Humble Lessons from Landslides & Everything Permaculture is Not

The earth moves in miraculous, frustrating ways.

The earth moves in miraculous, frustrating ways.

Last week I wrote about African proverbs, garden wisdom and the power of patience and confidence against what we can’t predict in life, including the rain and sun and whatever other element Mother Nature casts our way (or doesn’t).

Oddly enough, all of the above manifested with extremity since I wrote that last, almost prophetic, post.

Well, first came the rain. Lots and lots and lots of rain.

Equatorial rainfall is idyllic for romantics. For farmers it’s neither friend, nor foe. It’s something to be respected – praised when it ushers up seedlings from the ground, and feared when it’s relentlessly water bombing and drowning your plants.

I’ve fallen asleep fearing for my garden in the past week – so you can imagine what magnitude of rain we’ve been receiving in Kabale. (“It’s something like your Canadian snow!” a colleague said to me with a laugh).  Something like that.

Anyways, on Monday morning we woke up to witness five of our newly built and planted raised beds slanted, staring down a mountainside. It was as though some ravenous beast chewed off a huge chuck of our garden.

This wasn’t erosion. This was a landslide.

The avalanche of soil had entirely engulfed our tiny green fava beans and soybeans. I swear I could hear their muffled shouting from below, “Help! Help! Get us outta here!”

I stood at the top of the garden, gazing down with raging fear. There was a long crack that ran through the remaining soil on top, it was the next slice of earth to free-fall down. Certainly, with the next bout of rain (which I cynically predicted would arrive in 30 minutes’ time) would lick away the next layer and quite possibly take down our beds, too.

It was an epic disaster. It was also an epic failure – our epic failure, that is.

Viva Cuba!

Viva Cuba!

I had experienced this before in the tropics. Flashback to 2011: I was one of twelve Canadian women taking a permaculture course in Cuba. We had been tasked to work with Edinson, a Cuban farmer and permacultore, to transform his site into an abundant permaculture system. We came up with a beautiful design. The huge piece of paper on which we mapped out, coloured and labeled all our ideas was more like a work of art. We were all eager to get our hands dirty and make the design on paper a reality.

For the first week, we set about clearing weeds and making space for a raised-bed garden that would take shape in the form of the Cuban flag. We used a scavenged tire to form the star, and massive chunks of rock and concrete (waste product from the old plaza that was being torn down and built back up by the Cuban government) to form the three waving stripes. We filled the pathways with wood shavings and rice husks from neighbourhood industries. I was so pleased, even proud to bring our waving Cuban flag to life.

Our proud "masterpiece" - a waving Cuban flag raised bed.

Our proud “masterpiece” – a waving Cuban flag raised bed.

Indeed, it fulfilled our permaculture promises like creating efficiency and relying on waste materials. We stood back, admired the work and took photographs.

And then it started to rain. We took cover under the verandah of Edinson and his wife Loida’s home. And then it started to pour. The skies opened up and the rain came down fast and hard. One of the women craned her neck towards the direction of our flag.

“Oh my god! It’s washing it all away!”

Water catapulted and surged over the edge of the incline, swallowing up our waving flag, proud as a Cuban, with total indifference.

When the rain ceased, we nervously approached our work. Or what was left over of it, anyways. It wasn’t pretty. Someone was crying (or was that me?) I can’t recall.

Anyways, in all of our eager designing, we, as Canadians, had overlooked one very important thing. Don’t mess with the rain of the tropics. Somehow, in all our permie excitement, we hadn’t thought twice about the placement of our raised bed – near a steep embankment – and as it turned out, on the lowest point of the property. Oops.

The following days we set about digging ditches, swales, whatever – it felt more like digging the trenches in WWII. We were now foot soldiers not permaculturalists. We were responding to the water crisis by redirecting the current, altogether.

“This is everything permaculture is not,” spat out my friend Vanessa as we shoveled the heavy clay earth onto our woman-made embankment that would, hopefully, come to protect the now ‘less-than-romantic’ flag.

Poor planning requires a lot of woman-power!

Poor planning requires a lot of woman-power!

It wasn’t permaculture. It was working against Mother Nature. And that required a lot of sweaty womanpower under that hot, unforgiving Cuban sun.

But that story certainly wasn’t on my mind when Atayo and I planted a few weeks ago. I was just eager for germination of all the amazing seeds I had collected on my travels in the Americas, including (ironically) from Cuba.

So we built our raised bed, almost in a hurry, and without much thought of where and why and how it would be affected by the coming rainy season. Oops, again.

If we had been thinking as permaculturalists we would have observed the steep side of the garden and planted, instead, fruit trees with fibrous roots – to hold the soils against the coming rains, to prevent erosion, and even worse, to prevent the landslide we had created.

Our giant garden "Band Aid" - ugly as heck!

Our giant garden “Band Aid” – ugly as heck!

So what did Atayo and I do? We built one giant Band-Aid for our garden.

Atayo constructed a huge support system, a garden crutch of sorts to hold the rest of the earth up (using waste materials, I might add…can we get some meager points for that?)

It’s ugly as heck, a real eyesore and full evidence of our naivety.

But we did respond in the best way we knew how in a calm (or a false calm, anyways) and efficient way. Like in Cuba, we dug ditches to divert the rushing water into a heavily vegetated area where little damage would be done.

I planted climbing beans underneath the thick poles of the massive garden crutch that was now holding up our garden and would soon be supporting the bean plants. (Stacking functions, anyone?)

And then we planted fruit trees (better late than never) along the edge of our worse for wear, recovering garden.

Now I’ve finally stopped holding my breath.

Save the raised beds!

Save the raised beds!

I’m looking forward to the harvest of those radishes, beets, carrots and greens that we’ve planted in the raised-beds. But after the harvest, rest assured, we’ll uproot those raised-beds and find a more ideal home for them within other more suitable sections of our garden.

And then we’ll populate that broken garden with trees – tree-tomato (a sturdy passionate fruit variety), avocado and plantains – and build a food forest that will hold against the rains and ensure an abundant harvest for years to come.

I swear to the permaculture gods that I won’t let history repeat itself again.

Three times a charm, right?


At least lettuce loves the rain.

At least lettuce loves the rain.

Comments are closed