by Rosie Jardine Student of Australian Correspondence Schools
(in 2000)

Last year Rosie Jardine went to India to study agriculture. During her stay she lived on a farm near Jodhpur on the fringes of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan. This is her account of how she overcame a number of obstacles in order to grow fruit in the desert.

The 90 acre farm is divided amongst six brothers and their families; altogether the farm supports about 40 people. Six years ago they introduced irrigation so they now grow lush fields of wheat, mustard, chillies, peanuts, garlic and onions, as well as grass and herbs to feed to their cows, goats, buffaloes and camels.  As a result, the people have almost everything they need and lead a prosperous and peaceful existence.  But they don’t have fruit and everyone, from old people to young babies, is vitamin deficient.  The children especially were so desperate for fruit that one little girl (who usually has excellent manners) actually ransacked my room looking for oranges she thought I had hidden.

I decided to plant a few fruit trees and asked each family member what they would like.  Lemons were popular and so were dates.

It was easy to buy plants in Jodhpur and the cost, compared to the cost of plants in Australia, was very low.  I bought a mulberry, guava, mandarin and pomegranate, a pair of grape vines, and five date palm suckers. Later I bought thirty lemon trees to cultivate as a cash crop, eighteen of which ended up in the ground.  The rest were either filched or begged by members of the extended family, who were all very keen to grow a lemon tree of their own.  I also happened to have two date seedlings which had sprouted from seeds brought from Australia.

The dwellings on this farm are traditional Indian desert houses, that is, round thatched huts of mud or stone arranged around a walled courtyard.  There is no plumbing in the houses so the women carry water in pots from the well for cooking and washing and the waste water is simply thrown on the ground where it sinks away into the sand.  I planted the pomegranate next to a flat rock which was sometimes used for washing clothes.  I thought the water from washing might run into the ground and help the tree.  The mulberry tree was planted in a damp area near the women’s baths.

One of the main problems with planting trees in Rajasthan is the terrible heat in summer, combined with sandstorms which are so vicious that plants with soft leaves end up being shredded.  In order to protect them from damage I planted an orange tree next to the well and the guava not far away in the shade of a large castor oil tree.  Oil trees only live three years but is it hoped that it will protect the small guava until it can fend for itself.

Date palms are extremely hardy, so the five suckers were placed in a line along the path leading between two houses.  This was quite an important position strategically and if they grow their tall elegance and beauty will be a focal point for the entire farm.  The two date seedlings were placed near my sun-blasted hut in the hope they will eventually provide shade for an outdoor sitting area.

The two grape vines were planted into pots as there was a fear that if they were put in the ground the roots would be eaten by termites. Two large clay water pots (at the local price of $1 each) were purchased and potted into. However as pot culture requires more care and attention, I have fears that these plants may not survive.

Lemons were placed near the back fence where they receive regular irrigation along with the field crops and where, once they begin bearing fruit, they can be fenced and protected from fruit-stealing villagers.

To overcome low air humidity and excessively well drained soils, I devised a method of digging quite deep holes and putting cow and camel manure in the bottom then planting the tree and filling the hole with more manure mixed with sand. I hoped that the manure would absorb and retain water so that the roots of the trees could extract it in their own time. 
This method also helps in putting organic matter into the soil.

As with techniques used in Australia, I fashioned the soil into a saucer shape with a deep rim to hold plenty of water and filled the saucer with a thick layer of camel dung as mulch.

As a final touch a heap of prickly sticks were dragged off the woodpile, cut down to size and tied around the young trees to keep off the goats, glaring sun and drying wind. 

This year I have moved further into the desert, near the Pakistan border, and am planting trees and growing vegetables for a family of semi-nomadic sheep and goat herders.  These people realize the native vegetation on their range is being overgrazed to a point where it will soon not support them.  So, although they have no previous experience of gardening they are willing to learn and together we are trying to get a few crops growing.