With great passion and lots of hard work, a couple from Mumbai developed a food forest, an ecosystem which includes a combination of trees, shrubs, bushes and beds, with a great diversity of plants and animals. The food forest not only produces food devoid of chemicals, but is also a source of beauty and serenity for the soul.
We, Manisha and Agam, associated with the corporate world for more than two decades, took a bold step and ventured into a new and unknown world of farming in 2010. Located at the foothills of Morni Hills near Chandigarh, Aanandaa Permaculture Farm is an outcome of our passion and hardwork.
In 2010, we bought 6 acres of land. The depth of the underground water was quite low almost 350 feet or so – quite different from land on Punjab side where water was barely 50 feet away. The soil quality was very poor. It was completely barren and full of stones. There was uncontrollable flooding during the monsoon, as the runoff from the hills would come gushing down. There was no vegetation and nothing to slow the flowing water.
The farm was designed on the principles of Permaculture. With permaculture, we felt it was an easy way to restore a piece of land that had been totally degraded and destroyed. It struck us, both at a scientific level and at an instinctive or intuitive level that, we can actually grow our own food and harvest our own water, with much less effort than required in conventional agriculture. It seemed like the right thing to do. We read some informative books and watched videos and trained ourselves. Permaculture was a pretty new term to us as well as to anybody we knew, so we taught ourselves everything and set off on this mission to become self-sustainable.‘Zoning’ was one of the initial principles that we applied to the land (See Box 1). So the first step was to cordon off our land, get it fenced to avoid grazing by animals. This itself helped with the regeneration of the vegetation.
We decided to go with our instinct, and started the plantation from the forest. We invited our friends and family to join in the celebration, and every visitor got to plant at least one tree, if not more. Given the high amount of termite infestation in the soil, we were advised to dip each sapling into a solution of Ibidachlorpid before planting it. While we are totally averse to the idea of using chemicals, we did this procedure for fear of losing 1000 trees to termites, and an entire year of progress.
The windbreak was easier to plant, as it was 4 rows of trees – of Casuarina and Silver Oak. This did not require as much supervision and hand holding and was managed by the farm help independently!
For the first two to three years, the forest took up reasonable effort, trying to save the trees from neelgai and wild boar attacks, protecting them from termite, and keeping them watered, fertilized and mulched. Doing this for a 1000+ trees was indeed a full time job!
Expanding the farm
In the summer of 2013, we got the opportunity to add two more acres to our land holding. The land was not adjoining Aanandaa – in fact it was about 400 m down the road, much closer to the village Bunga. We liked the land, as it had a kaimi or water channel on either side.
We decided to design the farm based on Mandalas – the circles of life. Thereby, the farm got its name as Mandala too. We created 4 rows of windbreak on the north side, and two rows on the south side. We measured out 6 circular fields in the rest of the property, each one having an entrance for access. We chose to plant native forest trees in the outermost circle of each mandala, with fruit trees in the inner circle and the flowering shrubs in the inner most circle. Accordingly we planted a total of about 1000 trees in two acres of land, still leaving a lot of space for the crop fields. A customary windbreak was planted at the North and South boundaries – rows of Casuarina and Silver Oak trees. The East and West boundaries have a water channel, so we planted bamboos and native trees there.
In the summer of 2014, we got the opportunity to extend our farm by another two acres, taking the total up to ten acres. Along the pathway we planted Ashoka trees, but on the entire periphery of the land, we did a double row of Casuarina and Silver Oak as a windbreak, and bougainvillea on the fence, which has become a signature of Aanandaa.
Today we have about 5,500 trees at the farm.
Making a raised-bed vegetable garden
In 2017, we decided to make a raised bed vegetable garden. We marked out concentric circles, keeping the beds about 4.5 feet wide, and the walking paths in between about 2 feet wide. Once we had marked out the entire design, we started work on one bed at a time. We dug the bed about 8-10 inches deep and removed the earth into the walking path area. We then put a layer of thick newspaper at the bottom of the bed. This will prevent weeds from growing out in the bed.
Next we put thin branches from peach and mango trees at the bottom of this bed. This will decompose over time providing a rich source of nutrients, and will also keep the bed well aerated as it breaks down. We also added some leafy matter to the bed. And then finally put back the soil we had removed back into the bed. Along with the soil we mixed farm yard manure as well. We then took large stones we found on the property and fitted them into the edges of the dug out bed, keeping most of the stone above the ground. The soil was piled up higher than the walking path, and kept in place with the help of the stones. The stones will ensure that excess water leaves the raised bed through its gaps.
We added a whole lot of compost, leafy matter and farm yard manure to the top of this bed, and it was now ready for sowing the seeds. We planted all our winter vegetables here, towards the end of September/ early October – radish, carrots, turnip, tomatoes, beans, peas, spinach, mustard, fenugreek, amaranth, lettuce, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower and many more. A couple of weeks into the winter, we also sowed some herbs like oregano, rosemary and thyme. Not just that, we also sowed seeds of winter flowers as we believed that the vegetable garden will look perfect with some colourful flowers in between!
During the monsoons, the water comes down Morni hills and takes some time to get into the farm. As it flows into our farm, it follows the path laid out for it through the channels we built. This meandering path slows down the water, allowing the soil to absorb, before it makes it’s way to the pond for storage. The pebbles in the channel, the plantation on it’s edges and the meandering path it was designed to take, all play out just as imagined in design phase.
The trees, bamboos and grasses lining the path of the water ensures that the soil does not erode, and the water gets filtered on its way to the pond. It’s been 6 years since we built this entire infrastructure, and each year the eco system gets stronger. The water get’s slower, cleaner; the trees get bigger, greener; the bamboos grow taller, denser; and the grasses grow thicker, bushier!
With better water conservation, the water get’s slower and cleaner. Also, each year the eco system gets stronger.
Till we discovered Jeevamrut and Agnihastra we were meeting with mixed success in growing pulses and vegetables. Grains were hardy and less prone to disease. But with leafy plants like those of pulses and vegetables, we had big losses, or no luck from the start.
Permaculture does not talk about cow based farming – I think this is mostly because all permaculture texts are western in origin. And given that they do not have desi cows in the west, cow based farming has not been discovered yet. We heard about cow based farming from the inspirational farm in Noida called Beejom. And then we went on to read more through Subhash Palekar, the father of Zero Budget Natural Farming, or Jaivik Kheti. We realised that we were now ready to take the productivity of Aanandaa to the next level with the help of cow products.
We already had two cows. So we decided to start practicing javik kheti at Aanandaa. We also made Agnihastra – a naturally made insecticide with ingredients like urine, garlic, chillies, tobacco and neem. Jeevamrut and Agnihastra have now become our standard fertiliser and insecticide for all purposes – crops, begetables, fruits – everything. It is safe to say, our farm now runs on these two ingredients.
It has been a few years now that we have rarely bought seeds for our vegetables and crops. We have been diligently saving seeds to sow back in the following season. With cereals, pulses, legumes, oilseeds it is simple, because the seed is the crop. But for vegetables, we have to keep aside some plants, to over-ripen and produce seeds.
Winter vegetables like radish, carrots, turnip, cauliflower, broccoli, spinach, fenugreek, brassica, are simply left in the beds to over grow and fruit. This does mean that we have to leave those beds undisturbed till April end, when the weather turns warm and the fruits on these plants dry up. We then cut the entire plant, and let it dry even more in a corner. Finally, we beat the dried plants with a stick to thresh out the seeds.
Summer vegetables are mostly squashes like bottle gourd, cucumber, bitter gourd, snake gourd, melons, pumpkin and apple gourd. Usually, we simply leave a few fruits on the vines to over ripen and dry out. Most of the times, we simply forget to pick them from the vine because they went unnoticed! Other vegetables like brinjal and tomato have a slightly more complex process of seed saving. This is because the seeds have a gelatinous covering on it, which has to be removed before drying the seed. If you do not do that, the seeds tend to catch fungus and lose their vitality.
For pulses, cereals, legumes, oil seeds and other spices like fennel, ajwain, dill, we simply keep aside a part of the harvest to sow the following year. To prevent these seeds from getting spoiled, it is important to dry them out completely in the sun before storing them in a water tight container or sealed plastic bag. For added protection, we sometimes add layers of neem leaves, or mix in some cow dung ash to keep away insects and fungus.
Selling Organic Produce
At Aanandaa, we have some surplus produce like onions, potatoes and dals. Being non perishable, we do not have a problem storing them, and are beginning to sell this produce in the Chandigarh Organic Farmer’s market that takes place every Saturday. We also sell some produce in Gurgaon, where we live most of the time.
As an organic farmer, one may find it challenging to find a market for the produce. That is why, often farmers choose to continue on the path of conventional, chemical assisted mechanised farming – as it is easy to get higher productivity, and an easy market, even if prices are low. However, as an organic farmer, one gets fair value for its produce, along with respect from the local community. For example, conventional potatoes may be selling for Rs 1-5/kg in the mandi. In the same market organic potatoes could fetch Rs 30-40/kg. In the long run, even with lower yields (which will never be the case), you end up making good returns by getting higher value for the produce.
Reaping rich benefits
With permaculture, there has been increasing crop productivity. Productivity is not just measured by the output of a farm, it is the ratio of the inputs versus the outputs. We have found that every day our inputs are decreasing, but our outputs are actually increasing. Working with nature, we build our soil quality and quantity rapidly and are able to store and harvest water much more efficiently.
While we continue to farm in small clearings and grow vegetables and crops the conventional way, we continue to remain interested and invested in the forest we have grown. The forest is doing wonders in improving the soil quality. The top soil is getting mulched with the leaves and twigs falling from the trees. Coupled with that, we have big animals like cows and goats trampling over this mulch, and also mixing their dung and urine with it. Over time, we are seeing a significant improvement in the soil quality.
Secondly, water run off has reduced remarkably. In fact, with vegetation and trees in place, we hardly have any muddy water run off from Aanandaa. Most of the water seeps into the mulched soil, and then finds its way to the pools and ponds through the surface of the soil, leaving clear filtered water behind. And thirdly, the trees have provided shelter for so many different birds. Aanandaa has become a bird watchers delight – one can spot many species here, along with the famous peacocks from Morni HIlls!
As we walk through our forest, see the trees reaching for the sky, look at all the bio diversity of bees, birds, butterflies, rodents that live in this eco system, we feel blessed. We had planted about a 100 different species of trees and each has given back to the eco system something unique – either a huge canopy, or beautiful flowers, or home to some birds.
Manisha Lath Gupta and Radha Lath Gupta
Manisha Lath Gupta and Radha Lath Gupta
Aanandaa: The Permaculture Farm,
Asrewali to Bunga Road, Village Bunga,
Haryana, India 134 118