As artist Vivek Vilasini describes his latest project — a food forest in Munnar — he conjures up a magical landscape, where butterflies hover over the Pala Indigo, hordes of dragonflies arrive from Africa to swarm over berries on shrubs and fruits on creepers, the nine-foot low-chill apple blossoms and mushrooms sprout on wet earth, The Inca nut ripens along with Jicama and the Mexican tree spinach, “chopped and dropped” branches turn into mulch and earthworms turn the soil to help seeds germinate. “When the forest is in motion, each species — plant and animal— lives symbiotically. There are predators and survivors and there is food at all times,” says Vivek who set up the forest in 2014. This monsoon, he is set to expand it to seven acres.
The seven-layer forest
The seven-layer forest —lovingly planted and nurtured at Swaragamedu (heaven in the hills ), in Senapathy, 4800 ft above sea level in temperatures that swing between the tropical and temperate — has flora sourced from landscapes across the world and different time lines. Local varieties of mushrooms, tubers, shrubs, herbs, weeds, grass and trees exist alongside exotic species like gingko bilboa; chyamansa or Mexican tree spinach; Yacon, a sweet tuber from the Andes, Inca nuts; Jabuticaba or Brazilian tree grapes; water apples; Sri Lankan tropical apricots; and Chinese Goji berries, to name a few. Planted scientifically the concept is based on natural farming and ecological biodiversity.
As the Bengaluru-based artist makes his way to the hills, he says, “I am an artist, this is my creative intervention for a society that needs agriculture that will be free of pesticides, reduce its use of water and provide perennial food.”’
A meeting with natural farmer Gopalakrishnan of Sarang, at Kalapeedom in Kochi, in the 80s was a turning point and led him to follow alternative farmers. He read Masanobu Fukuoka’s The One Straw Revolution and the works of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who practised permaculture, and learnt of Ruth Imogen Stout’s “no work gardening” techniques. He explored the ideas of Austrian “rebel farmer” Sep Holzer, but it was horticulturist Robert Hart’s concept of an “edible landscape” — created for his handicapped brother to survive for the rest of his life — that propelled Vivek into setting up the food forest. “In his book, Hart identifies the gardens of Kerala as food forests with natural rich biodiversity and easy for intense planting. He has listed 43 plants in Kerala that grow simultaneously.”
The forest, a lab
He began work on one acre of land in Aanachal, Munnar in 2008. “Kerala has 85 varieties of edible mushrooms, 30-40 varieties of yam, 10 varieties of sweet potatoes and 300 varieties of bananas. They all have different nutrient, water and light requirements, I am trying to find the natural patterns of a forest to optimise the yield . In fact my space is more like a lab,” says Vivek who was inspired to visit Hart’s farm in Shropshire only to learn that his ideal had passed away. He met, Hart’s disciple, Martin Crawford at the Agro Forestry Research Trust in Devon, and visited their farm in Dartington Manor. In the next five years, he enlarged his knowledge by studying bio-char and carbon sequestration techniques used by the pre-Colombian people of the Amazon basin and learnt about ‘Hugul Kulter’, a method used by Germans to create spaces self-sufficient in water. He also studied Korean natural farming methods and Subash Paleker’s Zero Budget Farming
In the second stage Vivek cleared four acres of cardamom, retaining patches of tea and coffee. A network of ponds is a perennial source of water. The manure used is chips, leaf mould and IMO (indigenous micro organisms), compost tea, fermented plant juices and “chop and drop” — cutting down branches and letting them decompose — natural mulch. His food garden has drawn an intern from Mexico and another from Japan to study symbiotic forestry.
Last year Vivek planted low-chill varieties of apples, pears and peaches sourced from farmers in Himachal Pradesh and had a bounty of purple sweet potatoes, which in the Bengaluru market cost ₹ 2000. “These are dense in nutrients. Similarly Yacon syrup is sweet and safe for diabetics; Inca nut and Goji berries are super foods, rich in Omega 3 and 6. Why should it be so expensive and not available commonly? . In this time of rapid climate change food forest or forest gardens are the future… creative adaptation of several sustainable models can lend itself to creating this edible landscape.”