There are many people in Kerala who are interested in afforestation, and have taken the initiative to put up Miyawaki forests on their own. Introducing a few of them to you every now and then is a matter of great pleasure for us.

Mr Hari Kumar is a computer engineer who took his B. Tech. degree from NIT, Kozhikode, M. Tech. from IIT, Chennai, and works with the VSSC in Thiruvananthapuram. He was raised in the brahmin colony at Puthentheruvu near the Padmanabha Swamy temple. His father was employed in the Reserve Bank of India, and worked at various places before settling down in Ernakulam. Mr Hari Kumar was introduced to gardening and farming very early in life by his father. Let us hear the rest from him.

Your interest in agriculture began while you were in Ernakulam?

How much land did you own there?
A plot of eight cents and a house in it.

What about your family?
My parents, my sister and myself and my paternal grandmother. Both my parents would go for work and return rather late, whereas we could return from school early. We had a domestic help at home. So, the four of us – my sister, my grandmother, the help and myself – would cultivate something or the other in our plot and the vacant adjacent plot as well, that belonged to my father’s friend.

What did you raise there?
Virtually everything, and we used to get good yields. Yard long beans, snake gourd, amaranthus, lady’s finger, even peanuts. The soil there was very fertile, and it yielded rich harvests.
So, when you came here, you bought this house and then this plot as well. This tree – spotted sterculia – came to my notice only four months back, when I noticed it in the plot owned by Dr Sunil, an Ayurvedic physician at Kaniyapuram. It was already there in the compound where he put up his clinic. It produces very beautiful orange-coloured berries. It was my colleague Mr Cherian Mathew who identified it for me. Later when the tree bore those berries, I went there to collect the seeds.  No one knows what medicinal value it has.  But when I went there the third time, the tree was not there. It had been chopped down because it did not seem to serve any purpose. Nobody raises that tree. Here, I found a couple of trees that are not favoured by anyone. One is the spotted sterculia itself. The others are Malabar kino and chandada. People ask why such a huge chandada tree should be maintained. They fear it will break and topple over. Those who do agriculture can never tolerate trees that serve no specific purpose. What made you think differently?
As you mentioned, sir, I bought this plot in this somewhat-remote area in 2005. At that time, the entire place was forest-like. All I had was this five-cent plot and a pathway. This region was full of trees. Most of them were chandada. Ever since we constructed a house here and moved in, we have enjoyed the benefits of living near a forest. Even when it is scorching hot outside, we don’t need to switch on the air-conditioner. There is no scarcity of water. The well is full. When I ride a motorcycle from the city and approach this area, I begin to feel the cool ambience. Consequently, I began to feel greatly attached to the trees. That is why I don’t chop down any. Everyone who comes here remarks that I cultivate a lot of useless trees, and recommends planting other varieties.

When did you buy this plot?
Only two years back.
Usually when someone buys a plot, people advise them to construct a house there.
True. Everyone asked me to build a house. Later, all the trees in this area were cut down as part of development. The difference could be felt immediately. Many other trees stood there too but when another developer bought that land, all of them were cut. Soon we started to feel the force of winds. That was when we began to understand the gravity of deforestation. We didn’t have to fear about these trees because there was a barrier of trees on the other side. But now these trees sway violently in the wind. So we pruned several branches. Nobody knew what tree it was. The woodchopper was the person who told me it is Malabar kino. Birds are very fond of it, and roost there every evening.
Its leaves offer them the right kind of refuge.
The tender leaves are beautiful. We watch it from our terrace. I have not seen its seeds though.
Spotted sterculia is also equally attractive. It’s red in colour. The berries are more beautiful than the flowers.
My father loves the tree immensely. That is why we retain it. The other day, when he called from Ernakulam, he asked me to send him photos of its fruits as soon as they appear.
When new leaves sprout on Malabar kino, the tree looks gorgeous. Just like the red leaves of Cinnamomum travancoricum [locally known as therali]. I once saw flowering murdah trees – with white and red flowers – growing on a rock. Also fish poison bush. The tender leaves are a beautiful red. Such huge Indian bay leaf trees are not usually seen in cities. Its leaves are sought only during the time of the Attukal Pongala festival in order to make the therali sweets. After that purpose is met, no one needs it, even in their own compounds.
Even when its fallen leaves are swept off the ground, there is a sweet fragrance.
Actually, these leaves are used to adulterate Cinnamomum zeylanicum [known as karuvapatta]. I noticed its smell at my aunt’s place when an old Indian bay leaf tree was cut down, and the logs were used as firewood. The fragrance that spread when the wood burned was wonderful, and the kitchen became a scented place. So here, you planted a Miyawaki . . .
When all the trees here were cut down, I was upset. I wondered what I could do about it. That was when I happened to see your video, and came to realize that it was practicable in Kerala. And when I saw proof of it, I became confident that something could be done. That was how I started it.
This is six months old now, isn’t it? You did some pruning two weeks back, it appears.
The branches have been left on the ground itself. But the Miyawaki forest that was planted at the same time shows four times more growth.
Is that huge tree Malabar neem? That may have to be pruned. If you permit a few trees to grow big, that can create problems. The saplings down below may not be able to grow well. Among the plants that you have here, I see that Ashoka is missing.
I tried to purchase its sapling but did not get it.
I have it. I shall give it to you. We can choose the big variety of Ashoka. And also neem tree. It is said that neem tree is more effective in purifying the air than the fig or banyan tree. It is difficult to raise though. I have a three-foot-tall neem sapling. It takes nearly one year of nurturing for a neem sapling to grow that tall. The reason why you don’t find these tall saplings in plant nurseries is that people go there and ask for sapling worth Rs 30. If a nursery owner raises a sapling for a year, it becomes profitable only if he sells it at Rs 300 or Rs 400. Besides, if he raises 100 saplings, only 60 may survive. So he has to recover the losses from whatever survives. There are people who respond to this by asking, “In that case, why go for neem? Choose rambutan instead!” In earlier times, during the outbreak of small pox and chicken pox, the patient was made to take bath in neem water. In Tamil Nadu, neem leaves are boiled in water, and the water used for bathing children. Neem trees were planted on road sides.
When I bought this property, it had neem trees in it. They have been standing here for the last 10-15 years.
There was a neem tree in my mother’s property but it did not grow very tall. In Kerala, that does not seem to happen. But in the Parliament Street in Delhi, I have seen neem trees whose trunks are so thick that if we throw our arms around it our fingers won’t meet. But the tree doesn’t grow so thick here. However, new saplings sprout from its roots, and they spread in that manner.
The TGBRI [Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute, Thiruvananthapuram] has developed a brand of mosquito coil, which looks like an incense stick, using bark of 100-year-old neem tree as its major component. Neem leaves from Tamil Nadu are sourced for the project. But the product is not marketed in a big way.
You intend to leave this plot just like this, isn’t it? Plant certain other trees too that can be accommodated there.
I have seen a couple of your videos about trees that can be planted for their shade.
There are a few things that can be done. You can train a passion fruit vine over this coral wood tree. It will climb up and bear a lot of fruits. Many of them will be consumed by bats but when the bats come they’ll leave behind seeds of other trees. So, a natural form of seed dispersal will take place. You can also train the long pepper vine on it. Do come to Puliyarakonam. I shall show you that vine. Its flower spikes are red and very beautiful in appearance. The seeds can be dried and used as medicine. Like the pepper vine, the long pepper vine also grows up over the trees. You can also think of growing betel leaf vine on the tree. It will go right up to the top, if you give it some manure. Clove trees too can be grown here.
But the soil is not very fertile. Only the trees planted using the Miyawaki method have really thrived. The rest have not grown much. Our earlier experience at Kochi was a good one. The soil was so good that practically anything would grow there. But here we have red soil, laterite.
But there are plenty of leaves here. Don’t waste them. Add them, cow dung and coir, and the soil quality will definitely improve over a period of time. When earthworms increase in number you will see the difference. You can think of mulching.
Yes, I did it once.

Do simple mulching by spreading coconut leaflets at the base of the plants. Even the coconut leaf stem will rot in course of time, and bring about changes in the soil. What does your wife do?
She has completed her Ph. D. in Biotechnology, and is looking out for a job.
Biotechnology has a small link with trees. Otherwise, in other families we usually see great resistance to planting of trees near the house, because of fear of snakes.
My family too had similar fears. But we have been living here for the last 10 years, and have spotted only rat snakes. But the locals tell a different tale. Once when a driver came here, he said he saw a snake, a poisonous one.
Our people cannot recognize a rat snake when they see one. The poisonous varieties do not move about so openly. But people always claim to see them. Vipers can be seen swimming here and there. But if we consider all these factors, we won’t be able to undertake any project. Biju Menon wrote an article in the Malayala Manorama the other day stating that 3292 persons lost their lives in motor accidents in Kerala, last year, and 1,000 pedestrians too got killed. That means even without being inside a vehicle or encountering a snake, the chances of your losing your life as a pedestrian on the road are very high. The total number of people who were gored by wild boars was 22. Those who died of snake bite were also 22 in number. Most among the victims died because they lived in interior, wooded areas and did not get medical help in time. Statistically speaking, the difference between 4200 and 22 shows that forests are not be feared. But we are gripped by fear when we think of forests.

Don’t you say in your videos that the forests may be encircled by a parapet cement wall like this? And also cement the outer area. Keep it neat. That is what we ourselves follow.
Snakes will not chase us. They simply go about in search of prey. Even in earlier times, our kavus [sacred groves] were very close to houses. As people in Pambummekkattu mana say, the snakes will go their way. Some people even scold the snakes, and ask why they are wandering about!  Old grandmothers claim that it is not customary for snakes to move around so openly. If it eats a prey, it will come out into the open only much later. Maybe people see a lot of snake-catchers on TV. That’s why there is so much fear. We had a lot of snakes earlier in these parts. But their numbers have dwindled. My mother’s ancestral house stood in a 70-cent plot, and we would spot a snake only once in a year, maybe inside an abandoned well or slithering along a path. They don’t enter homes. Rat snakes in garden plots were a common sight, as they moved about to catch rats.
Forests have been planted so close to the house, and the trees are fairly old. We talk about carbon sequestration. These trees are very effective for that as well as for nitrogen fixation. You have designated this plot of land for growing trees. In common perception, you are allowing your land to go waste! I have to congratulate you on that specially!

You just met Mr Hari Kumar, a knowledgeable and well-educated person. His wife too is highly educated. Although most people are gifted with logical thinking, nobody ever uses that faculty. But this couple have used their sense of logic, and lived here for 10 years amidst trees and plants without ever feeling threatened by snakes. When a developer came here, bought a lot of land and cut down many trees, they perceived a change in the atmosphere.

Many of us do not realize this. We pave tiles all around our house. Mr Hari Kumar owns a five-cent plot here. He has two children. So many people advise him to construct a house in the plot for the children’s sake. But that prospect is at least 30 years away. We cannot predict where they will be at that point of time – in New York, Delhi, Thiruvananthapuram or Puthentheruvu – and that is for the children to decide. Instead of building a house for them and allowing it to grow old, it is wiser to have a forest and create a fabulous atmosphere for them now. In fact, I feel jealous of them.

When my daughter was small, we lived in a rented house, and that was where she enjoyed a similar atmosphere. The other place was her ancestral house she visited during vacations. Here, these children enjoy the opportunity of playing with coral wood seeds. I doubt if there are 100 children residing in cities in the entire state of Kerala who get a chance to play like this with coral wood seeds. I guess, these kids should be seen as fortunate ones. All said and done, let me say that I really enjoyed introducing such a person to you.