A sense of permanence

By TheHindu on 26 May 2017 | read

Imagine a garden just outside your door, where an array of fruits and vegetables are yours for the picking. All year round, this Garden of Eden supplies food, fresh, seasonal and entirely natural. This is no utopian dream, but an entirely feasible scenario, within your reach.

Remember the garden in your grandmother’s house in the village, or a friend’s suburban home? Mangos hung from trees in summer, there were gooseberries, tamarind, and guavas to dip in chilli and salt and always some fruit to pick through the year. You knew the spinach in the pakoras and the custard apple in the home-made ice cream were fresh. The space around the house was thickly planted with trees supplying essentials such as coconut, mango, drumstick, papaya and an array of greens, herbs and spices for the kitchen.

The edible forest garden system, now called permaculture, is a practical way of ensuring a supply of seasonal food. Closely mimicking growth patterns in forests, permanent agriculture is now accepted as a sustainable model for growing food — in a farm or scaled down for a home garden. Re-packaged in recent times as an agricultural system that complies with the challenges of climate change, permaculture is how our ancestors farmed for aeons. As erratic weather patterns become a reality, perennial trees, bushes and shrubs with their deep networks of roots remain stable and productive with minimum care.

Besides the obvious benefits of having access to a steady supply of food essentials, the growing water crisis is a factor that points to the sensibility of adopting more efficient systems. Trees contribute to the cycle of rain, and also enrich the soil. Some trees are nitrogen fixers, and some attract pollinators that are vital for biodiversity. All trees drop leaves that decompose and enrich the soil. Long-rooted trees also tap into valuable minerals found in the depths of the earth bringing them to the surface for other plants.

The Food Forest model can be scaled down or expanded to suit your space. Imitating the natural order of nature, it can also be modified for terrace gardening, using large troughs as containers.

Basic plans

It is important to let moderation be the guide when you plan. If you have a small garden, do not overcrowd, or you will block out the sunlight needed for smaller plants. Grow enough for your own needs, and then, some to give away. A small kitchen garden will accommodate three or four coconut trees, one jackfruit, one badaam, one jamun, one amla, two favourite mango varieties, two each of papaya, drumstick, guava, chikoo, and breadfruit; but this is just a guideline. Your choice of trees must be area-specific and based on your needs. Do not relegate these sturdy working plants to the backyard; they must be interspersed with flowering trees around your garden space.

Vines with fruits and vegetables can be trained up the trunks of taller trees; add root vegetables, a variety of spinach, tubers and seasonal vegetables to supplement the perennials.

Bees are an invaluable addition, supplying honey and pollinating the garden in the process. If space permits, a few hens will supply the manure needed for the garden. With the introduction of a few earthworms in your soil, you will be on your way to creating your Garden of Eden.


Once you have made a list of desirable trees, make a chart to plan the location. Using a ratio of centimetre to feet on paper, start with large trees, adding medium-size trees and shrubs, gradually covering your available area. Draw a circle to indicate the approximate space each tree requires. Leave a minimum of 12 feet distance between each large tree, and plan the next layer of trees in between. Add the bushes, ground-level plants and herbs; the climbers can be planted at the base of the largest trees. The empty spaces will hold seasonal vegetables.

To plant

Dig deep pits — approximately 4 feet x 4 feet — for the largest trees. Add a mix of cow dung, neem, compost, forest soil or decomposed leaves, filling the pit almost to the surface. Plant the tree sapling with the root ball buried deep, and the stem well above the soil; water liberally. Continue with the same method, using your plan as a guideline. Cover the surface after planting with mulch – a mix of dried leaves and grass cuttings is an ideal cover. Water regularly, in moderation.

Layer your

food forest

  • Tall:Mango, drumstick, coconut, jackfruit, amla, Indian almond, jamun, rambutan, lychee

  • Medium:Papaya, chikoo, guava, custard apple, lime, banana

  • Bush:Breadfruit, coffee, mulberry, curry leaf, lemon grass

  • Climbers:Ivy and bitter gourds, passion fruit, vanilla, pepper, cocoa, nutmeg

  • Ground:Spinach, aloe vera, herbs

  • Underground:Yam,tapioca, colocasia, sweet potato, turmeric,ginger

  • Tree planting guide

  • The different phases of the moon are universally known to influence the growth of trees. Fruiting trees will benefit if planted in the days before Saturn is in opposition with the moon. It keeps the trees growing for many years.

  • The Miyawaki method developed by a Japanese botanist, is a system of speeding up the growth of trees by creating a natural forest environment. Different species of trees are planted in close proximity, where they compete for sunlight and space.

  • It is important to choose as your primary plants, fruit and vegetable trees that are native to your area, for they already know the terrain and are best suited to grow there. They will naturally work with the soil to create a healthy eco-system in your garden.

  • Annual plants can be compared to the guest who comes visiting with gifts; perennial trees the steady life companions, the mainstay of your garden.