Beginning to grow

We are close to the earth- inches above, in fact- between 6 and 7am and are both invigorated and exhausted. The next hour is again given to whatever heavy-lift work there may be, taking advantage of the kinder morning sun. Breakfast is mostly what has been cooked the previous night- a gruel of ragi and rice, cooked rice soaked in water or sometimes rotis. Some left over sambar simmering in overnight embers of the rocket stove, is usually a warm complement to the cold meal. What follows is a large glass of tea, with jaggery – no sugar. This is enjoyed as we flop and sit around on the cool floor of the pavilion. It is also a time for banter.

We resume at 9.30 for lighter work. Most months, it’s too hot to work outdoors but we usually have projects to engage us. We have a fairly good collection tools. Being off-grid, our power tools are rechargeable and cordless. We muck around trying to be better handymen. We explore, make mistakes, learn and have fun. When people tell me they want to live the ‘simple’ life. I always ask if they are willing to soil their hands and not call a labourer or plumber or electrician or a carpenter except for the most serious work. Somehow, the upper class Indian’s upbringing does not include a physically demanding hobby; the bias is towards meditative bliss. One of pointReturn’s missions is to be hands-on and focused on the work ethic. It is the best road to take for lasting personal change.

We are often engrossed in project work in the cool ambience of the pavilion almost till 1pm. In the meantime, a few may have lit a fire and readied our lunch, which is confessedly just curd rice- everyday. We haven’t figured out another dish that could be prepared in the time and by the people we have.

What follows is a long siesta of two hours. At 3.30pm the sun is still often harsh but there is work to do, mostly watering and caring for vegetable beds. At around 5.30pm we have our tea, take turns at the wash room to bathe and get busy in the kitchen to raise our big, hot meal of the day. We also cook the next morning’s breakfast. Around 8.30pm we are finally done and by ourselves, to read or browse the net.

Many changes are required to round off the grim edges of this routine. We often discuss the options; the discussions always dead-end with the consensus that things will get better when we have a few more people to share the routine.

Growing food

Considering the pointReturn land had historically grown no food and was a hard-pan wasteland when it was adopted, growing anything in significant quantities was going to be hard work. Growing food is planned to happen in two steps. First grow what we need and next, try for surpluses. Food surplus will come from fruits, vegetables and grains; but all that is some years away.

The first attempt at vegetable growing was in 2008 when some volunteers came over for a day. I had had some success with growing vetiver in two concentric circles with a sprinkler in the centre and we quickly rustled up a replica in a few hours – and planted it too! But a vegetable garden is not created so quickly by volunteers with a deadline hour. Nor can it be left alone without daily care, as happened in 2008.

Since January 2010, vegetable growing has enjoyed a modest success because of better design and regular care. We made a series of raised beds, 4’x7′ and 4’x12′, about 5″ deep. We filled the beds with manure, biomass and soil. We ensured water was available nearby. Once thus secure, we seeded the beds.

Merits of growing vegetables in raised beds has been told in detail elsewhere. Here’s a quick recap: Where biomass is scarce, it is unwise to spread it wide. Raised beds are small pampered growing areas, that concentrate soil enriching activity of biomass and organisms. Width of the beds being no more than 4′, they can be accessed without having to trample on. Post harvest, plant remains are returned to the beds to first act as mulch and then to disintegrate as humus. The beds remain fluffy, moist, undisturbed and increasingly productive.

We have not yet learnt the seasonal calendar of various vegetables. India lacks reliable books such as those that serve a western gardener. We rely on local hearsay and advise from a few growers we know. Neither is consistent nor always available on time. Seeds too are a huge issue. The seeds industry is notorious for price, lack of information and reliability. The counter movement by Karnataka’s farmers association is very promising and we are trying out seeds from them now [Examples: Janadhanya, Sahaj Samrudha] We are experimenting with companion plants and natural deterrents, notably castor. An increasing profusion of bees, butterflies, earthworms and ladybirds indicate a fair balance in the vegetable garden.

Our greatest success has been with cucurbits, gourds and squashes, grown over the summer. And some of the star performers -pumpkin and bottle gourd- owe little to our efforts- it was nature’s spontaneity at work. Sriram regularly updates the gardening story with good pictures in his blog; but especially read this for more on vegetables. An account of quantities harvested is online here.

Growing grains has proved to be harder. We have taken on three tiny fields – about 1/20 of an acre each- to develop but that’s a whole order of magnitude greater than our vegetable beds. The fields we began with were clayey gravel with no organic matter whatsoever. The strategy has been to plant green crops like daincha, sun-hemp and plough them in; plant legumes as pilots or companions; attempt growing millets as they are hardier. Limitations of labour, water, reliable seeds and nature’s own leisurely ways make for slow progress. Yet, promising. Fields are being slowly enriched with biomass; someday they will be fertile and ever productive.

3 thoughts on “Beginning to grow

  1. Dear DV,

    You continue to amaze me. You are in the same mold as Robinson Crusoe and the hero in the film “Cast Away”. It is a pity I am not able to make a trip to pR. Hope I do it in 2011. This is to wish you all the best in 2011 and may your family (of 40) find happiness in pR.God Bless you sarath

  2. Dear DV,

    I am a regular reader of your site. Thanks so much for sharing info with us. This is all very inspiring.

    While discussing your work amoung friends, one of them summerised…you will be building various banks…Water bank (beneath the earth(!)), food bank (will require it if start producing surplus and for yearly crops), seed bank (to avoid junk and BT seeds), plants blank (like you did for Pongamia), energy bank (solar, wind, pongamia oil, biogas), a bank of rich fertile soil all over the land :-) ….and a defined cycle to replenish stocks in those banks…..!!

    One query – Have you given any thought on installing a biogas plant? Like the one developed by ARTI, Pune which is very efficient. This site also gives D-I-Y instructions. (I should not give the site address as you have already given a very good artical about Dr. Karve’s work on GoodnewsIndia!)

    http://www.arti-india.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=45:arti-biogas-plant-a-compact-digester-for-producing-biogas-from-food-waste&catid=15:rural-energy-technologies&Itemid=52

    Best wishes for your mission and may this project become a guiding start for many to come up in future.

    Regards,
    – Kedar

  3. DV, just to compare my situation since I started in 2004. my land was always cultivated when i bought it – main crop was groundnut and raggi. I adopted horticulture and planted 1000 mango samplings. with ill planning, i faced a harsh reality of water shortage.

    following your footsteps, i have created 2 ponds with more than 4 million Lt water capacity, adopted my own version of swales across the area. the monsoon started good but looks like the current 35% deficit will not be reclaimed this year. however, the water harvesting system seems to be yielding results. whether it will help me sustain the upcoming summer is a question, but i have resisted digging another bore well until now.

    I can definitely see a increased bird population, a horn-bill gang, peacock flocks along with jackal family who have become residents at the farm.

    However, I continue to have the challenges of parthenium menace if you have that at your land?

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