Last month I got a taste of just how hard basic organic weed control — hand pulling — can get. I’ll never complain about weeding the courtyard at home again. Not after the three sweatiest and slowest hours of weeding I have ever put in, working in mid- thirties temperature and high nineties humidity conditions.
But what a delightful place to do it. Wongsanit Ashram is 80 km north of Bangkok. An alternative adult education centre, it is set in 15 acres of organic grounds. Banana and coconut palms, and a variety of other fruit trees, encircle large vegetable patches. Paths of tiny red or larger brown bricks wind between the dining hall, the meditation hall and classroom, the visitor accommodation dormitories and huts, the library, and the three story office, which is set in a small lake and reached by a wooden causeway. Little bridges cross a crescent-shaped lily pond, studded with purple water lilies. At night fireflies flicker across the pond.
Access to the Ashram starts on the roadside where one takes a narrow path between plants in planter bags — this is just one of the dozens of little nurseries that line both sides of a five kilometre stretch of road. I have never seen anything like it — it is plant-lovers’ heaven. One can buy everything from a bonsai bougainvillaea to an outrageously cheap orchid (three flowering plants for $5:50!) The nursery path ends at a landing dock. Here one pulls on a rope to bring a raft across the canal (where a bare patch of water has been cleared from tall reeds and rampant water hyacinths) and pulls on it again to cross to the Ashram on the other side, hiding among tall bamboos and other greenery.
I was given a tour of the vegetable gardens by the gardeners and an interpreter. Everything was new to me — the soil, the tools, and most of the plants. The main tool used for preparing beds, digging holes for trees and making edges is a large and heavy hoe, not a spade. It cuts through weeds and grass and into the reddish, heavy soil much more easily than a spade. Among the veges being grown I recognised beans (but they were growing on tall vines and were at least 40 cm long), lettuces (with very long leaves and strong white ribs) and cucumbers (like the ‘Lebanese’ ones that are starting to appear in NZ). Tomato and aubergine plants were just going in — strange to think that they get planted in what the Thais regard as ‘winter’. Basil was also just coming through — this was a Thai variety that they call hairy basil. Daikon-style radishes were also being grown. Everything else — most of what I ate at the Ashram and enjoyed very much — was unfamiliar. I did get to learn about and like eating morning glory, which as the name suggests is a twining vine, but one eats the leaves and stems, not the flowers.
The head gardener proudly showed us her large drums of fertiliser mixtures — most of them extremely odiferous and one producing very nutritious looking maggots. The water hyacinth pulled from the canal was also rotting down in no doubt useful but also rather smelly heaps. With so much space the gardeners could also rotate crops and leave ground fallow to retain soil and fertility. I envied them their regular water supply too — I was there at the end of the rainy season and a good soaking downpour could be guaranteed most afternoons. It would usually be accompanied with some of the best displays of thunder and lightening I have ever had the pleasure to sit on a sheltered balcony and witness - entertainment with the irrigation!
At the Ashram they raise all their own plants, and grow enough to feed around twenty people who live there from the gardens, plus the students who come for courses, and lucky friends and colleagues in Bangkok. (We never left the Ashram for town without at least half a dozen bags full of veges.) I came home full of respect for the stamina of Thai gardeners, and fired with enthusiasm for learning more about what they grow.