First off, I must declare an interest. This is my father-in-law’s home in Coorg, India. I came for a family visit, the last time 15 years ago, and to me then it appeared surrounded by rainforest. Since I have learnt about sustainable gardening, that rainforest chaos has rearranged, in my eyes, to one of order and productivity.
Even though I am a fan of forest gardens (I like Martin Crawford’s books) I am a gardener of kale, onions, leeks and beans. Because I care about sustainability my kale are (mostly) perennials, my onions are walking onions, my leeks are from pips from last years crop and I keep seed from my beans. I don’t dig (much). My garden is inspired by forest gardening but it isn’t a forest garden. My knowledge of nitrogen fixers and polycultures comes completely from the forest gardeners even though I’m not one myself. Their excitement at finding thousand year old forest gardens, I share that excitement too.
So I was excited to see my father-in-law’s coffee garden, knowing coffee’s relationship with shade supplying trees and the pepper corns that climb those trees. I felt this tripartite crop (the wood is pollarded and used for fuel and for sale) was reminiscent of the “three sisters” crop of beans, squash and corn. And of course, all three are perennial plants tended (incredibly) by two gardeners: my father-in-law and Ashoka (hello, Ashoka!) who nearly killed me leading me up the hillside – he like a mountain goat, me like a fat Britisher. He doesn’t hoe, he cuts the weeds with his machete. He takes cuttings of pepper (the black pepper we eat ground) and pops them straight into the ground during the monsoon and they catch readily in the wet.
This time of year (December) they are picking the Arabica coffee bean and drying it on a concrete drive. In January it will be the turn of the robusta. It is the coffee that is the main crop in the garden. It is a cash crop that sustains the region (along with tourism). Another major cash crop is pepper.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the diversity in both plants and animals. Though all the plants allowed to remain in the garden were useful or edible plants they provided a home for a wide range of bird life. Of the plants I found (in polyculture order).
Canopy: Betelnut, coconut, pollarded wood, bamboo, Avocado.
Understorey: Coffee, Lemon, Banana, Chili, Guava, Lychee, Papaya, Mango and jackfruit.
Ground cover: Sweet Potato.
There wasn’t really any ground cover, the sweet potato was just filling a niche area next to the stream that runs through the garden. Just more low maintenance gardening.
I kept looking for nitrogen fixing plants but I couldn’t find any but then why should I expect to?. I’ve said it before but what sane plot owner would give over such large areas of their property when they can just buy fertilizer? But apart from this I really enjoyed this productive polyculture especially as it has been here in Coorg since 1875.
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