Before I begin let me say that this is not a tropical garden tutorial, otherwise I would have had to post in episodes which I didn’t want to do. If there are any aspects you would like more detail on please comment and I will do my best to explain.
I started with a triangular piece of land, about 350 square metres, that had six overgrown and fruitless Lam Yai trees, nine clumps of untidy bamboo which was starting to get out of hand and plenty of rubbish, not just organic either. The trees blocked out virtually all the light so there was no grass or vegetation, except on the edges where there was some lemongrass and scattered unkempt herbs like kapow. At one end of the land, there was an old wooden structure with a cement tile roof, once a tiny house, now used as a garden shed. The main structure was solid, consisting of 6 square wood posts which I thought, with a bit of imagination and elbow grease, I could make into a very acceptable sala.
Planning the tropical garden
My tropical garden idea was pretty clear. I cut the trees and bamboo drastically and then cleared the ground so I could have an open view of the site. Let the dog see the rabbit sort of scenario. In fact, I decided to remove two of the Lam Yai trees completely to make more space. That job, using two men plus me (half a man) took four days. Labour is cheap here, especially mine, so that cost was only about 3000 baht ($100). I kept some of the wood cut from the trees for landscaping and gave the rest away so I had no transport costs but we did have a couple of big bonfires which is not good environmental practice but at least was all organic stuff. The garden now looked twice the size but some good topsoil was needed. One truckload did the job and with a bit of help, I spread it in two days.
The dry season is long in Chiang Mai, approximately five to six months from November to April, so watering the garden is critical during this time. Irrigation systems do not have to be expensive, just functional and turning a tap on is not too demanding. So I bought 30 metres of 3cm black flexible piping, five cheap sprinklers (55baht each), some blue PVC, stop taps and connectors and built a simple five station manual system. Once we had sorted out a couple of leaks it was fine and has worked perfectly since.
Landscaping the tropical garden
I wanted a lot of natural local rocks to combine with the old rough tree branches for landscaping. I asked a neighbour who had a lot of rugged land on the hillside nearby if we could collect some. Many trips and many rocks later I had between 200 and 300 rocks for free although the chiropractor’s fees knocked a hole in the free bit! Laying out the beds was not difficult, just hard graft and things were starting to take shape. Still, a long way to go, though. I knew the grass would be the most expensive item and that would be one of the last things to tackle.
Building the Sala
Next on the agenda was to clear out and dismantle the old shed. Knocking the nailed wood panels off the walls was fairly easy but recycling them to make ceiling panels took nearly a week. I ripped out the many years of ‘Heath Robinson’ wiring that now looked more like a bowl of spaghetti which, amazingly, had failed to electrocute anyone. We then laid 10 sm’s of concrete to make the floor area up to 60 sm’s and the next job was to get hold of and cure a fair amount of bamboo to complete the sala.
Chiang Mai is home to so much bamboo that it really isn’t difficult to get the raw material very cheap or even free if you are prepared to go to the jungle and cut it yourself. Fortunately, I had some very good and willing helpers so a few trips and days spent cutting and trimming and I had all the bamboo I needed for next to nothing. Curing with boric acid takes a couple of weeks but is necessary to prevent the flys eating it away and leaving you with a pile of dust.
I wanted to build some bamboo fencing to keep the dogs out and to make a bamboo daybed. Working with bamboo was a new experience which I found very interesting. It is such a strong, flexible and beautiful natural product. Rural communities use it in its raw state in their homes and farms as it is so easy and quick to grow (the fastest growing plant in the world, I believe) they don’t worry too much about preserving it. So now I had all the raw materials, except grass and plants, and it was a question of working to put it all together. From now on it was me and Cassid.
Christmas Day – Laying turf
By 20th December 2012, we had built the sala, installed the irrigation, built the beds, transplanted some shrubs plus a few new palms, shaped the old bamboo clumps into bushes and prepared the ground for the grass. The Malaysia grass turfs costing 6000 baht ($200) arrived on Christmas Eve and on Christmas day we laid them all. I watered the grass continually for a week and it took so well I was able to do the first cut in 8 days. We then had a huge ‘garden warming’ party where all the guests brought plants and shrubs for our budding tropical garden. In a period of six months, the area was transformed from a dingy, overgrown, mosquito-ridden place into a tranquil and relaxing tropical garden haven. $400 and some hard graft were well worth it.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in February 2014 and was updated in November 2017.