I’m a student of Physics and never in my dream did I think that one day I would end up running a Higher Secondary school. And our students growing paddy and get a good harvest too.
That was Aravinthan, a post-grad in optics and photonics from Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology who runs Coimbatore’s St. John’s Matriculation Higher Secondary School.
I came to know of this 35-year-old Tamilian with a genial smile while searching for a native variety of vegetable seeds on Facebook. I was taken by his passion for ‘growing our vegetables the organic way’ and impressing young minds at Indian Organic School, Aravinthan prefers to call it.
Over to Aravinthan, in his own words:
We’ve been running the school since 2015, having acquired it from the earlier management. It was on the insistence of my father who also ran a school that I left my job as a college lecturer. I’m presently the chief admin of this co-ed school spread on four acres. We have 800 plus students on our rolls—from kindergarten to Higher Secondary.
My interest in introducing the school kids to growing vegetables was spurred following a ninth standard student reply when asked where the tomatoes came from. He said: from the trees.
We began with growing vegetables in grow bags on the school’s terrace and also gifted grow bags to our students along with fenugreek seeds. They are Nitrogen fixers, take only a month to grow and harvest. Reason: We didn’t want the kids to wait for a long time to harvest. Normally, most vegetables take almost 3 months to make it to the first harvest. The long wait, we thought might kill the curiosity and patience of the kids. Having watched the lifecycle of fenugreek they gradually learnt to be patient.
But much before that, I experimented with growing vegetables on the terrace of my rented apartment. This was following a friend’s remark that vegetables grown in grow bags were very juicy and tender. Though what he said did not make any sense to me but it surely made me curious. Though I belong to an agricultural family, my involvement in agriculture has been very limited. Eager to learn the basics of gardening I began with 5 grow bags and ended up with 75! Growing your vegetables can be really addictive. The greens I grew cooked amazingly fast and tasted way better than the ones we bought from the vendor. All these were a huge motivation and I decided to introduce school kids to the world of farming practices.
It was in 2016 that we started gardening on our school’s terrace. On birthdays we used to gift kids a small grow bag with radish sown in it. We regularly made them visit the terrace and let them observe the colour of the flowers of each vegetable, feel the texture of the leaves, caress them and experience their scent and differentiate whether the plant was a herb/shrub/creeper/climber.
Meanwhile, I happened to accompany a friend to a seminar on native seeds and realised their importance having been ushered into the world of seeds. Into conserving and promoting native seeds. I began visiting seed festivals and connecting with farmers and seed savers on Facebook, all in an effort to collect native seeds and conserve them.
It was through FB that we came in contact with a lot of like-minded people who believed in preserving and sharing heirloom seeds.
Organic farming is not just about getting healthy and nutritious food. It’s more about caring for nature and the environment too.
Although we harvested a lot of vegetables it was not sufficient for our daily needs. Soon we started growing vegetables in the patch of land around the school building. We also introduced an Agriculture course for our HSc students.
Between 2016 and 2019 (September), the school harvested over 3850 kg of vegetables.
We didn’t stop and dreamt bigger and leased a 12-cent plot in the neighbourhood and involved our HSc students to grow paddy. From tilling the land to sowing and harvesting everything was done by the students. We did something no school in India may have attempted: in January 2020 we harvested 200kg of rice.
Organic farming is complete only when the heirloom seeds are conserved. Presently, the school’s seed bank has 15 varieties of okra, 20 varieties of brinjal, 45 varieties of bottle gourd, 5 varieties of cowpea, 7 varieties of chillies and 15 varieties of pumpkin. With each day we add more seeds to our bank.
Seeds are our common wealth, our heritage. We have reached out to home gardeners all over the country sharing seeds from our collection. Unlike other seed savers, this venture is totally non-commercial. Anyone who believes in propagating and sharing can reach out to us.
Apart from focusing on heirloom seeds, the primary backbone of organic farming is the use of natural fertilizers. Some of the fertilizers we use are cow and goat manure, green manure, fish amino acid, amirtha karaisal, jeevaamritham, and panchakavya that acts as both a fertilizer and an insect/pest repellant. In addition to the natural fertilizers, we extensively mulch our field with dried up groundnut plant, coconut coir, wood chips, chopped banana plant (of course, after harvesting the banana) and sun hemp that acts as live mulch.
Over the past few years, we have seen a growing interest among our kids in gardening activities even in their home. Even our teachers and parents of our school kids have started growing their own food.
Our initiative to interest kids in growing vegetables was to instil memories that they could recollect in their adulthood. We believe gardening holds the keys to unlocking important life skills like responsibility, confidence, creativity, tolerance, health and a greater understanding of the world in which we reside.
Message Aravinthan on 7639555088