Sauerkraut/Green Kraut, Water Kefir, Sweet Pickles of Beet and Daikon, Tapai, Fermented Hot Sauce, Fermented Spray Cleaning product and Kale Chips!

A lot of chopping, soaking, adding, folding and storing in jars, but as you can imagine, it would be somewhat extensive to go into all the details and recipes. However, I promise that I will be posting more on this topic in the near future incl. how to do it!

A rainbow of colours, as a result, all sooo good for your gut, and the best part, I learned that fermenting is actually a lot easier than I thought. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Growing our own mushrooms was next on the agenda. … a process that might be slightly tricky to convert directly to our condo habitation, but again, I was surprised to learn how relatively little effort can give us an abundance of mushrooms.

In groups of four, we spread out 3 bigs bags of rice straw and mixed it with sawdust, for then to soak the bags in hot water with added hydrated lime for 2 hours. After a quick dry, we sterilise the table and our own hands, open up the bags, spread out the straws again, this time to add Tiram Putih and for our group, coffee grounds. We then disinfect a series of buckets with holes in them, before adding the straws to these and smaller bamboo containers. Using our fists to make sure it is compressed, we fill up enough containers to feed mushrooms to all of Green School for a week I’m sure. Claire and I cheekily ask if we can bring one of our coffee-scented bamboo containers back home, so we can personally see the growth over the next 3 weeks. Let’s just hope Changi Airport don’t find them too interesting…

Speaking of Green School, as today’s lunch break was longer than usual, I grab the opportunity to finally see the school I’ve been web-surfing for so long. As Claire is a school mum, she can show me without having to book a tour and being a Sunday, we were able to see all parts of the school, incl. classrooms. What a trip, but that’s a different article. Seriously though, my jaw dropped for the entire hour we spent there.

Our afternoon session was super fun. Beautifully laid out in the ‘classroom’ were our kits to make hydrosols, essential oils and a face balm. Maria didn’t just teach us about the different plants and their benefits, but showed us how to use oils in a distillation process that would give amazing flowers and spices a new life. We were taught 2 ways to distil a hydrosol (the condensate result of steam distillation of plants or flowers produced when creating a natural essential oil) and how adding this to beeswax and essential oils would result in a face and lip balm with lavender and ylang-ylang. The distillation wasn’t the easiest, but the fact that you can create a beauty product like this in your own kitchen with such few means really threw me.

A short break before a mid-way group chat on what we’d learned so far and would like to know more of. Again, a beautiful dinner by the Kul Kul staff and more movie night with two short docs. I’m loving going to bed early with no distractions, and tomorrow we’re back in the garden!

DAY 3 – Gardening

This morning is a different one to the others. It entails a big passion of mine as well as a big pet hate of mine (one I didn’t know was coming). At our 6:45 meet up by the entrance we’re equipped with spears and tongs and we’re on a mission. No stops allowed, keep straight and steady pace until we reach our target! However,  many of us can’t resist stopping, it’s just too tempting to fall in and cheat a little beforehand… Yes, there’s just too much plastic on that road, and it’s gotta go! Our mission this morning is indeed to do a clean-up by the river, where a local resident has poured his trash. Some bags are half full by the time we reach the river, but what a sight that meets us. The good thing about being a group this size is that 20 people in one spot does the job pretty quick. We are happy to see the place is cleaned up in 15-20 min. and although you can ask yourself if a clean-up like this really helps, I will stick to what Orin said: leading by example really is all you can do with the present situation in Bali, where disposal of trash is also very difficult. 

Personally, I was happy with our efforts and before and after pics, and was looking forward to a nice stroll in the rice fields…until I saw this.

I wasn’t always like this, but having kids or getting older, has made me scared of anything wobbly over anything deep. I was so close to bailing out, but the rice fields were calling on this beautiful morning, and I was so glad that I trembled across and managed to do another tick in the victory book that morning.

It was defintely time for a reward and yet again our chef, Ibu Butu, had created magic in the kitchen. To me, being in Bali is definitely about the Indonesian cuisine, but just as much their amazing ability to make colourful, healthy and tasty breakfasts.

And boy, did we need that wholesome meal. We had a big day ahead of us in the garden.

Orin began our gardening session, by giving us an intro on how to farm bio-intensive (just planting one type of crop in one bed) as well as an outline to agroforestry (growing several crops in one bed). I’ve heard these terms before, but never really understood the difference, and as with everything, putting theory into practice just gives it a whole new dimension.

I’ll admit that the gardening day wasn’t the one I’d been looking forward to the most in our 5-day schedule, mostly because I won’t be able to apply it straight away. But I’ll admit, that although sizzling hot, transforming a dry area of old crop into a living feast of vegetables was incredible to be a part of. And because you can plant several different types of plants in one bed with agroforestry and companion planting, it makes it al the more fun. If only it was my own garden that would be sprouting eggplant, chilli, turmeric, cassava and bok choy in the near future! Just have a look at what we managed to do in just over half a day!

After planting cleaning out, preparing and planting 5 beds in the agroforestry area and 3 in the bio-intensive area, we were all toast. Dinner was again well received, and so was the chocolate vegan ice lollies, Aisha and I decided we definitely deserved after a tough day in the field.

The bamboo class is welcomed though. A little less sweat, a little less dirt and a little more energy. And add yoga to that morning, I can’t wait for day 4.

DAY 4: Bamboo Work

The days at the farm are designed brilliantly. We alternative with gardening and more crafty activities which works super well. And the yoga, this morning, with an external teacher, amazing Amber Ria. She makes her own mindblowing music and plays it in the session, and doing this workout just after sunrise, in a beautiful bamboo hut in the tropics, you’ve just got to tell yourself, Bali life, we should meet more often!

So today, we could choose between three bamboo activities, basket weaving, making a table or a bamboo dragonfly. Of course, my ambition was to do all three (three kids remember), but 3 hours into the basket weaving there was no chance of that…!

Patient, sooo patient Letisha from Bamboo U, explains to me numerous times how to work the patterns in triangles and hourglass shapes, but seriously, do you have any idea how hard it is to make baskets? Let’s just say that no basket, however small, will ever go in the bin.  I ‘ve gained such a respect for any person doing the smallest little weaving. It looks simple, but letme tell you, it’s not. I did regret not going for the table option, until I saw the table-people at lunch. Where we were mentally exhausted, they were physically drained and and sore thumbed! I guess another thing that looked fairly easy, was tougher than expected.

I decided I needed easy and a break from the weaving so went dragon flying in the hope that this would be managable. I mean, surely I could cut out 5 pieces of wood and stick it on a bamboo stick?

But of course, there’s a certain technique to cutting out bamboo that isn’t ‘just like that’. That said, when you get the hang of it, it’s probably the easiest material I’ve ever cut through, and if you’re thorough you can create figures like these, without the use of any sandpaper or other help. I did get a little help, getting the weight of the dragonfly is vital in getting it to balance on the stick and needs some skill. But I love the result, and I can’t wait to give it to my youngest.

As I returned to finish my basket, an angel must have heard my  crying whispers, as suddenly, 3 rings magically appeared on my basket, so all I had left to do was to cut off the leftover sticks. Another phew and thank you angel Letisha, now my daugther gets a present too!

The atmosphere was chilled in the late afternoon, people carrying on with their projects, circle time to evaluate, a trip for some to the green school before dinner and then the dreaded – talent show! All of us had been asked to share, a talent, experience or a slideshow of any kind, that we were passionate about.

It was fun though, and most of all, enlightening and incredible to get know our group better. People were displaying pictures of their gardens, telling about their projects and showing their talents. And just as you thought you the people in our group well, a new side of them unveiled at this show. Mimi and Saoud’s contribution was to take us through the ‘tunnel of love’.  We all had to walk down a ‘tunnel’ of people with our eyes closed, while everyone would whisper 1-2 words of appraisal in each other’s ears. A very touching experience, I only wish I could remember al the amazing words that were said, so to take it in properly.

Our night finished with the return of amazing Amber Ria, singing 3 beautiful songs for us. A time to reflect over the past intense days, when a permaculture course becomes a lot more than gardening, weaving, preserving and distilling. Our limits have been pushed, our minds have been broadened, and our senses have been awakened. One last day to go, with the final project, the final delivery and the final goodbye.

DAY 5: Designing permaculture into your life

A lie-in today and enjoying every bite of our last beautiful Kul Kul breakfast. Today our teachings and knowledge were coming to the test. In groups, we were going to create a permaculture design for either a restaurant, a homestead, community space or a farm to table scenario. All were given a map of the same plot of land, an actual plot next to the Kul Kul Farm, and with pens, paper and other craft material, we have 2-3 hours to design our space. 

Saud, Connor, Clair and I were given the ‘homestead’ assignment.  A project, where we didn’t need to make a profit but were self-sufficient. It was therefore important that our space had the family in focus, while still giving back and sharing with the community. We looked at water and waste management, incorporated aquaponics with a family pool, a kids space with tree-top walks, a chill-out space for parents and a community area in the front, with 4 options to swap and give back to the community. It wasn’t much time to come up with a full-scale plan, but we got there in the end, just in time for lunch.

And our last lunch at Kul Kul was not like the others. Beautifully laid out in the tunnel of bamboo, we had a stunning last meal without chairs, cutlery or any kind of waste. In fact, after finishing the meal, you’d be albe to lift the entire ‘table’ and add it to the compost. A lovely way to remember the food, the setting and the principles of zero waste at the farm.

Now, it was presentation time. With 10 minutes for each group, amazing ideas, plans and creative solutions unveiled on the maps. Some had created a slideshow with a company logo, others a beautiful drawing so detailed, that you felt as if you were walking in the garden and experiencing it in real life. Our group were the last to present, with 1-minute feedbacks for all from Orin.

All went well, that was it, the course was done. The only thing left now, was the last circle time.

Laid out on the grass, were 40 cards, where you had to choose one that appealed to you and read it out loud. We heard beautiful messages, from beautiful people, all with an amazing story and plans to create a better future, for all of us.

Group photo, group hug, pack-up and goodbye. Richer in knowledge, experience and friendships. This was it. All were we going our separate ways, somewhere else in Bali or back to Europe, Canada or Kuwait.

Thank you for the experience Orin and Maria, I can’t recommend this course highly enough.

The Kul Kul Farm, Bali


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