There’s a type of farm­ing where you don’t slash and burn, where plants sup­port each other, and an­i­mal life. It’s called per­ma­cul­ture and it’s been catch­ing on in In­dia. Meet some of the peo­ple grow­ing food forests in their back­yards

Hindustan Times (Amritsar) - - Think! - Ane­sha Ge­orge ■ ane­­[email protected]­dus­tan­

It’s time the gov­ern­ment stepped in to pro­mote per­ma­cul­ture among tra­di­tional farm­ers. The con­cept has been pick­ing up in In­dia in re­cent years, but mainly among the once-ur­ban, or­ganic type of farmer.

DEVINDER SHARMA, an agri­cul­tural sci­en­tist and food pol­icy an­a­lyst

We’re us­ing sheet mulching to mimic how the for­est elim­i­nates un­wanted plant ma­te­rial. We’re do­ing it to im­prove soil qual­ity. We’ve lay­ered the ground with veg­etable waste, ma­nure, leaves and straw and will leave it like this for a few months.

LAURA CHRISTIE KHANNA, 29, who runs a per­ma­farm in Panch­gani with hus­band Ku­nal Khanna

To the un­trained eye, a per­ma­cul­ture farm may look like a patch of wilder­ness in a ne­glected back­yard. When it looks like that, you know it’s work­ing.

The idea is to switch from the slash-and-burn model of agri­cul­ture to a gen­tler, more per­ma­nent for­mula where fruit trees shade veg­etable patches, peren­nial plants grow, are picked and plucked from, per­ish, form mulch, feed other plants, and start over. Where birds can even­tu­ally make their homes — tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture is no­to­ri­ous for not sup­port­ing other life forms; where bees and in­sects thrive, and even­tu­ally small an­i­mals ar­rive to nib­ble or hunt. Where Man has only a pass­ing in­flu­ence.

You can grow herbs, or raise chick­ens; put in a rainwater har­vest­ing pond or cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial lake. Plant your veg­eta­bles in rows. But then you ideally just tend to the var­i­ous el­e­ments as they in­ter­act and evolve into what looks, more or less, like that patch of wilder­ness.

A per­ma­cul­ture plot can be as small as a sin­gle acre or as large as a for­est. Peter Fer­nan­des and Rosie Hard­ing’s is a 600-sq-m kitchen gar­den in Goa, while Narsanna Kop­pula, a per­ma­cul­ture ad­vo­cate in Te­lan­gana, has an 11.5-acre sprawl.

On a typ­i­cal plot, tall trees form an outer perime­ter. Trees with large canopies are planted here and there, to of­fer shade to the shrubs. Peren­ni­als like lemon­grass, tulsi, kadi­patta and drum­stick of­fer diver­sity and con­trib­ute to mulch.

The in­ner zones are care­fully de­signed to grow nu­tri­ent-in­ten­sive cash crops like maize along with legumes like beans, which pro­vide ni­tro­gen to en­rich the soil.

“It’s not just a set of farm­ing tech­niques, but guide­lines to de­sign­ing a sys­tem where flora and fauna not only co-ex­ist but ben­e­fit from each other,” says Kop­pula, 60. For 32 years, he’s been help­ing oth­ers learn how, in Te­lan­gana, Andhra Pradesh (AP), Odisha, Ker­ala and Ma­ha­rash­tra.

He’s worked with NABARD and the AP gov­ern­ment on sustainable agro projects. In 2013, he started teach­ing a 72-hour Per­ma­cul­ture De­sign Course (PDC), spread across 12 days, to en­thu­si­asts. “I’ve had over 1,150 PDC grad­u­ates so far,” he says.

These en­thu­si­asts in­clude for­mer techies and ex­ec­u­tives look­ing for a fresh start, or­ganic grow­ers look­ing for an even more sustainable for­mula, and young­sters seek­ing a re­turn to the sim­ple life.


The term per­ma­cul­ture was coined by Aus­tralian bi­ol­o­gists Bill Mol­li­son and David Holm­gren in 1974, when they were re­search­ing sys­tems for sustainable peren­nial agri­cul­ture.

In 1986, Mol­li­son, along with ed­u­ca­tor Robyn Fran­cis, con­ducted the first one­day per­ma­cul­ture work­shop in In­dia, in Hyderabad; the fol­low­ing year, they held a 12-day PDC. Thirty par­tic­i­pants from In­dia and Nepal at­tended. Kop­pula was among them.

“What was in­ter­est­ing to me, as some­one then work­ing with an agri­cul­tural NGO, was to see if this model was pos­si­ble in drought-prone ar­eas in AP,” he says. “The more I was suc­cess­ful, the more in­ter­ested I got in telling oth­ers about it.”

His suc­cess in­cluded slowly switch­ing his en­tire fam­ily plot to per­ma­cul­ture. He then be­gan spread­ing the word among lo­cal farm­ers, start­ing with sim­ple steps — rainwater har­vest­ing, or aqua­cul­ture.

“The in­ter­est in per­ma­cul­ture farm­ing has grown dra­mat­i­cally in re­cent years,” he says. “Most tak­ers for the PDCs used to be for­eigner tourists look­ing to vol­un­teer on an In­dian farm. Then came a few ur­ban farm­ers. Last year, we had 30 peo­ple sign up ev­ery month, for ei­ther the shorter 6-day PDC or the full 12-day one.”

Devinder Sharma, an agri­cul­tural sci­en­tist and food pol­icy an­a­lyst, be­lieves it is time the gov­ern­ment stepped in to pro­mote per­ma­cul­ture among tra­di­tional farm­ers.

“The con­cept has been pick­ing up in In­dia for a cou­ple of years now, but re­mains pop­u­lar mainly among the on­ceur­ban, or­ganic type of farmer,” he says. “Given that agro-eco­log­i­cal farm­ing is cru­cial to In­dia, these prin­ci­ples can and should be adopted by tra­di­tional farm­ers, slowly and steadily.”


Con­nect­ing with lo­cals and spread­ing the word is one of the 12 prin­ci­ples of per­ma­cul­ture. So, most per­ma­cul­tur­ists look be­yond cre­at­ing food forests.

So when Sh­a­gun Singh started Geeli Mitti farms in Naini­tal in 2016, her goal was to help ru­ral fam­i­lies in the vicin­ity re­design their farms too. The for­mer mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive was in­tro­duced to the ap­proach on a back­pack­ing trip through Thai­land. She then came across per­ma­farms on sim­i­lar trips through Cam­bo­dia, Turkey and the US.

In 2015, she de­cided not to wait un­til re­tire­ment to start her own per­ma­cul­ture farm. She signed up for a 12-day PDC and bought a 1-acre plot. She has since been con­duct­ing her own PDCs.

She’s also now work­ing with a team of 30 stu­dents, vol­un­teers and ‘in­terns’ to help re­design 11 lo­cal farms cov­er­ing be­tween three and five acres.

Vol­un­teers work on the farms for five hours, six days a week, in re­turn for food and lodg­ing, and the hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence. In­terns may earn an ad­di­tional stipend depend­ing on their skill sets and ex­per­tise.

From rainwater har­vest­ing and re­viv­ing lo­cal ponds to in­tro­duc­ing plant diver­sity, they’ve en­gi­neered change in these fields. “We’ve ex­plained the im­por­tance of di­vid­ing land into zones so that you can grow food for self-sus­te­nance and for com­mer­cial use,” says Singh, 37.

Some of the farm­ers now grow wheat, ragi and peas for them­selves, and mush­rooms for sale. Many have be­gun com­mer­cial bee­keep­ing, sell­ing the honey and ben­e­fit­ing from the nat­u­ral pol­li­na­tion.

“We are plan­ning to dig lit­tle ponds to harvest rainwater and sus­tain lo­cal fish, which is an ad­di­tional source of in­come,” adds Singh. This wa­ter, which is richer in nu­tri­ents, is used to ir­ri­gate the farm and im­prove soil fer­til­ity.


Econ­o­mist Ku­nal Khanna, 32, and his wife Laura Christie Khanna, 29, moved from Aus­tralia to his fam­ily plot in Panch­gani in 2018, to live a farm life. Laura had done a PDC in Aus­tralia, and de­cided to con­vert their bar­ren 1-acre plot.

“The soil was hard la­t­erite clay over­grown with weeds. We re­moved them and sowed a cover crop of legumes to im­prove soil health,” she says. Then they left, on a one-month trip to Europe.

“We ac­tu­ally hoped to come home to a good harvest,” says Ku­nal, laugh­ing. “We had got an im­por­tant step wrong. When we re­turned we found 98% of the seeds hadn’t sprouted, and the weeds were back, and grow­ing more ag­gres­sively.”

The cou­ple de­cided to take it more se­ri­ously, and have started sheet mulching, which tries to mimic nat­u­ral for­est pro­cesses to elim­i­nate un­wanted plant ma­te­rial and im­prove soil qual­ity. “We have lay­ered the soil with veg­etable waste, ma­nure, leaves and straw and will leave it like this for a few months,” says Laura.

They plan to grow cu­cum­ber, zuc­chini, basil, tomato and wa­ter­melon, for con­sump­tion and sale.

They’re us­ing their own grey wa­ter (re­us­able waste wa­ter from baths, kitchen sinks, wash­ing ma­chines etc) for ir­ri­ga­tion, which means they’ve had to make a few big life­style changes to en­sure chem­i­cals don’t kill their crops.

“I use only nat­u­ral prod­ucts like shikakai in my hair, and yo­ghurt as a nat­u­ral con­di­tioner,” Laura says. “Be­san makes for an ex­cel­lent face wash and we use ash and lemon rind to clean our ves­sels.”

Their next big step will be build­ing a com­post toi­let that will turn exc­reta into com­post. “So far, vis­it­ing rel­a­tives have been in awe of how we’ve man­aged to change our en­tire life­style, but I don’t know if hav­ing to use a com­post toi­let will change their opin­ion,” she laughs.


When Peter Fer­nan­des and Rosie Hard­ing, both 49, started grow­ing or­ganic veg­eta­bles about seven years ago in their 600sq-m kitchen gar­den in Goa, it was be­cause they wanted fresh, chem­i­cal-free pro­duce.

By 2014, they had heard about an on­line PDC by Ge­off Law­ton, an Aus­tralian stu­dent of Bill Mol­li­son, and were in­trigued.

“We signed up for the six-month course, which isn’t as in­tense as the 12-day ones,” says Fer­nan­des. The on­line course of­fers video clips, e-books and a 24x7 com­mu­nity of per­ma­cul­ture farm­ers and in­struc­tors.

“This gives you enough time to try things and come back with doubts and ques­tions, which was so help­ful,” he says.

Their home is now sur­rounded by poul­try, guinea fowl, an api­ary, and scores of ed­i­ble plants and trees, in­clud­ing mango, guava, orange, gourds, spinach, beans, herbs and chill­ies, none of which is sold.

“Not hav­ing any com­mer­cial com­mit­ments helps us ex­per­i­ment with chang­ing lay­outs,” Fer­nan­des says.

For money, they de­pend on their sav­ings. “A per­ma­cul­ture kitchen gar­den may not help you buy a new smart­phone or take an in­ter­na­tional va­ca­tion, but it will keep on your toes, ex­cited about con­nect­ing all the dots and try­ing to keep the cy­cle go­ing in the best pos­si­ble way.”

But one can’t dive in ex­pect­ing a so­lu­tion to your farm­ing prob­lems. “You don’t learn to farm when you do a PDC, you just learn to work, and even­tu­ally live, by a dif­fer­ent set of ethics and prin­ci­ples.”


■ (Clock­wise from above) N Kop­pula’s 11.5-acre perma-farm in Te­lan­gana. ‘It’s not just a set of farm­ing tech­niques, but ideally a sys­tem that evolves with lit­tle hu­man in­ter­fer­ence, where flora and fauna co-ex­ist, and even ben­e­fit from each other,’ he says.A home is hand­sculpted by vol­un­teers on the Geeli Mitti farm in Naini­tal. As you min­imise your im­pact on the earth, per­ma­cul­ture in­vari­ably leads to changes in life­style.Har­vests tend to be small. This bunch of radish was the first on Laura Khanna’s 1-acre farm in Panch­gani.One of the 12 prin­ci­ples of per­ma­cul­ture in­volves spread­ing the word and work­ing with tra­di­tional farm­ers in the area.

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