Project Updates Stories of Soil

Soil Chromatography in Chiang Mai

Besides the fun of trying something new, and photo ops, we found a very clear indication of how fun soil chromatography can be:

Magic the black cat sniffing soil, Dec 2018.

Although we only had 5 good chromatograms out of the set of soil samples we tested, this process revealed several things:

  • fun
  • accessibility
  • colours!
  • ease of participation at different steps of the process
  • darkroom construction does take some work
  • soil qualities beyond the quantitative, chemical analysis
Our 5 samples at the end of the 2 days of work.

In this short article, we’ll take you through the steps (which we’ve documented in full here) so you can do your own soil chromatogram activity!

We give thanks to Europe-based HUMUSapiens, for their open wiki and inspiration across the world.

First of all, why make chromatograms with soil?

Soil chromatography was developed and introduced by Lilo Kolisko (visit the webpage! Highly recommended for a view to a woman scientist’s life and thinking in the early 20th Century), a woman scientist – who studied with the biodynamic thinker, Rudolf Steiner, in Germany.

Since then, it’s been played with as a mixture of artscience: by hackers, experimenting with non-traditional science, and by scientists and foresters: check out this resource from the University of Western Australia.

The chromatogram’s main strengths are what it doesn’t do: capture and quantify soil’s chemical properties into a number. What it does do, is transfer its properties onto a medium (filter paper) that allows the human eye to witness direct patterns emerging from the flow of chemical and other properties within the soil’s living system. In this, biodynamics considers qualities within each living organism. There are other words for this in other indigenous wisdoms (of which biodynamics is … really not). (In Singapore, we may hear of chi, prana, or semangat–different ways of looking at energy, within systems of holistic health and embodied vitality. The performance artist nor has a beautiful piece titled “Semangat in practice”, in Making Kin, published 2022 by Ethos Books.)

Left: A4, soil not dried, no plant matter. Right: A3: dried, no plant matter.

Chromatograms allow a human eye not accustomed to working with soil’s ecology, to see how soil is living and complex, to be understood qualitatively and viscerally and not only quantitatively or morphologically, as a vibrant, living matter.

Although we did want to understand how soils in two locations appeared, part of the process (which we didn’t do perfectly!) was also to see how this transformation of qualities occurs.

In the lab, chemical analysis these days is measured to a chemical standard; from there, a list of quantities of which chemical compound is generated.

When well done, chromatograms reveal not only proportions, but also vitality: jagged edges and sharp notches. Ours are just beginners in training. HUMUSapiens in Europe has much more on soil with their soil camps.

Left: B1: not dried, without plant matter; Right: B3: dried soil without plant matter.

Although these resources exist, it was hard finding a simple workflow for non-hacker culture participants. So we made one ourselves (after our series of mini-success (chromatogram blooms!) and mini-missteps (questionable labelling, and AgNO3 blots on Huiying’s hands).

Made by the soil team, Dec 2018

Select soil samples

First, find the spots you’d like. You can select any spots! Or consider comparing spots based on shade/non-shade, where you guess some soil may be doing better because you’ve added some compost, etc.

Collecting samples can be done by different hands.

Prepare soil solution

  • Mix soil with 5 times the amount of base solution. Some guides recommend 0.1% sodium nitrate solution. We used baking soda which is more easily available, adding in molar excess (until no more baking soda dissolves.)
  • Leave soil solution to sit for at least 12 hours (Zuazagoitia & Villarroel, 2015)
Guides said you had to dry the soil first… but we wanted to see what undried soil would show up as. So we compared 2 sites, with 2 conditions: dried and non-dried. The additional bottles are just additional controls – we didn’t go on to develop chromatograms for them (we must have run out of either filter paper or time).

Prepare darkroom

  • Includes Red lights, tweezers, weighing scale, glass bottle for silver nitrate solution (1 per filter paper is best, or 5 if you are doing 10 sets for e.g.), filter paper fitted with wick, box for drying filter paper that ensures no light enters during the day

Prepare filter paper with silver nitrate solution 

NOT the right way to measure out AgNo3 (should be done in a darkroom!)
  • This has to be done in a darkroom, with gloves. Always use gloves while handling silver nitrate solution. As a solution, silver nitrate stains hands permanently. While it eventually comes off as your skin renews itself and sheds, it forms jet black stains as silver oxidises under sunlight. It can be removed with strong toxic chemicals (e.g. some form of cyanide) but we recommend leaving it be until it comes off.
  • Measure out enough silver nitrate to make a 0.5% silver nitrate solution. E.g. 0.5g to 100ml of water.
  • [Optional] Mark out filter paper to be prepared in order of preparation. E.g. FP 1, FP 2, FP 3 or any other coding system that suits you. This is an additional step to track the consistency of the silver nitrate application.
  • Place the filter paper with wick to the solution. Let the silver nitrate seep into paper a radius of 4cm. This takes approx. 20 minutes per filter paper, depending on the quality of the paper. 
  • Let filter paper dry overnight (still in darkroom conditions) or 2 nights during rainy season.

Wick soil solution onto prepared filter paper

  • On prepared, now dry filter paper, add a new wick.
  • Add 1 filter paper per soil solution. Each filter paper takes approx 15-20 minutes.
  • [Observation step] Observe the changes on the paper as the solution is wicked up: does solution begin showing up? How fast does the solution take to be wicked up? Do this if your paper quality is not consistent or to catch light leakage in the darkroom.

So that’s it! We plan to do this again, sometime, in a different site…. when that will be will appear 🙂

Read/download the full step by step instructions here:

Written by Huiying.

Also as a testament to how qualitative and aesthetic understandings of ecology are seen today: you might like this passage from The Moon and Madness, written in 2011. Today we’ve moved a bit further on from the idea that moon cycles are completely separated from our human and ecological cycles of life and death. 🙂


Emergency pedagogy in Palawan

We have shared news of Walter Friedrich Hahn’s work in Palawan Island, the Philippines in an earlier post.

In the past months, Palawan too has been caught in the Super Typhoon Rai, or Typhoon Odette as it is known locally. News reports that emerged in December across the New York Times, Reuters, and other news outlets have trickled away as media outlets switched attention to other world news.

NY Times’ report of Super Typhoon Rai to hit the Philippines with first landfall on 16 December. The storm would proceed in waves for the second half of December.

The United Nations issues a video conference around areas affected by Typhoon Odette, as it’s known in the Philippines.

Walter has issued a few newsletter updates in the intervening months, describing the work of the farm in providing Emergency Pedagogy to affected communities.

Within the framework of, or on the fringes of, emergency pedagogy, there are always opportunities to remedy the situation where someone has been overlooked or neglected in the aid measures of the government or other organizations. Overall, the aid measures are well organized on the basis of the political communities, but it still happens more often than you might think that someone needs extra donations, the further you get into the mountains and off the roads, the more so. Or in the case of the community of Bucana, which was completely drenched in mud and whose residents endured the fear of death because of the opening of the dam: this community is not in the recognized damage area of the typhoon and therefore no help can be expected from the government, the church or international agencies . Here we are on our own with our resources, all measures carried out are financed by us alone. In other places it could be a food subsidy, repairing a roof or helping to rebuild an entire house. Whenever possible, we make sure that the means for self-help are given and, in the best case, that know-how can be imparted through working together.

from the newsletter

Business-as-usual disaster relief

Disaster relief is often couched in terms of humanitarian aid. The United Nations and its subsidiary institutions that have grown with it – UNDP, UNICEF, UNEP, are responsible for this discourse. While humanitarian aid speaks the language of human rights, and is influenced by it, it sits within and legitimises a larger structure of lending. The World Bank is the implementing arm of the International Monetary Fund’s financial structures, and continues to make loans, a big chunk through its Agricultural Developmental Programmes through the 1970s-1980s.

From the World Bank’s visualisation of IBRD Statement of Loans by Country, updated February 15 2022. The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) loans are public and publicly guaranteed debt extended by the World Bank Group. IBRD loans are made to, or guaranteed by, countries that are members of IBRD. IBRD may also make loans to IFC. IBRD lends at market rates. Data are in U.S. dollars calculated using historical rates. This dataset contains the latest available snapshot of the Statement of Loans. Explore the data.

And yes, there’s history here! Where African countries resisted, countries like Chile, Brazil, Ecuador in Latin America; and Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia in Southeast Asia signed on to these programmes in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, the idea of lending is tied to the idea of “poor” countries needing more capital to “develop”. Yet these structures were set in place by specific, intentional mechanisms in the 1970s, after the US pulled out of the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1974, in order to deal with its domestic economy’s overproduction problem.

The solution? It set off a period of free-floating currencies, and the IMF created Structural Adjustment Programmes that included a portfolio of lending. The first of these countries to receive loans, Ethopia, realised quickly how the demands that came with these loans replicated their earlier experiences with colonial powers: right down to the level of how households should manage their monies.

This is a useful podcast to listen to, on this whole process.

Today, the Philippines is #9 of countries in the world with the highest loans from the World Bank at 27 billion USD in loans. Its total debt at the end of September 2021 was 230 billion USD. Like other national governments that continue to work with debt, the Duterte government has been described as “not afraid of debt” (The Diplomat), focusing on spending its way of it.

A different kind of relief is needed

World Bank loan-based relief – much of which is meant to go directly into humanitarian aid organisations that suck up any loans – creates the “frame” and “solution” to disaster.

None of these programmes are suited to meet the needs of people in the Philippines and other countries, who have watched their economies and cultures devastated by repeated colonisation.

Walter’s biodynamic work in Palawan goes some way towards this, while providing practical aid and emotional trauma relief. Trauma is a big topic, and the way it intersects especially with Global South economies, will be an immensely important part of long-term regeneration of local cultural institutions and lives.

Likewise, there are always opportunities to convey basic concepts of nutrition, medicine, education or agriculture as part of or on the fringes of emergency pedagogical assignments. While the emergency rations of other contributors contain almost exclusively instant noodles with flavor enhancers and white rice, we make sure that we bring whole rice and fresh vegetables and herbs with us, a small part of which can be harvested on our land. Grace teaches how the plants in the area can be meaningfully integrated into healing processes and shows the great effect that compresses and footbaths can have. And with relatively little effort in speaking, concepts such as the open-ended toy can be understood because they become visible during our operations.

At the same time, follow-up projects from these assignments are in the air, be it in education, agriculture or the development of sensible, ecologically justifiable small businesses. The sources of income have been largely destroyed and it takes 15 years for a coconut palm or a cashew tree to grow back to full harvest. Every third house in the country already has a Sari Sari Store (a store with some „basic“ needs), but you won’t be able to survive on trade alone. And for now, hundreds of thousands of people are being fed via feeding programmes. In order to secure life in the long term, sustainable sources of income must be developed.

Pictures are from an emergency educational mission Walter and Grace carried out in January 2022.

Biodynamics in Palawan? Moving beyond black/white categories

At this point, though, I also want to highlight: the use of biodynamic agriculture may seem out of place in Palawan. And yet, how can different groups of practitioners come to develop new structures together, with humility and openness to change, to work together to build egalitarian relationships?

While I wholeheartedly support the food vision, I also think any idea of seeing local people as “childlike”, or some people as more childlike than others, draws on ideas of a hierarchy of human maturation that have been more destructive than supportive. Yet, if we work beyond black/white understandings of goodness/badness, we may come to see beyond the words (translated across a few languages), to how people engage with one another.

To engage more fully with the trauma, healing, and support structures needed in the next decade, including practices to defuse eco-fascism: Heather Luna has an excellent set of workshops, and runs trainings and consultations, at her company Keduzi.

Walter Siegfried Hahn and Grace Zozobrado Hahn share more about emergency pedagogy in their newsletter, and you can learn more about their work at

For orientation on what happens with the donations: an emergency pedagogical intervention costs around 1,000 to 2,000 euros – depending on whether other sponsors contribute to the costs, a complete house 500 to 1,000 euros, a roof or minor damage 100 to 200 euros. We still have plenty of seeds from our own production and otherwise we shall work together with other seed initiatives in the north of the country. We also have 80 water filters worth 20 euros from previous initiatives in stock – if we have to buy more, we have to reckon with 30 to 40 euros each, with which a large family can easily be supplied with drinking water.

If you would like to support their work, they do receive donations, which can be transferred to the following accounts:

Directly to the Philippines via
Account Name Koberwitz 1924 Inc.
Account Number 130-3-13024518-9 with Metropolitan Bank and Trust Co.
Rizal Avenue, Puerto Princesa City, BIC (Swift) MBTCPHMMXXX
Here, it is necessary to state the postal code 5300, my e-mail address and that the addressee is a charity / non-profit company.

If you are in Europe:

Germany: Future Foundation Development at GLS-Treuhand e.V., GLS Gemeinbank eG Bochum
IBAN: DE05 430 609 67 0012 33 00 10, BIC: GENODEM1GLS
Intended use: Koberwitz-Palawan

Switzerland: Acacia-Verein, Basel, Freie Gemeinbank, Basel IBAN: CH93 0839 2000 0040 0800 6, BIC: FRGGCHB1 Project note: Kulturimpuls Philippinen

Fieldnotes Project Updates

Fieldworkers notes – July 2021

Fieldworkers Meet 7 August 2021

Siglap South 

Soil is completely black, plants not doing so well. Worms don’t move around, they just gather in the worm bin. 

Are they overfed there? Not really…

Might be an environment issue instead – not enough sun

If we grow fruiting vegetables, they may not do as well compared to asystasia, sweet potato, kang kong, ginger.

The garden also has white ginger flowers – grown for the fragrant smell.

Irene hasn’t been so responsive on the chat, so Megan has been conversing with Doris more

They have a vermicomposting thing going. 


Not active since June, as there was a complaint from a resident which escalated. Madam Zhang who was involved in the garden, was made to step down as Chairman. A resident had complained against practices in the garden which she was directly involved in. Vivian and Hanjing approached Jacqueline from NParks, who went to negotiate with garden manager. 

Original test bed was very clayey. This was dug up, but not done in time, so it became a pond with fishes. It had to be removed; the soil was removed, and Jacqueline brought clay soil to fill up the plot with a hugelkulture method. The RC wanted them to dig this up and cover it with soil, but Jacqueline managed to convince them to use a hugelkulture method. They then had to do a cool off period – no one was allowed to go except for the RC chairman. 

But this is a good thing too – the soil can rest and break down. After Heightened Alert, we could continue. 

Rectangular plot was removed (mulch was removed), and compost was poured into soil.

Gonna stick with garden as garden members are active. 

Madam Zhang had had a big operation, so been telling her to rest. She is also passionate, so she also wanted to do things, but had to tell her to rest, and not overstretch herself (and her post-operation stitches) and others around her.

Some lessons: soil regeneration in SG is unique: Need to take one approach and slowly ease into it. Community gardens do get shut down when residents who don’t understand something well enough make a complaint.

Garden originally wasn’t cemented, then it was, and this created an overflow of water on the vertical side. It was not designed with a garden in mind. It made gardening so much more difficult, and when gardening is difficult, there is more collision in ideas, and sometimes the garden just closes down because of this. 

Cemented gardens 

Bring additional problems, such as algae, which operations managers resort to removing with high-pressure waterjets.

Oi Lian shares that she was very sad to hear about the old rain trees cemented over in Margaret Drive. Tree roots are severely impacted when paved over with cement, even if they reach into the ground. We urge BCA to consider working with the National Parks Board to merge complementary technical and best practice recommendations, so our construction and built environment industry can help to grow a healthy ecosystem of urban trees, plants, soil and water for the next 55 years and more.


when we try to solve a problem with just one view, 

it creates more problems. 

This is why we need:

Contextual, lived experiences to speak to, and be heard by policy and current practices

Changing one garden at a time, one gardener and one resident at a time.

Just continue what we’re doing, there is a reason we are doing this, and we’ll try our very best to reach as far as we can go! 

NParks has to deal with the bureaucratic stuff, but at the core of it, they do see the value of it

Continue to do the fieldwork, and mark your fieldwork hours!

Partners Soil Companions

Ang Ee Peng – Wah Son

Living a self-sustainable way in a Japanese zen monastery for 3 years, organically farming up to 4 types of rice and more than 20 types of vegetables – Ee Peng comes back to Singapore in 2015 and continues to farm in urban spaces. She has been actively transforming an industrial space in Seletar Aerospace into farming areas  with regenerative farming practices.

What plants do you grow in the area?

Pumpkin, Roselle, Okra, Eggplant, Purple Chilli, Sweet potato leaves, Kangkong, Fame Flower, Ceylon Spinach, Mustard Greens, Pak Choi.. With other herbs

Do you grow on a raised bed or directly in the soil?

Combination of the two

Roughly how large is your site?

About 1600sqm – courtyard area (800 m2); carpark (300 m2); production area (500 m2)

What are the microclimate conditions over time? (how sunny or shady, for how long? How wet and windy is the spot?)

A variety of conditions from full shade to full sun. Windy in all spots. 

What practices do you use with the soil?

Hugelculture. Using pruned tree branches as bottom layer of raised beds, green materials as second layer (uncooked food waste + Coffee grounds), third layer with garden prunings and then last layer with unconditioned clayey soil from original site.

Is there anything else about your site that is worth noting?

Materials from nursery are brought in for most plots only in the initial stages of growing. While some beds were started without compost or topsoil, only the soil originally in ground.

Partners Soil Companions

Marcus Koe – Kembangan

How do we make community gardens a viable source of food supply?

Marcus Koe 

What plants do you grow in the area?

Pioneer trees, Fruit trees, Fruit vegetables, Root vegetables, Herbs, Legumes, Leafy perennials (to ask him what are pioneer trees?)

Do you grow on a raised bed or directly in the soil?

Directly in the soil

Roughly how large is your site?


What are the microclimate conditions over time? (how sunny or shady, for how long? How wet and windy is the spot?)

partial shade, increasing shade overtime as large pruned trees grow back their foliage. (to ask him wind condition, if it is affected by trees)

What practices do you use with the soil?

green mulching, Leaf litter mulching, No till, no chemicals, Some compost additions, occasional pelletised manure, Hugelkultur, Banana circle

Is there anything else about your site that is worth noting?

Site located at bottom of hill, so gets pretty wet in heavy rains. Construction rubble underneath; it’s a rather heavy clay soil. 

Partners Soil Companions

Kiat Lay – Jurong Central Park

A scene from the garden at JCP

What plants do you grow in the area?

sunn hemp, pigeon pea, roselle, okra, sweet potato leaf, peanut, grape tomato, purslane, chilli, fame flower, malabar spinach, lemon grass, mani cai, mugwort, joyweed, Indian borage, brinjal, radish, turmeric, ulam raja, basil, balloon vine, lime tree, cranberry hibiscus, perilla, kang kong, mint, tarragon, moringa, okinawa spinach, aloe vera, tapioca, green chiretta, black face general, curry leaf, laksa leaf, mulberry, kale, Brazilian spinach, long bean, cotton

Do you grow on a raised bed or directly in the soil?

Combination of the two

Roughly how large is your site?

120 sqm

What are the microclimate conditions over time? (how sunny or shady, for how long? How wet and windy is the spot?)

It’s an open area without cover. Most of the area has direct sunlight, about 10% of the area is under tree shade.

What practices do you use with the soil?

The planting beds were initially created with a mixture of clay and compost providee by NParks. Throughout the time, we bury kitchen waste, fruit peels, compost, leaves from pigeon pea and sunn hemp in the soil regularly. We also created a hugelkultur bed where we buried decomposing logs inside.

Is there anything else about your site that is worth noting?

As it’s located in a park and not fenced up, it’s accessible to the public