The Auroville Botanical Garden is your one-stop destination to learn about botany and horticulture. If you like to walk among beautiful greenery, or volunteer to keep a wide range of gardens blooming, this is the place for you. We spoke to Paul, who has been at The ABG since the beginning and who is still running the show today.
A Bigger Project
The Botanical Gardens started in the year 2000, when a group of people came together to revive an empty piece of land. “Auroville had bought a 50 acre plot of land and around this time, Walter, AuroNavy and I had an idea to start a botanical garden. We approached Auroville and asked if we could start a botanical garden on these 50 acres. There was a selection process, with other suggested ideas for the space. Somehow it was decided that the Botanical Gardens could be started there, and that’s how it began. It was an idea that Walter from Shakti had been carrying for a long time. He was in Auroville right in the 70’s and tried to start a Botanical Garden in Shakti, but stopped because he didn’t feel the land was big enough. I studied forestry and ecology before I came to Auroville. After being in Auroville for about 10 years, working in the forest with the native species of trees, I was ready for a big project. He initiated the whole idea and it was something that I sort of bought into. So when this land was bought, I said ‘Hey, why don’t we do it here?’.
So the idea really was to create a place that people could visit. Sometimes it’s difficult to visit places in Auroville to see what’s going on with the green work and the forestry work. We could then explain these things to visitors and school groups , teach them about the native species, or how to make compost or grow vegetables. Today, local schools come here on a regular basis. They spend a day here and we have a program that about 100 schools a year come to visit.”
Variety and Jealousy
The Botanical Gardens now boast 310 species of trees, with 1300 varieties all together, but these grew on what was essentially a barren piece of land. “In the beginning we were just working to take on the empty piece of land. We fenced it and worked on the really basic stuff. In that sense we’ve really seen all the plants grow. Slowly the gardens got more complicated. We now have a cactus garden, an orchid garden, a plumeria garden, with different people taking care of each. Walter and Navy were working in planning.Then there was me and this one guy called Adi, he’s still here. Adi and I did most of the groundwork. Gradually more and more people have come, so now we have 30 to 40 Aurovilians working here. And we have an overall staff of around 70 people. A lot has changed, the plants have all grown and it’s a very beautiful environment now.”
With the variety and diversity of gardens in the Gardens, does Paul have a favourite one? “When I’m in one, yes. But you have to be very careful with plants, they get jealous. If you have a favourite tree, or you say that one tree is beautiful, the other trees hear you, so you have to be careful.”
Apart from the beauty one can admire on site, the Auroville Botanical Gardens has a strong focus on education. The expertise lies in environmentally sustainable management of land, which they are now spreading around India as well. “We now work outside of Auroville as well, running projects so we can create an income stream to support the gardens. We then take our ideas out about native species and encourage companies and people to work with these indigenous species. At the moment we’re working on restoring old quarries. There we’re working on 200 acres, and you have these beautiful limestone cliffs, and water at the bottom. There we’re trying to use native species and create an ecological forest, which is ecological restoration work. We want to encourage people to see that that’s a way to landscape their land. Quarries are easy because we can turn it into a nature park. We want to show how people can use natural ponds and biodiversity to restore places like old factory grounds. We run a nursery and sell saplings so we are able to provide most of the plants for this kind of work.”
Are you interested to learn about the world of horticulture and ecological restoration? The ABG also offers a course right here in Auroville. “We are currently running an ecological training course for six months, it’s called ecological horticulture. It teaches people about how to prune trees, how to look after plants, how to use a chainsaw, how to manage a project, how animals are important in landscapes. We did our first one last year for 6 months, and now we’re doing another one again this year. This course is for people from the surrounding bioregion, for people from outside and for Aurovillians. We are also interested in training the people from the companies that we work for. We do this so that they can understand how to look after the landscapes after we leave.”
When we talk about the challenges of green work in Auroville, you will often hear about our water issue. Tamil Nadu has suffered from water depletion for several years, but the Gardens have managed to make it work. “We’re quite good with water, because it’s a big land, we calculated that we take out something along the lines of 3% of the water that falls on the land. That’s what we use in an entire year, so we’re well within our water budget for the 50 acres.” This is a pretty impressive number, considering that the borewells in the whole area have only been depleting over the last few years.
“We have financial challenges, we’ve been very lucky but it’s always a bit of a challenge. Sometimes we do run out of our money, because when you have a big group of people working here, money goes quite quickly. And of course you’ve got the ‘normal’ challenges of working in a community, having to keep people happy and making sure that everyone understands what’s going on without spending lots of time in meetings. We don’t tend to have meetings here, somehow we get it to just work between people. It’s a challenge, you just have to keep your energy up and it works.”
Being a Part of The Auroville Botanical Gardens
Are you interested in volunteering or interning at The Botanical Gardens? “We have specific internships, where students of Forestry, Horticulture or Botany can come and spend 3 to 6 months here. We have our ecological training course, and then we have volunteers that come here to help in the gardens. We’ve got the Weltwaerts (German Volunteer Service) that come every year, so they either work in the education program or in the gardens themselves. We also have a lot of student volunteers that come through SAVI (Intern/Volunteer Service of Auroville). There’s a nice mix of ages.”
The Auroville Botanical Gardens is a wonder to visit and also to work at. The most rewarding thing for Paul seems to be the simple fact of being involved in the place. “It’s just being here. I mean imagine, you have a place to work like this, and if you’re having a bad day, you can just go for a walk. Even in the middle of the summer, you have these beautiful flowers and that’s special. It just gives you energy.”
Check out the website of the Botanical Gardens here.