The biblical garden of Eden is supposed to represent an idyllic life, perfect and complete. The word “garden” here represents the perfect world that God created, not the work of man. Since then we have had the hanging gardens of Babylon, Mughal gardens in India and Pakistan, perfectly maintained gardens of royalty and rich people in Europe, Zen gardens, and others. These are man-made, and for the most part unnatural.
Man is always trying to improve on Nature. This wasn’t always regarded as good. Take “Yoga-sutras of Patanjali” from several thousand years ago. The first two statements are
Right at the beginning sage Patanjali says that Yoga is not about doing complex and hard things so that we become more and more better. It is about quieting the mind, and in the stillness realising the perfection within and around us.
Mansobu Fukuoka, Japanese microbiologist and farmer philosopher, realized that nature is perfect, and man cannot improve on it. Of course, in his earlier years, he was intensely focused on his work, and would sometimes faint in his lab. But later he gave up on science, to come up with natural farming.
Our faith in science is not constant. It changes, and most often, as we grow older, we become a little more cynical, and less impressed by the promise of science.
Reverting back to original nature, and like Fukuoka san, trying to find and eliminate unnecessary tasks, has become harder. Right from seeds, to water, to soil, man has manipulated and degraded them. But then, one has to start somewhere, to remove the layers of maya (manipulations by man), and see nature, the way God created.
In a small corner of the terrace garden, we just put back the organic matter from plants grown earlier, along with some rabbit manure, and planted some seeds. The idea was to “ungarden”, let the plants, soil, sun, wind, water, insects, birds, and micro-organisms interact. No space calculations, no attempt to find out if one plant suited the other, no careful tending, or maintaining straight lines.
The soil here is about a feet and half deep, and two feet wide. Water is mostly high TDS (total dissolved solids), mixed with chlorinated water from the river, that fortunately comes only once in two weeks. Salty bore well water is better than the heavily chlorinated river water, for microbial life in the soil.
Pumpkin with big leaves, and a few yellow (male flowers) dominates the space. Small yellow pumpkins are present. Mixed with this, is okra, lab lab (Dolichos bean/hyacinth bean), thinai (foxtail millet), kambu/ pearl millet, பொன்னாங்கண்ணி கீரை (ponnanganni keerai, Alternanthera sessilis or ficoidia), a red leaved type of Alternanthera, butterfly pea (Sangu pushpam/Clitoria ternatea), sunflowers, and a few others.
Here’s the bluish-purple flower of butterfly pea.
There’s a wasp drinking nectar from a tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica, Mexican butterfly weed).
Okra (Ladys finger) plant, with pods, and a flower.
Lab lab flowers.
Ponnanganni keerai plant. Several plants are called Ponnanganni, this is one of them. The leaves are cooked and eaten. Here’s another one with red leaves. If drier and sunnier, the leaves become more red, but remain small.
Yellow karisalanganni (Sphagneticola calendulacea ) plant, its leaves when crushed, become black. This is used to dye hair, either alone or mixed with Hibiscus flowers, or Indigo leaves.
There is another plant with white flowers, that is also called karisalanganni (Eclipta prosata). Athough these grow easily, it is hard to find these plants.
The Musumusukkai (Mukia maderaspatana) plant’s leaves are used for colds. It is also cooked and eaten as a green.
Brinjal (eggplant) with light purple flowers. There are so many varieties, some of them grow very tall, and produce profusely. But now this is a target plant for genetic manipulation.
A honey bee landing on a (male) pumpkin flower.
The Veldt grape plant in a different part of the garden, is back in bloom. The red fruits haven’t attracted any birds. The leaf and stem of this plant, if eaten raw will make the throat itch. The oxalate crystals scratch the throat. But properly cooked with tamarind and coconut, this makes a tasty chutney.
Not many pollinators visit this plant, in the cooler weather.
Kuppai keerai, (குப்பைக்கீரை, Amaranthus viridis) another weed, that grows profusely, and is used as a green.
Cardiospermum halicacabum (balloon plant, modakathan) is used for arthritis and joint inflammation.
The yellow flowers of nalvelai plant (Cleome viscosa, நல்வேளை) attracts several types of honey bees. There is also a white variety Cleome gynandra.
Several dwarf honey bees on this sunflower. There are a lot of other sunflowers, that bees seem to avoid. May be those are poor hybrids, that don’t have honey.
Babblers, red-vented bulbuls, mynahs, and Indian robins come occasionally. Swallows and bee-eaters catch dragonflies in flight.
There’s a red bug on a balloon plant.
An orange cucumber beetle.
And a tiny beetle on a leaf.
Fly with honey bee style stripes.
The bugs are no longer plentiful. With more houses and high rises coming up, with use of pesticides for ants and termites, and with a “cleaner” culture and top-down control, insects are seen as a nuisance. Some are afraid of the biblical plague of locusts. Grasshoppers and locusts are eaten in some places. A fully grown hen would eat a quarter kilogram of insects a day or more. The babblers that come to the garden are finding it difficult to get small cockroaches and crickets. There are not many nesting sites either, for the birds.
Once I took a caterpillar of the tiger butterfly from one Mexican butterfly weed plant (which was totally stripped off), and put it on another plant of the same species, but the caterpillar just shriveled and died. Fukuoka san mentions that in some cases the yield improves with insect infestation. The insects provide an useful service of thinning out plants of the same species. The caterpillar doesn’t even move to another plant of the same species, it just stays on one, strips it bare, and lets the other non-infested plants thrive.
With less insects, there is no buzz of the bees. No butterflies flitting from flower to flower. No dragonflies. There are less birds. No lively chirping to wake us up in the morning. Some of the plants bred through radiation-induced mutation, or mutation from chemical stress, are not attractive to the insects, even if the flowers are colourful.
Technology is not all bad, but forcing everyone to overdose on it, all the time, may not be right. We need unadulterated nature as a reference, to know if technology has really improved things, or not.
By removing the layers of manipulation by Man, going back to native plants, mixing up several varieties of seeds, introducing animal and bird manure, and letting the soil remain covered with dried leaves, and twigs, we can ungarden. The plants thrive, insects create a lively buzz, and the birds seek out seeds, nectar, and insects. The un-gardened patch, comes alive, enlivening our spirit, and enriching our souls.