Rainforest Gardening

The term rainforest gardening is simply a friendly alternative to the term rainforest (ecosystem) restoration. The way we use the term, and the way we try to actualize it, has cognates with more formal terms such as ex-situ conservation, in-situ conservation and species rehabilitation, all combining together to form ecosystem restoration or forest restoration or habitat restoration, depending on the scale on which the work is done. Another term that is useful here is horticulture.

Gardening, as we understand it at the Sanctuary, is about discovering the language between plants, animals, earth, stone, air and water, and humans. When we experience this truly as a conversation, as a flow between beings, it is then an elegant, meaningful and mutually beneficial way to participate in the community of nature.

Rainforest gardening : a locally relevant expression of this: is a life of community and reciprocal support between rainforest beings. Such gardening is borne on an understanding that the land and all who inhabit it, and all the waters and winds that flow through it are an interdependant whole; a living unity.

Rainforest gardening is thus a catch-all term indicating amazing possibilities. Using it, however, also requires some caveats. This page is an attempt to unravel both, as well as to share some of what we do at the Sanctuary.

Why, the caveats?

Because there is a flip side, an historical and conventional flip side, to the second half of the term, gardening, which we need to talk about here, before we get to the work of the Sanctuary.

In some ways the conventional use of the term gardening does not represent our actions and concerns at the Sanctuary. In some ways, gardening as it is usually conceived and practiced the world over, is diametrically opposite to what we intend here. In some ways the term garden, both as noun and the verb, to garden is problematic in our context.

This is not to deny the beauty and wonder of many gardens, nor to deny the knowledge and skills of dedicated gardeners. There is no doubt that there exist incredible gardens, grown from great traditions of cultivation and collection that please the human eye and other senses, serving a variety of functions. There is no argument that gardens can be areas of creative expression that showcase a culture's ancient or modern connections with plants.

Let us now examine some definitions of "garden".

Chamber's dictionary: a piece of ground to cultivate flowers; a place of enjoyment.

Wikipedia: a garden is a planned space, usually outdoors set aside for the display, cultivation, and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature.... The etymology of the word refers to enclosure: it is from Middle English gardin, from Anglo-French gardin, jardin, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German gard, gart, an enclosure or compound. The words yard, court, and Latin hortus (meaning "garden," hence horticulture and orchard), are cognates-all referring to an enclosed space. The term "garden" in British English refers to an enclosed area of land, usually adjoining a building. This would be referred to as a yard in American English.

Wikipedia then goes on to list the elements of a garden (soil, water, light etc), and the many types of gardens. Please take a look at this. You will find two or three types of gardens in the long list given there, that will resonate with our work, outlined further below.

While Wikipedia includes "other forms of nature", a garden, by historical definition, and to most people the world over, almost inevitably is not natural. Gardens are valued, in fact, most often because they are "unnatural". What do we mean by this?

By convention gardens are collections of plants. They may include great variety, or just give preference to one or two species. They are artificial (contrived, as opposed to spontaneous; synthetic as opposed to natural) assemblages of selected species or hybrids, most often not of that place. They almost always require management, control and design. Gardens require gardeners!

Gardens are rarely communities, where the symbiotic relationships between planted plants and other plants and insects and birds and fungi and bacteria hold sway, where interdependence and mutuality are recognized to be key to the wellbeing of the garden. To use two well known scientific terms, neither natural selection nor the course of ecological succession (proceeding through a series of dynamic and changing communities), will be permitted in a garden.

In other words, gardens usually are outdoor spaces where natural diversity is replaced by exotic varieties that are less helpful to the earth, to wildlife, to waterbodies, to nitrogen flow and soil health, and to the breathing flows of local environments (carbon dioxide, oxygen and water vapour), than communities formed of nonhumans that belong to that place.

Most gardens necessitate the importation of materials which are either the products of industry or of extracted reserves, i.e. from elsewhere. They require to be watered, and they require to be treated for disease, and there is a constant tussle with other plants or with animals seen to be destructive, or ugly or simply unnecessary.

A garden thus arrests nature's natural progression and involves efforts to hold at bay, or counter or destroy the myriad, unpredictable influences of the wild. The direction of growth, is defined by the vision of the gardener, and rarely by the place itself, nor the original inhabitants of that place, which of course, in a city, would be hard to know what they were, as most outdoor spaces are covered in tar or concrete, or lawngrass, and only a few experts know what the natural ecosystem of that city might be.

Ironically, in a city, a garden, will behave as a refuge for living beings. If you consider a landscape of concrete, then a garden, or strips of gardens (front yards and back yards) or larger botanic gardens or parks will behave as oases for wild or feral animals, wild and feral plants, and they will all together, alter the local environment for the better. And of course, most of these wild and feral beings may at some point enter into conflict with the gardener, who needs to manage and shape (and control) this outdoor place of plants for human utility or aesthetic purposes.

A simple rule to remember is this: if a garden replaces concrete, it is, ecologically speaking, a step in the right direction. However, if a garden replaces a forest, then it is, ecologically speaking, a step in the wrong direction. That which is wrong ecologically, could be said to be wrong ethically and practically, as there can be no greater basis for life than an ecological one, the measure being a healthier community, a healthier landbase, a healthier ecosystem and a healthier planet.

If gardens replace forests and prairies and wetlands, then the earth can be considered to be impoverished, destroyed. If gardens replace manmade deserts, toxic wastelands and concrete, then the earth can be considered to be enriched, more healthy.

In the last 30 years or so (though the very origin of this is older), a peculiar revolution has been happening amongst some gardeners and in some gardens in different parts of the world, which turns the whole purpose of gardening by 180 degrees, back to the wild. The very same tools accompanied by an entirely different set of sensibilities are now indispensable to achieving something very different.

Gardeners, who look towards the wild for their metaphors, for their guidance and their goals, are in fact indispensable to the global cause of ecological restoration.

The reason why, at the Sanctuary we use the term gardening is that it conveys a set of practices and techniques, an array of sensibilities and attunements and strategies that can be very useful for assisting wild nature, for allying with living beings to mitigate the disastrous effects of depletion and destruction, for healing the earth from holocaust.

Stop a moment here.

To us at GBS, and all our friends similarly concerned, there is no doubt that ecological holocaust is upon us. Ecosystems are collapsed or collapsing the world over. Species are dying at unprecedented rates from the global-scale impact of industrial civilization. The effects of this devastation will be long lasting, no one knows how long.

The death of species and the death of ecosystems go hand in hand. There can be no community without the members of the community. The death of ecosystems goes hand in hand with the dangerous disruption of global hydrospheric, atmospheric and biospheric processes. Some scientists extend this effect to tectonic and lithospheric processes as well. (Deforestation leads to global warming leads to ice melt leads to changes in water pressure, weight and movement, leads to increased friction between underlying continental plates, leads to increased earthquakes of greater magnitude).

Healing trashed ecosystems is the work of ecosystem gardeners.

Such gardeners (who manifest, in their green fingers, several disciplines ranging from botany to plant physiology, horticulture, soil science and ecology) know a lot about plants, and a great deal about how they grow. They know a lot about the preferences of individual plants, of the various plant life forms (climbers, creepers, trees, tubers, epiphytes, annual and perennial herbs). They also know how these different plants together create a place aboveground and below ground, how they together make things happen that were not possible before. They recognize that plants create environments. In scientific terms, they know a great deal about the structural and functional components of an ecosystem, and not only that, they are able to grow them in ways that resemble the natural ecosystem, that encourage ecosystemic processes back to the place.

In fact increasingly more and more gardeners and gardens (though still way short of the numbers needed) are recognizing the dire need for this, and how gardening can actually be re-invented and re-deployed, to turn wastelands and destroyed areas into environments rich with species, and to enhance and repair or restore broken and trashed environments in ways that bring back whole system processes as well as the many beings together which are inseparable from these processes. For instance water flow is mediated by plants; soil organic matter requires bacteria and roots of plants and all kinds of beetles and worms and fungi. Coolness is brought about by the layers of leaves, which then help condensation of moisture from the air that moves through.

Such gardening is called conservation gardening, and as it is attentive to native species, natural processes and native habitats, it can also be called wild gardening or habitat or ecosystem gardening. If it is in the rainforest then it is called rainforest gardening. If in the desert it is desert gardening. If in the prairies, prairie gardening.

All this is far from being a new discovery. In some parts of the world, ancient gardens still exist which are almost indistinguishable from the surrounding forest. It is well known that Amazonian Indians planted and tended and harvested all through the Amazon in ways that encouraged the extraordinarily high species diversity, and natural forest structure. Likewise, Kerala and Sri Lanka's traditional home gardens amazingly diverse, and they were good for the earth, good for forests, good for streams and fish and birds and frogs, and good for humans, and moreover, beautiful to the eye.

This kind of gardening is closer to our work with the native plant species of the forests of the Western Ghats, the main difference being we are primarily concerned with the most endangered plants, which are non-edible, non-medicinal, non-utilitarian (as in resin, pulp, timber, fibre), which are inconspicuous (non-ornamental) species, and therefore all (uneconomic) species. In fact, we almost completely focus on the species ignored till now by modern societies (to our collective peril), for it is these species in their diversity and entirety that make up the forest, in its diversity and entirety.

Conventional forestry does not embrace this abundance of diversity.

Lack of diversity in plant species, and underrepresentation of lifeforms that comprise a habitat (climbers, tubers, trees, herbs, epiphytes, annual and perennial) means unhealthy forests, or green deserts, which are not forests at all. Weak forests or no forests means no climate and no ecosystem services, no water.

At GBS we follow some of the procedures of conventional gardens, in a part of the place. There are collections organized around themes, or botanical families, there are nurseries and seed germination sheds, there are thousands of potted plants, there are landscaped walkways and trails, there are artificial ponds. There is the regular set of garden chores everyday, weeding, watering, pruning, transplanting, managing disease, and there is the importation of materials.

Rough guide to Horticulture

But all this, in a tiny fraction of the whole space. A greater part of the Sanctuary lands, are left to the wild beings that naturally occur in this place, or voluntarily return to this place, which was destroyed almost completely before GBS's work began. These species return because there is wild forest on one side of the Sanctuary.

All this intense cultivation is organized around two or three principles.

The first is that the search and rescue part of the work, the ex-situ conservation side of things, requires a half way home for the rare and endangered species that we bring in from all over the mountains. None of these plants have ever been cultivated before, and there exists no books we can refer to, nor experts who can tell us about these species from these mountains. Since we don't want to store them in nitrogen freezes or germplasm banks inside vaults, and we want them to live, we need to grow them until we find ways to rehabilitate them to the wild, or to semi-wild environments, and we need to use every trick up our sleeves to increase their numbers so that their chances to survive also increase.

But, if you think a moment, it's rather crazy, that despite 10,000 years of agriculture, modern humans still have trouble growing cabbages and tomatoes. That, despite the fact that we use more than 60,000 wild plant species globally (of the known and named 300,000 or so), we are still unable to cultivate more than a few 100 kinds of plants at large scales.

This is because of two factors. One, we have not needed to do so till now, as we have been extracting most of these directly from the wild, in the belief that the wild will never get depleted. And, it is true that the wild, until industrial civilization hit it, was regenerative and fecund and self replenishing.

Second, we are largely unable to so. We still do not have the sensitivity and skills to grow wild species, unless we take recourse to high tech methods, which would then severely limit how much we can grow. The main reason for this is that wild plants refuse cultivation unless wild environments are supported. The two go together. In fact, they mean the same thing.

Rainforest gardening, in summary requires all rainforest beings.

How does this translate in terms of work, practice and goals?

Here are some of the factors we take into consideration, factors gleaned from years of exploring the Western Ghat mountains and these forests.

For the garden to function truly as a natural community, as a rainforest, there are huge things we have to simply leave alone. A greater part of the area must be completely left wild, completely allowed to progress in whichever direction it naturally moves towards.

We aim for a seamless continuity between the "garden" and the "forest", where the boundaries are blurred, non-existent. Plants, animals, spores, seeds, mist, organic molecules, cloud and water flow back and forth through these spaces.

Within the 60 acre Sanctuary, some 45 are left largely alone. In a few, we pull out exotic (tea, rubber, silver oak) plantations to allow native species quicker access to do their job. In about 5 we intervene in great detail, every plant is known and every population, every niche and every habitat are observed and recorded and worked on carefully. What is astonishing is, how in these tiny areas, many species have indeed reached "population" size, and how these different populations form wonderfully diverse communities, with hundreds of species, each with large self propagating numbers. These in fact have spread out to areas, which were once bare ground, or very depleted environments. The numbers therefore are huge and the genetic aspect - robust.

This is the nub of our work. How can we bring the cool oxygenating interior of the rainforest back onto the land? How can we bring health back to this biome? How long does this take: 10 years, 20, 35? For this we need to work in close consonance with all the other living things that conspire to make this happen.

Of course, we can never kid ourselves that this is as good as primary forest, but it is very clear that this approach takes the whole environment closer to wild nature, than a tea garden or a eucalyptus plantation would, than most forest farms would and most afforestation schemes would.

Regrown forest replete with native species (ferns, mosses, orchids, rattans, strobilanths, balsams, aroids, gingers and a diversity of shrubs, lianas and trees) is a powerful way to put ecosystem properties back on the land but never, never can it be done in place of old growth forest.

To discover more about rainforest gardening and its many strands please follow the links to ex-situ conservation; Plants, Animals, Land and The Western Ghats.