Lessons in creating our own forest

Planting tree saplings in a one acre farm

Yesterday we planted 15 out of the 26 varieties of tree saplings we had identified. 

Our list of trees we wish to plant is much longer, however given the fact that it is monsoons and we would like to do most of the work between the two of us if not all on our own, our pace is much slower.

Our farm is 1.5 acres and there was already a fruit orchard on it in an approximate area of 5000 sqft. when we bought it. The orchard has mangoes, cheeku, cashew nuts and teak trees. It sounds fancy, but honestly the orchard resembles a mini forest as of now with wild grass, climbers and few other tree varieties, which we cannot identify, growing in every available square inch of the ground. It’s good in a way but also has its own challenges. Good because the ground is covered all year round and there is ample organic matter. It is a challenge because, to introduce and grow anything new something old has to be removed. Plus, it is also home to fauna we may not be very comfortable with at this point. Example, just yesterday I almost stepped on a snake’s tail. Thankfully it had the sense to sense our presence and move away in time, before we could both embarrass each other!

We had been planning the list of trees we wanted to plant for a very long time, infact, even before we had bought the place. It may sound funny but ask any person who wants to start farming or get close to nature. You’ll hear the same thing. We spend a lot of time day dreaming. While the list was ‘almost’ ready at all times, we needed the exact map of the place so we could plan the planting. As soon as we bought the place, the first thing we did was to get the exact dimensions, shape and contours of the plot. Planning to plant becomes much easier if you also have the exact placement of any already existing trees or elements (like rocks, stream etc.) on the plot. In our case, the map already had a few of the trees marked out, but we knew the map was missing out on a lot more. So, we recced the plot again with our map and added the trees which were missed. We knew exactly how many trees the land had and how many more we could add. Well at least on paper!

A Bougainvillea sapling transplanted from

Before we had made the final payment for the land, which was around monsoons, we had already started creating a small nursery at home in the balcony. We did this with a couple of intentions – to learn through experimentation and observation, the best time to start a nursery (meaning sowing for grown saplings to plant) is a couple of months before monsoons, so we had a few saplings ready to be planted at the onset of monsoons, and last but not the least, we just couldn’t wait to start growing something and get our hands dirty. Happy to report that we were able to successfully nurture Gulmohar, Moringa, Neem tree saplings, which we also transplanted on the farm. They are thriving. The few other plant varieties, which we could nurture were chilies, bougainvillea, lemon, and orange, which we shall plant only once we are on the farm full time.

Coming back to the first bulk planting exercise (the 15 saplings). We bought the 26 varieties from a local botanical garden in Pune called the Empress Garden in July, which is also the peak monsoons time in Maharashtra. Before we visited the nursery to buy the saplings, we also invested a lot of time in researching. The main questions we had were:

  1. Which plant/tree varieties are local to Maharashtra and India?
  2. Are monsoons a good time to plant saplings and which ones do well with excessive water?
  3. What kind of spacing is best for the saplings and based on what factors is that determined?
  4. What kind of preparation does the soil need?
  5. What would be the best place to source the saplings from?

Through our research on the internet and a few friends who had already been through this exercise, we learned that:

  1. There are hundreds and thousands of indigenous varieties of trees and plants and the names can be found on different PDF documents on the internet. Here are links to two (Maharashtra | India). While there are numerous varieties, there are very few people who can genuinely identify them. So, just rely on saying ‘give Indian variety’ or seek people on communities on FB or any social network who preserve heirloom seeds. I am a part of the Organic Terrace Gardening network and the Permaculture Association of India. Both communities have experienced members who are helpful as well as resourceful.
  2. Monsoons are a good time to plant water loving varieties such as coconut, peepal, neem, gulmohar, etc. and different grasses. But not necessarily all tree varieties such as custard apple, amla etc., which are hardy and do not need much water love do well when planted during the rains. According to one view, it is best to plant saplings at least a month before the monsoons so the roots get ample time to adjust to the new environment and then naturally soak in the water from the monsoons as required. Since there wasn’t much concrete information available, we decided to learn through observation and experimentation again with our saplings. We picked varieties which we wanted to plant from the nursery (and a lot of them are already water loving) and plant them anyway.
  3. Once we had bought the saplings, we sat down with the map, which had the existing trees marked out, of our plot of land. After a lot of arguments and careful consideration, we pinned locations for the saplings – Water loving towards the stream, shorter trees on the eastern wall so they do not obstruct the view, bigger canopy trees in the corners, few fruit trees (mango, jack, amla) closer to the zone where we could build the living space, shade giving tree in the middle of the crop growing zone and so on. Next morning we drove to the farm with a lot of confidence only to find that more than half of the farm was flooded with water. The stream from the forest behind ours had widened and was gushing tons and tons of water and it found its natural flow through the land. We had to relook at our plan and find spots which made most sense and allowed digging and planting without water logging the pit. The saplings found their spot not based on our map and pinned locations, but based on wet and dry areas available to them. Such is nature and our first lesson was learned, humbly and with gratitude. Be ready to change your plans. We could find 15 spots with the given energy of two people, small tools and dry/drained land. In slightly larger drier, well-drained patches, we planted saplings at 10 – 12 feet apart, allowing a canopy of 20 -24 feet for a fully-grown tree. 
  4. Honestly, we trust the soil and the life in the sapling to figure the nutrition out in the most natural way. We did not prepare any soil. While we did read a lot about adding bio-mass, organic matter or manure in the pit before planting. We will allow nature to do its job and let the fittest sapling to survive. Because I believe, the one which are able to survive without additional input, would be the fittest and yield the sweetest fruit (literally and figuratively).
  5. Buying saplings was a big activity in itself… not the act itself but the place to buy it from. We were looking at factors such as authenticity, proximity of the source, and cost. We looked at online sources and then thankfully we bought from the botanical garden that runs its own nursery. The online one would have cost us 10x more, plus the wait time, carbon footprint from the transportation and zero control over the quality of the sapling. We realized that it is worth investing time in finding and exploring nurseries in and round our vicinity and the farm. Also, we do not shy away from asking for seeds from anyone or anywhere we find a plant/tree of our liking. More the merrier! Plus borrowing, begging or even stealing seeds is all a part of the game.

To optimize the use of the space, we will be looking at alternate and multi-tier pattern of planting. We will keep you posted on our experimentation of planting trees during monsoons. May all of them survive as they are no less dearer to us than our human or pet children. 

With love and grace,

Swadhaarani Eco Farm 

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