“The wasps are my friends… I just let them make their homes and stay,” Sujata Goel said gently. There was a stifled shriek from one side, then someone plucked up the courage to ask, “There are wasps in these trees?”
“Oh! A lot!” Goel replied, sounding thrilled, oblivious to the impact her words were having on the ragged bunch of city folk. Eyebrows were raised, necks craned, we nervously scanned the trees for an impending attack. Our group, a bunch of urban-dwelling families from across India, were taking our time acclimatising to the Rainforest Retreat, the guesthouse at Mojo Plantation in Madikeri, Coorg.
For a long time, I had dreamed of plucking salad leaves from the balcony of my home in Mumbai. I’d experimented with growing green chillies, tomatoes, basil, mint, curry leaves, spinach, and other edible plants. But after repeated attacks by white flies, ants, fungus, and other unknown pests, and when the neem sprays, turmeric, and chilli powder didn’t help, I gave up. Yet in this place, Sujata and her husband Anurag, had managed to keep their twenty-acre farm free of all chemical pesticides.
Twenty years ago, the Goels, one a botanist and the other a molecular biologist, had promising careers in a laboratory in Delhi. But they felt the lab was isolated from the practical realities of the world. So they packed up and moved to Madikeri in Karnataka. It took them around five years to clean the soil of the chemicals it had already been exposed to, but since then Mojo has run as a certified organic farm.
We followed Goel’s firm steps and made our way from the wooded, gently landscaped guesthouse into the farm, where they grow vegetables and spices for the family and guests. Mojo Retreat encourages the natural rainforest ecosystem to flourish, and only grows plants that can survive in the shade of existing trees. This earth-friendly philosophy gives their farm the feel of a thriving forest. We tramped through dense foliage, stepping over thick undergrowth and rain-fed rivulets to see the cardamom and coffee plants, and delicate black pepper creepers. The trees here are fairly spread out, which helps preserve the ecosystem. It seemed to be working well since the produce was plentiful: turmeric, ginger, banana, orange, pineapple, and vanilla plants with bunches of long, green pods. With Goel guiding us, we caught a glimpse of this intricate ecosystem, inhabited by bats, frogs, lizards, shrews, and mantises. We saw birds feeding on caterpillars, spiders capturing insects, and wasp larvae, which I learned feed on caterpillars, keeping numbers of the leaf-chomping creatures in line.
At one point, I instinctively reached out to pluck a dry, yellow leaf—something I do in my own balcony garden. Goel stopped me, explaining that “the plant knows when to drop it, and needs the nutrition that the dead leaf provides.” It was one of the many things I learned during my stay at the Rainforest Retreat.
As we walked, we talked about the perils of adopting an organic lifestyle. I told Goel about how most cultivators of vegetables say that going organic is very difficult, and for consumers, buying pest-free produce is expensive. She agreed that prices aren’t likely to come down until organic farming is embraced on a large scale, but growing pest-free vegetables “was doable if you just imitate forest ecosystems as much as you can”. The couple also runs an NGO, called WAPRED, which raises environmental issues and develops sustainable methods of agriculture. “It’s a slow revolution,” she admitted, but the rewards I could see, were rich.
In the rainforest, there is no lingering dusk to ready you for the darkness that follows. It descends swift, deep, and inky black. As the stars began to peep through the foliage, tiny lights showed us to the dining area where we had a meal made with vegetables grown on the plantation. Sitting there, eating that simple, homely meal, I felt as if nature and man, needs and life, were nourishing each other.
Returning home I approached my edible garden with renewed enthusiasm—and a new goal: to create an ecosystem. I now allow spiders to take up residence in the corners of my balcony. I see butterflies fluttering about my flowers, and I hope they lay eggs so that there are larvae, to attract still more insects. I no longer pluck yellow leaves from my plants, and after some teething problems, I now have a functioning home composting unit that converts my food waste into rich soil. It might be a while before I can grow everything I eat, but I have already had two successful spinach harvests, and a bounty of basil, mint, curry leaves, and coriander.
Appeared in the May 2015 issue as “Finding My Mojo”. Updated in October 2017.
Rainforest Retreat is about 10 km from Madikeri town, in the Kodagu (Coorg) district of Karnataka. It is a 120 km/ 3 hour drive from Mysore and a 250 km/6 hour drive from Bengaluru.
Rainforest Retreat is closed during the monsoon, except for researchers or guests with special interests. Post monsoon, from September to mid-November, the temperatures are moderate, and perfect to experience the cardamom harvest. From late-November to February, temperatures dip to a pleasant 8°C at night, and days are suitable for treks. If you are a coffee addict, December is the time for the coffee harvest. In summer, from March to May, the air is warm and infused with the scent of ripening fruits and the smell of coffee blossoms. In April, you can see fireflies in the valley, and get to observe/participate in the hand pollination of vanilla flowers.
There are three accommodation options at Mojo Rainforest Retreat: deluxe cottage rooms (₹4,000), plantation cottage rooms (₹3,000) and tents (₹2,000). Rates are for doubles and include breakfast and a half-day trek or a two-hour plantation tour (+91-9480104640; www.rainforestours.com).
Bhavani is a traveller by choice and writer by desire. She believes that "backyard" discovery is as enriching as any other travel. She is in a dedicated relationship with books, dogs, chocolate, her husband and lower case, in no order of preference. She tweets as @bhavan1.