Back in 2007, when we bought the land for Karthi, it looked like this...
There were coconut trees that looked tired, a few jack fruit trees and a jungle jack that towered above everything else. There was little ground cover, and what little there was was mostly the thorny touch-me-nots. The plot, open from both sides was the grazing ground of local livestock which ate up any grass and left the thorns. Since the owner was away and didn't bother to fertilize or otherwise take care of the coconut trees, the coconuts were taken by anyone around and any dry thing that fell was taken away for firewood.
After we leveled just enough space to build Karthi, we faced a lot of trouble with soil erosion, lack of nutrients in the soil to support plants and all-pervasive touch-me-nots which tore at our feet and ankles if we dared walk anywhere other than the front yard.
Neither DH nor I were any good with combating any of these problems. Back at my home, my gardening experience was limited to sticking anything into fertile soil and have it grow and be fruitful. DH hadn't even done that. So we had to read, ask for advice and simply blunder our way through fixing things.
Here are the things we have done to combat these problems:
1. Terracing: One of the most efficacious things we did in our upper yard was to dig rainwater ditches. We had come across rainwater-harvesting ideas while building Karthi. So when we got workers to make proper coconut thadams, we asked them to dig wide ditches to hold water during the monsoons. The ditches were kind of random and made walking in our upper yard a bit difficult, but they did help with water retention and soil erosion. But eventually they naturally filled up.
After a few years, we hired an excavator for a day and did some real landscaping work on the upper yard. The whole yard was dug up, the extraneous vegetation matter was pushed deep into the soil and we made two proper terraces. This had proved very good in catching water and improving the soil's fertility.
2. Culling: Our property contained 8 jack fruit trees and a towering jungle jack tree that cut off most of the sunlight in the morning. At the beginning, we felt reluctant to cut down any tree. But finally we had to admit that all this abundance of trees, especially the luxuriant wild jack that was not even putting out fruits anymore were not contributing anything good except dry leaves.
So down came the wild jack, one old jack fruit tree that was too close to a younger one and hindering its growth and another one that again stood on the eastern border, blocking the light. This opened up the yard to plenty of sunlight. And in addition, selling the wood gave us enough money to buy a weed trimmer.
3. Giving back to the soil: Most people around us deal with weeds and natural refuse in two ways: a) Whatever is dry, they burn. b) They use spades to dig out the weeds. Both these management techniques are harmful in the long run. Burning increases pollution (as we see when large-scale burning of the refuse in Punjabi and Haryanvi fields causes smog in Delhi). When weeding using a spade, the soil loses its fertile top cover and the lack of roots encourages soil erosion.
As novices in the art of land management we were under a lot of pressure to do an annual digging up of weeds and even using an excavator every year to improve our soil. Even I reveled in doing some spadework, thinking of it as "prettying" my garden by eradicating all the weeds. But after reading books on permaculture, especially Fukuoka's works, I finally put an end to the systematic impoverishing of our already poor soil.
As much as I can, I let the dry branches and leaves rot wherever they fall. The leaves that fall in our front yard get swept and put around garden plants. It's only when the plant beds can't hold anymore that I resort to a little leaf-burning.The dry coconut leaves also get to rot in their respective thadams... If they pile up too much or stick out into our paths, I reposition them or get a bill hook and chop them up into smaller pieces.
Our weed trimmer does exemplary work in this field. I take it out for a spin and all the nutrient-rich green parts of the weeds fall back into the soil to rot and provide even more nutrients. At the same time enough of the weed survives to grow back and provide much-needed root support to the soil and prevent it from flowing away in the rain. I've decided that having a natural "lawn" looks much better than naked soil around my plants. I still root out some 'undesirable' weeds by hand, especially the thorny ones or ones that grow too tall and strong for my weed cutter. But those are appear very sporadically now and plucking them out does not harm the soil.
4. Coco peat: Oh, I could sing paeans to coco peat all day long! Our soil is predominantly clay that becomes spongy and squishy in rainy weather and iron-hard in summer. Even if I added cattle manure and bio-gas slurry to the soil, it didn't help much. On one of my jaunts to the garden shop I noticed these blocks of material and asked about them. The shop guy talked of it as a soil substitute made from coconut fiber. I certainly had lots of soil around!!! But I bought a block after reading the instructions, fascinated by how it said that the block would expand to several times its size after being soaked in water. Talk of buying things for the wrong reason!
Once my curiosity about its expanding qualities were satisfied, I experimentally added coco peat to the soil and found that whatever I planted in it grew immeasurably more luxuriantly that it did in our plains soil EVEN WITHOUT ADDING FERTILIZER. I read up more on coco peat and found that it is indeed added to clayey soil to make it porous and allow the plant roots to penetrate it better!! What a serendipitous discovery!
I hope these tips help anyone starting out in land management on their own. Currently I have a new adversary. I don't know what it is called, but it is a wild climber of the legume variety that is rapidly taking over yards everywhere, even destroying forests. Its lavender flowers beguiled me for a while but then I saw its truly heinous propensity of choking even sturdy and well-established plants. THAT is one weed that needs to be uprooted, even more so than the bloodthirsty touch-me-not.
So, on with my trusty gardening gloves! See you later!!!