Back in February 2018, we turned custodians to a little patch of arid land in the plains of Mysuru. We named it Navilu Kaadu, an ode to the profusion of peafowl in the region. Sunn hemp, horse gram, pigeon pea, green gram, corn and cotton was once farmed on the land. We now have saplings of mango, drumstick, jackfruit, coconut and a host of wild flora and fauna.
We wanted to work the land gently and interfere sparingly. Chemical farming was at odds with our purpose – that of fostering biodiversity on the land. Natural farming, derived from revolutionary Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka’s methods, seemed most suited to our intentions. We adopted some of the farming principles from the method.
We brew our own in-house pesticides from natural ingredients. We inoculate the soil at intervals with a fermented culture of good-soil bacteria in desi cow-dung, jaggery and gram flour. We lay emphasis on water management. Mulching our crops helps retain soil moisture and enhance soil carbon content. Trenches receive rainwater, which then percolates into sub-terranean aquifers, replenishing the groundwater table. Nitrogen-fixing rhizobium bacteria that live on the roots of leguminous crops such as gliricidia, cowpea, sunn hemp, horse gram and green gram capture atmospheric nitrogen and make it available to our saplings.
The decision to do away with chemicals altogether came with truckloads of challenges. Growing plenty of food crop was never our primary focus, but fostering biodiversity was. So, a gamble to allow weeds to thrive alongside our long-term crops was a possibility, welcome even. We are privileged to be able to risk such decisions unlike most small farmers, who live a precarious existence tethered to climate factors and market forces beyond their control.
In the first year, we panicked at the profusion of noxious parthenium that sprung-up during the monsoons. We swung into action, and naively got the intruder pulled-out by hand. The expense left a gaping hole in our pocket, and the problem didn’t go away. Parthenium sprung back briskly with every spell of rain.
The next year, we decided to study the adversary and experiment a bit. We pulled out parthenium only in areas where we needed access and ignored the rest. And once we stopped meddling, grasses slowly occupied the land, jostling out the parthenium in most areas of Navilu Kaadu. We trim the overgrown grass when possible, and selectively clear out areas to ensure access to our saplings for manuring, drip-line inspection, and repair.
Full-time natural farmers plant multi-layers of complementary crops, with little space for weeds. We make do with one, or at best two crop layers owing to time constraints that our dual farm-city existence poses, and instead let grass, sunn hemp or leguminous pulse crops occupy the spaces in-between. Sunn hemp aids soil fertility and contains weeds.
We still have trouble with invasives mightier than the parthenium, such as Lantana camara, subabul (Leucaena leucocephala) and siam weed (Chromolaena odorata). What has helped though, is letting go of the illusion of control, finding beauty and joy in Navilu Kaadu’s wild ways, and staying unaffected by neighbours’ judgements of us and our unkempt parcel of land.
We are now in year five at Navilu Kaadu. Our saplings are sturdy and well on their way to adulthood. Last monsoon, we planted a new set of jackfruit saplings of a smaller fruit variety, in one of the vacant plots. We are slowly acquainting ourselves with native flora, each of which have intriguing cultural and ecological linkages and therapeutic uses. The natural vegetation fosters plenty of biodiversity that would have otherwise perished in the onslaught of chemical farming.
Let me now introduce you to some fellow-residents we share Navilu Kaadu with.
A year after we settled into Navilu Kaadu, we began spotting a family of Oriental Garden Lizards (Calotes versicolor). Garden lizards are considered bio-indicators and cannot survive in land sprayed with chemicals, so our clean soil must have made them feel welcome.
Around the same time, a family of Indian Grey Hornbills started visiting at dawn and dusk, and are now regulars. They glide between the tamarind and Malabar neem trees and raise quite a din. A pair of Greater Coucals peppers our days with their booming calls.
Bee-eaters keep us entertained with aerial acrobatics. Sunbirds, both Purple and their Purple-rumped cousins, are aplenty. Indian Silverbills and Scaly-breasted Munias nest in the space between the awning of the cottage and the roof, just above our door. Cinereous Tits nest in the hollow metal pipes holding up the awning. Indian Robins and Ashy Prinias join the sunbirds, munias and silverbills as they suspend themselves on tall grass blades and peck at the seeds. A pair of Spotted Owlets dwell on two of our tamarind trees and pepper our nights with nerve-grating screeches.
On terra firma, bugs, reptiles and arachnids find refuge in the grass and wild flora. Ground-dwelling Rufous-tailed Larks and Grey Francolins startle us with a flurry of wings, as we unwittingly approach their nests in clumps of grass.
We’ve so far encountered Saw-scaled and Russell’s Vipers, Spectacled Cobras, Common Kraits, Wolf Snakes and Rat Snakes. A curious Common Bronze Back even ventured into our cottage. The snakes keep the rodent population under control.
Peafowl, visiting egrets and our resident mongooses keep the snake population in check. Black-naped Hares are aplenty too. They hop-off towards the fence every time we get close to their hidden burrows.
Dead and decaying wood, fungi, roots, wild berries, and flowers offer sustenance to many little insects and birds. Carpenter Bees and Red Dwarf Bees are our star pollinators at the farm.
Those who read about Navilu Kaadu imagine it as this impossibly beautiful fairyland. Navilu Kaadu is an overgrown patch of wild farm, very unlike the lush green gorgeousness of the rainforests of the Western Ghats. But as the cliché goes, looks can be deceptive. Navilu Kaadu is a land of plenty for a panoply of beings. We have no grand plans for the land other than to transform it into a welcoming food forest for any wild being that finds its way home.
Tending to the land has been challenging and we grapple with a host of routine infrastructural and maintenance issues. But the opportunity to turn custodians to a patch of Earth and share space with wonderful creatures of the soil, the skies and the wind, makes it worth the effort.