Hobbies offer a productive and fulfilling use of free time and keep stress at bay. For Ashal PH, a 29-year-old professional in a healthcare company in Aluva, Kerala, his passion for cultivating exotic fruits has turned out to be more productive than he had ever imagined.
Ashal began cultivating exotic fruits in the backyard of his house in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. "For the love and curiosity to experiment with different fruits that are not commonly available, I embarked on a farming experiment to cultivate exotic fruit varieties during the lockdown. I began with gac, a Vietnamese fruit from the melon family, which I discovered during online research,” he tells 30Stades.
Ashal learned that both male and female plants were necessary for pollination to result in fruiting. “I bought saplings from a local nursery and planted them on my terrace. They gave good quality produce and the success motivated me to grow more unique fruit plants," says Ashal.
Following that, he began to plant Brazilian passion fruit, miracle fruit, dragon fruit and many other varieties over 5 cents (0.05 acre) of land, which includes his residence.
“With regards to farming inputs, I only use sesame powder and cow dung as natural manure. I don't use any fertiliser and so far I have not had any pest-related issues," Ashal shares.
In the last four years, Ashal has cultivated many different exotic fruits organically. His farming model is quite simple. Since he grows them in a small area in his backyard, he does not congest it with unnecessary plants. There is only one plant of each variety at a time, ensuring that some fruit is ready for harvest throughout the year.
Cambodian wild grape, a sensation
Ashal planted a Cambodian wild grape fruit plant almost eight months back and constructed a trellis to support the climber. In just six months, it began flowering. About two months later, the fruiting began.
"While each bunch has around 600-1000 fruits, the fruiting process continues now. I have already harvested 16 bunches,” he says.
“Surprisingly, the stems that hold these huge honeycomb-like bunches are strong. The plant does not seem like it is just eight months old. Its root resembles tapioca, which can be utilized for propagating new saplings,” he says, beaming with joy.
Contrary to the predominant sour flavour of regular grapes, this wild Cambodian variety boasts a rich sweetness, which is yet another surprise factor.
"Many farmers, agriculture officers and enthusiasts have been visiting my house to witness the extraordinary phenomenon of wild fruit plants. Every visitor has expressed awe at the unprecedented growth and noted that it is not like anything they've seen in grape plants. The uniqueness of this wild variety has encouraged research interest, and there's anticipation that it may set a production record," he says.
Sourcing exotic fruit plants
Ashal had procured the Cambodian grape sapling from Veliyath Garden Nursery in Ernakulam.
Apart from Cambodian wild grapes, Ashal currently has Terengganu cherry, sundrop, eugenia florida, dragon fruit, abiue, purple forest guava, baraba, medusa pineapple, jaboticaba, red Surinam cherry, ber apple red, passion fruit and miracle fruit growing in his backyard.
As many people are now aware of Ashal's passion for exotic fruit farming, they gift him saplings because they know he will take good care of them. And some nurseries give saplings at a subsidised price to demonstrate proof of concept.
He is also a professional cyclist and whenever he goes for rides, he collects some unique varieties from his connections.
"For me, the internet is the most precious source of knowledge. From getting to know these exotic varieties to learning about growing them, I do all my research online. In fact, many farming videos of people abroad inspire me to experiment here. Luckily, over the years, all of the exotic plants that I had cultivated had a successful growth and it was suitable for Kerala's tropical climate," he adds.
He also notes that investment for each plant -- from sourcing to growing them -- is not more than Rs 350.
Exotic fruit cultivation in India is currently in its nascent stage. So farmers need to combine information available on the internet with traditional knowledge to arrive at the best farming methodologies in the given climatic conditions.
Ashal states that after his initial research, he analyses and adapts simple low-cost farming techniques to suit the local soil and climate. He believes that there is no one standard way for cultivating these plants. "All of these plants are either planted in pots, ground or on the terrace. They don't require much space,” he says, emphasizing the use of sesame powder and cow dung manure to ensure good growth.
According to him, most of the exotic plants, except Dragon Fruit, need a generous amount of water. So he dedicates time in the morning to watering the plants regularly.
While many farmers who take up exotic fruit farming find it hard to succeed, Ashal observes that it is mostly because they depend on a single farming approach. "It is essential to gather and update knowledge from various sources, analyse and try and keep updating procedures," the gardener adds.
What began as a quest for trying new fruit flavours, says Ashal, will continue as it is, with a generous motive of keeping the doors open for visitors to take a look at this little homegrown nursery, and taste the fruits.
“Additionally, every December, I plant a few Brazilian passion fruit saplings, and by early March, they begin to bear fruit. Recognized by doctors for its health benefits, patients affected by flu and dengue visit our home to receive these fruits free of charge,” he shares.
"Many visitors to my home garden have been inspired to start growing their own exotic fruit saplings and venture into home horticulture. That's my goal – to demonstrate that cultivating exotic fruits at home can be simple, effective, and efficient. Now, with home gardening, we have a variety of fruit ready for harvest throughout the 12 months. Next, I am researching on growing raspberry," Ashal signs off.
(Chandhini R is a Kerala-based journalist specialising in human interest, entertainment, and art and culture stories)