The Gardener That Grows His Own Food In The Heart Of Colombo

There are no fantastically trimmed hedges or fancy cherub-infested fountains, but stepping into Ranjit Seneviratne’s garden after navigating the concrete-riddled congested city of Colombo is an experience in itself. This is not your typical well manicured lawn, and you will not find any sweeping flower beds; instead there are arching fruit trees, silent ponds and a haphazard wilderness of thriving greenery.

“My garden is not just a hobby. It is my lifework,” he tells us, as he takes us down the tree-lined driveway. Some of the boughs meet overhead, forming a shady arch, and down among the roots, edible leaves like gotukola grow in abundance. Most of the trees are fruit trees, and they all seem to be flourishing; we manage to make out banana, jak, mango, sapodilla, pomegranate, nelli, papaya, and about a dozen other different types. Seneviratne tells us that there are more than thirty of them growing just along the borders of his driveway.   “I rarely have to go shopping for fruits and vegetables,” he laughs. “Everything I need is right here.”

So What Makes This Garden -And The Gardener- Special?

Ranjit Seneviratne was a marine engineer by trade, and having worked for the UN, he spent most of his life travelling the world over. After twenty years in Rome, he and his wife came back to Sri Lanka in the year 2000, and it was then that he began to grow and nurture his garden. His interest in gardening was piqued right from childhood, when his father gave him and each of his four siblings a small plot of land and told them to cultivate their own little garden. Seneviratne remembers getting the largest plot of land and being very sure of winning, but ultimately losing to his youngest sister.

This little plot of land in the heart of Kollupitiya is more than just your typical food garden, and Seneviratne is anything but some sort of hippie tree-hugger. While the garden started off as an average organic food garden, it has now transcended that stage into what is nearly a self-sufficient biodynamic system unto itself.

Every resource of nature which can be made use of is harvested using a series of concurrently running systems. For instance, the three tiered ground and the rainwater harvesting system- complete with a massive concrete tank- prevents erosion while allowing for the maximum use of rainwater. He has three different solar power systems, including an innovative approach to natural air conditioning in which the sunlight beating on the sides of the house automatically triggers jets of water, which cool down the walls. Kitchen waste is turned into compost, and other organic waste from the garden, like leaves and twigs, is cut up and turned into organic mulch.

“This is mulch,” he tells us, gesturing to the garden floor, which seems to be covered in bits of bark, leaves, twigs, and other organic matter. “I prune the trees and cut them all up into small bits and pieces and spread them along the ground.” Mulch is said to have multiple benefits including the prevention of soil erosion, conservation of moisture and the return of nutrients to the soil as they slowly decompose. This is essential for the type of gardening Seneviratne practices, which involves regenerating or healing the soil rather than depleting it of its nutrients.

The avenue to Ranjit’s house is bordered by fruit trees by the dozens, with everything from bananas and guava to star fruit and narang. The driveway is constructed in a way that allows rainwater to seep into the ground, rather than flow down the slope and erode the road. “On my land, not one drop of rainwater flows out onto the street, and not one drop of water is wasted,” he tells us.
The gateway into the garden. According to Seneviratne, the ‘tunnel’ of plants at the entranceway of his house serves to ‘clean’ the the polluted air- to some extent- that is a result of all the traffic which eternally passes by his driveway.
Ready for picking; enticingly hanging from the trellis above his entranceway were these fruits which, according to Seneviratne, are a relative of the passion fruit and can usually be found in the Kandy area.
A view from the window. The strategically placed wide open french windows to allow air to circulate into the house in a sort of artificial air conditioning system, while the netting keeps mosquitoes away.
One of Seneviratne’s many experiments in the making. This is what he calls a vertical garden. “I do not have a lot of space in my garden, so I make the best use of what little space I have. For instance, most of my plants are grown in pots. I want to show people that with just a small patch of garden space, or even a balcony which gets sunlight, they can live off the land, and be self-sufficient when it comes to food, at least upto a certain extent.”
As he shows us around, examining a leaf here and checking a plant for fruit there, he picks some leaves and ripe berries and slips them into his pocket. “This will go into my salad later,” he chuckles, and sure enough, we see the salad- made entirely from the produce of his garden- just before we leave.
The interior of Seneviratne’s house is just as fascinating as its surroundings- he has travelled around the world, and has come away with an extensive collection of souvenirs and curios from places as diverse as China, Egypt, and Mozambique. One wall is covered with masks, another with musical instruments, and we see a large area occupied with paintings, some of them even painted by him. “I had no idea I could paint,” he laughs. “This is a hobby I just took up.”
His collection of paintings includes a sand painting from America and a bark painting from Madagascar.
The back garden, in which he grows everything from yams and salad leaves to berries and cinnamon. Seneviratne uses no fertilizer- organic or inorganic- pesticides or herbicides at all, and having worked for the FAO, he is a great proponent of the organic food movement. In this day and age with synthetic chemicals used in most food crops and the use of agrochemicals suspected to be the cause for the rise in chronic kidney disease in Sri Lanka, this is understandable. In fact, a number of people appear to be increasingly leaning towards organic produce, and organic food sections have sprouted in many supermarkets and markets.

So Who Takes Care Of This Garden?

“I do,” Seneviratne laughs. Even at eighty years of age, he is as hale as ever and looks after the needs of the garden almost entirely by himself, just as he always has done.  Taking care of his plot of land is difficult and time-consuming- for instance, he has to keep pruning the larger trees so that they do not steal the sunlight from the smaller ones – but he persists. This is his passion, and he hopes to inspire people into realizing just how much they can do with even the smallest area of earth.    

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