Ranjit Seneviratne and the forest in his yard

By Bernadine Rodrigo

Most of us today depend on supermarkets and other grocery stores for our daily essentials. But at a time when going out seems like a privilege, we understand that having all we need in our house itself would be a wonderful option.

Ranjit Seneviratne is a thoughtful elderly individual who has been having just that for quite some time. 

Below are excerpts of Seneviratne’s interview with The Sunday Morning Brunch on his interesting journey of gardening and sourcing his own food:

For how long have you been growing your own greens in your garden?

For about 12 years as a forest garden and from around mid-2004 as a normal garden, following my retirement. But I started doing bits and pieces as and when I was living there before, while I was employed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) – first as a consultant in various countries and then permanently at their headquarters from 1979 to 1998.

Do you gather all your vegetables from your garden or are there times you have to purchase from outside?

I eat only salads of raw leaves and berries and therefore grow only herbs and edible weeds – murunga, cheena batu, ambarella, soursop, and kathuru murunga, for their leaves and flowers along with root veggies like engili ala and rathu ala. I purchase other salad ingredients like root veggies with leaves such as carrots, beets, turnips, knolkhol, ladies fingers, cabbage, leeks, and sweet potato only from organic suppliers. Other ingredients I buy are frozen fruits, dried fruits and nuts, powdered herbs, seaweed, and fermented foods.

How have you been managing your finances when it comes to growing your food?

I have never kept an account as about 80% of my food is from my garden, but I buy organic rice and the other organic veggies and fruits for my wife and the people who help us. Food is health, so I do not count the cost.

How would you describe your garden?

Right at the side of the driveway entrance I am setting up a “community forest garden” of edible leaves, spice herbs, berries, etc. for anyone to come in and help themselves. The only problem is our people sometimes break branches and pull out the whole plant.

I have a two-track cement driveway with a centre of grass and two side verges (to maximise water absorption into the ground). The two side verges have fruit trees (about 26) which provide shade and form a leafy tunnel which oxygenises the incoming exhaust gas-tainted air from the main roads (part of my natural air-con system) as the air blows through a permanently open window through the house. (I had air conditioners but they rusted up due to non-use).

By the side of the kitchen is the food garden with most of the plants in pots for easy access. I have three ponds, two with waterfall features against the walls which come on when the sun falls on the walls, so that the evaporating water cools the walls. I have terraced the land to maximise water absorption with one pond at the lowest level, lined with cemented “boxes” kept moist and “marsh-like” for marsh-type herbs.

On the other side of the house, I have set up the forest garden – a mix of trees and plants of all types. The soil is covered with mulch from tree pruning while the unwanted grass is cut and used to make cow dung; I do not use dung from outside as it may be tainted with chemicals and imported GM (genetically modified) feeds.  I also use only harvested rainwater and tubewell water.

What drove you towards labouring in your own garden?

It’s not labour. It’s great fun because I use my garden as a working lab where I experiment with all sorts of things – rainwater harvesting systems, natural air conditioning (not just cooling of stale air), anti-dengue systems, forest gardening without fertilisers, making charcoal and cow dung, and converting food waste directly to soil nutrients.

Presently, a rapid composter for large leaves and a community garden at the entrance for anybody to help themselves to leaves, and later berries for free, is a demonstration of community gardens and agro-forests that can be set up all over municipal and government lands. In addition, the garden gives me great joy and pleasure because there are all sorts of butterflies and birds (some become rather friendly). I was visited by a peacock and peahen once; they walked right by me along the driveway and now I have two beehives (small bees).

What benefits would you say you’ve personally experienced being dedicated to maintaining your own organic garden?

Absolutely fantastic health, healing of all illnesses, no cough or cold for about eight years, hair growth where I was bald, being able to sprint and climb trees again, etc.

How carefully must a garden such as yours be tended?

As it is a forest garden, it basically looks after itself. However, it needs watering during drought; I have to remove a few weeds, prune trees as the garden is small, cut up large leaves with an electric shredder machine (to be replaced with the rapid composter I hope to make), and cut up grasses for cow dung production.

I used to do these myself, but I now use a helper as I need more time for work on the computer, etc.

Were you always interested in gardening, even as a child?

Yes, we came as refugees from Malaysia after World War II and had to grow things ourselves both during the war and to help our home in Sri Lanka. My father gave each one of us four kids a plot to grow our own gardens (with a prize for the best, which my little sister won), besides helping with the main garden (collecting cow dung, watering, etc.).

We heard that gardening has therapeutic abilities. Have you experienced this?

Well, as everyone knows, it provides exercise and agility (squatting, climbing trees), gives you a dose of vitamin D (working shirtless in the sun), joy and pleasure when birds come to you and fish respond to your voice, and now with the latest information on the microbiome, walking and touching plants transfer their bacteria, viruses, etc. to us and strengthen our own immunity. Eating leaves and fruits straight off the tree is even better, as you get to ingest the good bacteria and viruses that may have been destroyed by our use of antibiotics (we avoid using them now).

We also heard that the inside of your house is as fascinating as the outside. Could you tell us about a few mementos you have collected?

I’ve collected all sorts of things from my travels all over the world – first as a marine engineer and then working for the FAO – that would interest and educate my children, grandkids, and children who visit us.

I have a collection of masks and musical instruments that are of cultural significance, pictures made with unusual materials and styles, small collections of real fossils, varieties of stones and crystals, sea shells, and small souvenirs that also reflect the culture of different peoples, and a few of my own nick-knacks – what I collected as a youngster.

Lastly, during this time of curfew, do you ever miss going outside?

I do not miss anything because I can keep busy with my garden. I do need some inputs like plastic netting for a project I want to experiment, but I cannot get the materials I need. In the meantime, I am making my community garden (for the poor to pick what they need) to be as fruitful as possible.

But my greatest fear is the effect on the defenseless poor. The action on the poor by Sri Lanka and India defies rational explanation and points to unpleasant and even dire speculation.