Jaswant Singh’s house in Mogappair, Chennai, is unlike most houses you’ll come across in the city. A porch covered by the pink-tipped aerial roots of the grape ivy, which looks like a frozen drizzle, leads to the mini forest with over 350 herbal plants, tall sandalwood trees, flowering plants, fruit trees, bonsai and more. And Jaswant has managed to grow all of it in just 10,000 square feet of space!
Coming from a family of civil engineers - “My grandfather was into construction, so was my father. I am a civil engineer and now my son is one too,” he chuckles - Jaswant admits that his interest in growing plants and trees began close to four decades ago, around the time he moved to this house when he was just 20. While his roots are in Punjab, Jaswant tells us that he’s very much a Chennaiite, being born and raised here. “My grandfather came to Chennai first in 1938, spending 10 months here and going back home for two months. A few years later, my family dropped its roots here,” he shares.
While talking about his passion for gardening, Jaswant makes it clear that he's very aware of nature’s benefits. “Not long ago, must be less than three decades, when we used to visit our native in Punjab, our relatives would laugh at us when we said that we had to buy drinking water in Madras. They simply could not understand. Now they buy drinking water too and it has become a very normal thing to do. Now believe me when I tell you that it won’t be long before we have to buy oxygen to breathe,” he says.
An abode for rare plants
On a walk around his garden, the 58-year-old civil engineer talks about his love for the Thirukkural and Thiruvalluvar, whose figure he has carved out on the bark of a mango tree behind his house; a task that took him about three months to complete. Reciting a few couplets, Jaswant calls Thiruvalluvar a scientist, a master of masters. “Thirukkural is for everyone to read and enjoy. Nowhere in the poems does it say the word ‘Tamil’, making it a universal piece of work,” he says.
He also speaks about his love for cooking - “I have hosted a couple of cookery shows on Zee Tamil channel. The small portion you saw when you entered has a rustic kitchen set-up where they shoot the episodes."
If Jaswant is a man of many surprises, so is his garden. On a guided tour of the greenery dotted by brightly-coloured flowers Jaswant doles out information and short stories about plants. “This is called Krishna Ficus because there’s a mythological story in which Lord Krishna, wanting to hide the butter in his hand, held it behind his back, causing the leaf that contained the butter to form a crease like this. This is a popular story to explain why the leaves are shaped this way.”
“This plant here is called the Brahma Kamalam that blooms only once a year, in the night, and when it does the entire garden smells of the flower.”
“Here, crush this leaf and tell me what you smell,” he says, plucking a thin leaf. A sharp smell of camphor immediately fills the air. “This is the Borneo Camphor," he says.
Picking a very tiny purple fruit off a plant, Jaswant pinches it to reveal ink-stained fingers. “See, this is called the Ironwood and was once used as a natural ink for writing,” he explains.
“Have you heard of the blinding tree?” he asks, before answering the question himself. “This tree, called the Thillai tree was found aplenty in Chidambaram once. If the milk from this plant falls into your eyes you’ll be blinded for a few hours, hence the name,” he chuckles.
We go around admiring the Mookithi Ponnu or the coat button plant with its tiny yellow-white flowers, the Thiruvodu tree, red aloe vera, Senganthal flower (Gloriosa superba) which is the state’s flower and more. There’s also a small moist space for moss to thrive. “You may not think much of it but moss gives you 25 times more oxygen,” he adds.
Before we head deeper inside to see his composting yard and the Thiruvalluvar carving, Jaswant proudly introduces the Stevia plant. “A lot of newspapers covered it when I began propagating the benefits of this amazing plant. The Malaysian government honoured me for popularising this plant’s benefits and I used to give it out for free to people who came asking for it. Now I do it for a small price. No other plant in my garden is for sale,” he says.
What’s so special about the Stevia, native to Brazil and Paraguay, and which appears like every other regular sized plant? Jaswant hands over a leaf and this time, he does it like a magician executing his well-practised trick.
It takes a couple of bites for the taste to hit and whenit does you’ll be surprised by just how sweet one leaf can taste! Stevia, called Cheeni Thulasi in Tamil (sugar tulasi), is apparently 250 times sweeter than regular sugar!
Plants are for everyone
Jaswant next takes us to his terrace gardens where he grows vegetables and fruits. The fruit terrace garden is home to honeybees and parakeets that flit from one plant to another, chirping loudly at the new intruder.
While we look around, Jaswant talks about sustaining a healthy looking garden in the times of floods, storms and drought. “None of it caused serious problems here. The flood water did not enter the house and the Vardah cyclone caused a little damage to the tree which was quickly fixed. As for the water scarcity, our groundwater levels did quite well when compared to the city. We did not face any problems,” he says with a smile.
Jaswant also says that he collects the drain water from AC units to water his plants. “You can't drink or cook using this water. It is quite good to water plants with it,” he adds.
Jaswant, who sometimes takes classes for TN Agricultural University students, insists that gardening is for everyone and that one need not spend lots of money to grow plants. “I always tell the students that they can just grow plants in any broken and unused items in the house, it's not necessary to buy a pot. Plants can grow anywhere,” he says, pointing to the different objects he’s used to grow plants in, including broken cameras and moulded cement. The leaves of a small Peepul plant that sits on a stack of bricks move in harmony, as if in agreement with Jaswant.