Jiva Garden – Krishna was the First Environmentalist

by JoAn Street

JoAn in garden bliss

I spent three weeks at Jiva Institute in Vrindavan India during the month of Kartik this past fall of 2013.  The purpose was to help implement a permaculture design that was done the previous year by Rico Zook, a wise pioneer of permaculture and two of his Indian students for the garden at Jiva Institute. In the end, this involved installing an irrigation pipe around the perimeter of the garden as well as under some interior paths, installing14 spigots (bals in hindi) to connect watering hoses to, making a new entrance stairway, laying out new pathways, mulching with straw, planting seeds and seedlings and building an herb spiral. The directive for the Jiva garden was to grow as much food and flowers as possible for the ashram. Obtaining a yield was important to Babaji. He wanted vegetables planted right up to the paths and in every available space. They were already implementing a lot of permaculture concepts at Jiva Institute, perhaps unknowingly; a jungle garden, where trees and shrubs of many varieties were combined with crops and/or livestock, the biogas system designed to catch and store energy and using small and slow solutions in dealing with obstacles.

Integration rather than separation

JoAn with “Pandit” and Divya

No time was wasted getting going on the project. The plumbers who installed the irrigation system were ready to go the day I arrived and worked efficiently throughout the project, as did the remarkable mason father and son apprentice who laid the paths and built the herb spiral. We got so much accomplished in such a short time because the workers were motivated to do their best work possible for Babaji Satyanarayana Dasa and Jiva Institute. Materials and people showed up miraculously it seemed. The morning of my arrival, I walked around the garden and was pleased to see all the food growing, but I also realized it would be difficult to implement the design as specified. The report had recommended “wiping the slate clean” so we could rearrange the garden beds, lay down the irrigation pipes and other earth shifting work, but as Jaya Devi eassured me, “that was a man’s way of doing it” and there didn’t have to be “death and destruction” as I had been told. In the end, integration rather than separation prevailed. Babaji walked me around and introduced me to all the fruit trees and creepers: Mangoes, lemon, orange, papaya, bael fruit, bananas …….

Garden tour with Babaji

He showed me the two olive trees and the grape vines he had just brought back from Italy. He specifically asked me to warn the workers not to disturb the newly planted olive trees. So I was horrified to find that very first afternoon, when Babaji came to inspect the work, the olive tree was gone. It was a sickening few minutes when we couldn’t find it, but fortunately we located it, discarded by the workers behind the brick inner wall. It was hastily transplanted and given fine treatment so that when I left three weeks later it was doing nicely. Better and easier approachThe irrigation system will make the gardener’s job of watering easier. Now the Jiva garden offers many places to get water from. We tried to have the interior irrigation pipes laid under the new paths so no plants would need to be disturbed if work needed to be done on the pipes. One of the biggest adjustments I see for the garden going forward is not using a tractor to turn up the soil as they are used to. Permaculture is against tilling the earth, feeling it disturbs the delicate networks playing out in the soil. Permaculture seeks to build up the soil as in a forest, with layer upon layer of organic matter giving food directly to the earth and plants. But regardless of this, the fact that irrigation pipes are laid a few centimeters under the ground prevents the use of tractors in the Jiva garden as they would surely damage the pipes. What won’t be missed hopefully is the petroleum used to run the tractor, the compaction of soil caused by the weight of the machine and the noise pollution.

Irrigation in progress

My hope is that over time, after observing and interacting with the systems, this new approach to gardening will prove to those caring for the garden directly that not only is it better for the garden, it is easier for the gardener too. The Indian hoses and joinery are very different from Western style hoses. We spent an afternoon trying to make a Western style sprinkler; going to a Mathura “hardware store” to buy various pieces of pipe and then to a village welder back in Vrindavan, who fabricated a very suitable stand for our sprinkler.  I was very much impressed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness shown by the workers that day, even though in the end the sprinkler didn’t function properly. We ordered Western hoses with spray nozzles over the internet since all we could find locally was stiff plastic tubing that needed to be clamped over the spigot. The hoses wouldn’t arrive until after I left and ultimately needed some couplers, which Bharat, the Ayurvedic therapist, was kind enough to bring with him from the United States along with some Western style sprinklers. In the end the irrigation system was working very nicely, watering up to half the garden at once.

A new relationship with cow manure

Babaji inspecting the work

We implemented the design working from patterns to details. We carved out paths around the existing beds that led throughout the entire garden. We tried to use organic curves and have them meander naturally. Babaji was interested more in the practicality of growing as much food as possible rather than aesthetics. Jaya, however, has a natural sense of what looks best. I was dismayed when the masons and I didn’t align the first step of the new entryway into the garden as Jaya had specified since I knew her keen eye would always notice the flaw. The paths were laid out meticulously with a nice local stone cut to measure and leveled. Because there were so many fruits and vegetables growing we didn’t sheet mulch. Rather a light dusting of straw was placed over amendments such as ash, compost and in places where the vegetables and fruits would be growing later in the months to come, we put down some cow manure. I now have a new relationship with cow manure. After forming cows from it for Gorvardhan Puja and also seeing it being used for fuel for the ashram I can appreciate the beauty of its many facets. I got to ride on the back of Pandit’s motorcycle through the countryside of Vraj. It was nice to see the Yamuna flowing and sparkling even though she looked weak and tired. We went to an open air market to buy cabbage and cauliflower seedlings tied in bunches, not planted in tiny trays as in the west, as well as spinach seeds weighed out by the gram. These were planted amongst the beds and along the paths. I also brought vegetable and flower seeds from the United States and planted them throughout the garden.  Permaculture stresses the use of layering; having small plants growing under taller plants which are growing under trees, and we tried to implement this where we could.

Vegetables,  ayurvedic herbs and surprise plants

We planted some unusual perennial vegetables, sea kale and Turkish rocket. Permaculture favors perennials because they are hardier; don’t need as much water and they self seed, letting nature do the work. We planted some flowers like calendula which not only attracts beneficial insects and pollinators but also is an Ayurvedic herb. The dried flowers make delicious tea. There were also some surprises planted!

Herb Spiral

There was an herb spiral in the original design but I didn’t think there would be enough time to complete it. Again, I was amazed that we committed to building it on one day and the materials arrived and work began the next day. We located it as in the original design just to the left when you come down the new entrance steps into the garden. The beauty of the herb spiral is not only is it a sacred, ancient symbol, but it also has functionality. It provides many different microclimates in a small area so a larger variety of plants can thrive there.  But just as important, you can fit 20 feet of garden into 6 foot diameter, saving space and maximizing edge Lastly, we repurposed two large wire pens to use as compost bins on the far side of the pasture behind the biogas system. The ideal is for the ashram to produce no waste but communication can be a problem. There are composting and recycling buckets at the dishwashing station for Jiva guests but I found the posted notices weren’t being adhered to and there was confusion about where to put what. The people visiting Jiva are from all over the world and many languages are spoken there. Perhaps making signs using pictures showing what goes where and what not to put in would be helpful.

Miraculous help

The Jiva garden project was blessed with many individuals who miraculously wanted to help in the garden and this was certainly another reason why things went so smoothly. Yamuna, a devotee from United States and a close friend of Malati is an experienced gardener with an interest in old tools. Although she only had a week to spend in Vrindavan, she provided loving service working many hours digging and planting in the earth. She also brought seeds from United States to share with the garden.

Claudine watching

I was astounded when Claudine, an Ayurvedic practitioner from France, said she’d brought her garden gloves with her just in case she would get the chance to garden during her travels in India. Claudine noticed right away there were many nice rosebushes in the garden that were in need of pruning and carefully set to work. She also staked the tomatoes with the western technique of repurposing an empty plastic bottle with the bottom cut off and a hole punched in the cap to let water flow out when it is tied upside-down staked to the tomato plant.

Renata, Yamuna and Babaji

Renata, from Italy graciously spent many hours doing back breaking work in the hot sun. She did a beautiful job laying the very first foot stone in the new garden entrance path. I’m grateful to everyone who helped in the garden while I was there! Looking forward, I hope in the future a water catchment and storage system is put in place at Jiva Institute. Currently, Jiva is in a vulnerable position having to purchase water and have it trucked in and pumped up to the roof. Fortunately there is a well on the ashram’s farm, but it would be very costly to transport the water there to Jiva. On the plane ride over to India I had read Ranchor Prime’s book Vedic Ecology. He mentions Shrivatsa Gosvami, a Vaishnava scholar and devotee in Vrindavan, who considers Krishna’s life to be the “greatest chapter in environmental history”. He says there were only two recorded occasions where Krishna performed formal religious worship, and on both occasions He worshiped nature. The first is when He instructed to worship Govardhan Hill and the second is when He worshipped the sun to cure his son. Other times he cleaned the river and swallowed the forest fire. Krishna is always protecting nature because he loves nature. Shrivatsa concludes: “The best way to teach environmental concern is through Krishna’s life. Krishna is the savior of the environment — that is the sum total [of His life teachings].” We have to creatively use and respond to change and we have to use and value renewable resources. It was a pleasure to be a part of the evolution of the garden at Jiva Institute. This project is an example of how Babaji cares about the earth and people by taking the steps for Jiva Institute to be self sustainable. On my last morning in Vrindavan, I saw the sadhus peacefully gathering flowers and herbs in the soft morning light for their pujas. I sensed this garden would be a place of solace and nourishment for many years to come.