In 1968, Vinoo Karthikeyan’s sprawling farm at Puthenthope on the outskirts of the city was an expanse of unforgiving land beside the Arabian Sea; sandy, sun-scorched, bone dry, bare and wind-swept.
The 50-year-old farmer, who won the State government’s award for the best horticulturist in 2013, was barely four years old when his father, V. K. Karthikeyan, a veteran agriculturist now aged 90, acquired the 10 acres of seaside land, much to the bewilderment of his well- wishers.
Over the years, Mr. Karthikeyan dug wells, augmented the top soil with red earth and humus and planted coconut trees, well-spaced from one another, a novelty in those days. By 1984, his farm had become a model for many coconut growers.
The same year Mr. Karthikeyan started cultivating exotic orchids and foliage plants as a subsidiary crop, even though there was little local demand for ornamental plants.
After he took charge from his ageing father, Vinoo extensively toured horticulture farms in South East Asia, learned latest farming techniques, earned a licence to import exotic varieties of ornamental plants, collected and propagated rare orchids, some of them genetically engineered in foreign laboratories to augment their natural beauty.
Terrestrial orchids, many of them latest exotic varieties, are his forte. They are propagated in poly houses and then planted on a bed of coconut fibre, mixed with earth and fertilizers.
The farm uses an extensive network of sprinklers linked to a ground water extraction system to save on labour costs.
Vinoo and his workers start their day early. Mornings are reserved for weeding orchid beds and spraying the plants with nutrients and pesticides. Harvesting foliage leaves and orchid blooms and packing them for clients in Mumbai occupy most of their afternoons.
Vinoo says his garden is no Eden. Giant African terrestrial snails, which feed on blooms at night and salt water contamination of the ground water table, are existential threats. So are increasing freight charges and rising labour costs.
However, Vinoo says it’s hard to shrug of his legacy and feels an elemental need to sustain his farm against all odds.
His sister, Mini Karthikeyan, is also an award-winning florist and horticulturist.
It seems the green thumb runs in the family.