Go and see the Jetwing Vil Uyana organic garden I’m told so off I trot with Chaminda, the hotel’s naturalist, famed for his discovery and enhancement of the Slender Loris monkeys in the extensive grounds of the hotel. He takes me, with the hint of an odd smile, on a diversion from the main event to see the acre of paddy fields that surround the most beautiful paradise-like ‘chalets’ that perfectly complement this now wild and wonderful site bought and developed by the visionary Cooray family.
These paddy fields are entirely naturally grown now, as no chemicals are used, yielding both white and brown rice, fed from the waters by the local village via a canal that now provides water to the whole once arid area. What’s the difference between the white and brown I ask, imagining that its all in the processing but actually its down to the variety and length of growing season, the latter of which there are two, one during the Yala (dry) season and the other the Maha (wet) season. They have recently harvested two tons of brown rice on the acre but have moved on to white rice as it takes a shorter time to grow so obviating the impending problem of diminishing annual rainfall and increasingly unpredictable seasonal weather patterns resulting from climate change perhaps.
Chaminda thinks they may abandon it altogether in favour of growing vegetables, which require less water to grow, but that seems sad to me as I regard the beauty of the environment around me being very much enhanced by the simplicity of rice, with its little banked up cascading divisions and watery films that go towards the name ‘wetlands’. Also rice is still the most popular food amongst the amazing 110 staff supporting the hotel, and is quite liked by the sometimes considerable numbers of passing elephants, too! In fact when I ask Chaminda about fencing off the paddy fields and vegetable garden he looks at me almost bemusedly, presumably thinking ‘does he not know this environment is for all of God’s creatures?’ and sure enough then tells me they want to encourage all species of animal to thrive in this wonderful expanding ecosystem. I am of course blissfully unaware at this stage that his Loris project was a success due mainly to a decision not to build more accommodation in the area now set aside for these cute monkeys.
The only fencing on the property he tells me is in the form of bamboos that line the pathways between dwellings and that is to allow wildlife through it but also stop us from being stepped on by the elephants. For the survival of the paddy fields, however, perhaps more of us should join with the locals in their seasonal ceremonies where they dress up in beautiful sarongs and pray for an abundant harvest at planting time. They clearly haven’t given up yet, though, as they plan to double the size of the paddy fields in their next development.
Having praised the beauty and industry of the paddys and rice growing I’m now looking forward to the main event, the vegetable garden. As we make our way to it Chaminda shows me the compost dump and then the composting enclosures that are fed by the large amounts of fallen leaves, branches and any other organic matter that might get swept up with the continuous clean up operation that takes place in all areas of the site. I’m always amazed at how much such matter rots down to over the six to seven month process but on closer inspection, the final product does look very rich indeed and they still get six tons a year of the stuff which goes on the garden, over the paddy fields and is shared with the village and its schools’ organic gardens. Similarly, food waste from the hotel, of which there is little of course, given how incredibly tasty it is, is given to the local village pig farmer who then sells or gives back fattened pigs or joints or whatever it might be, to the hotel for some of its meat supplies, thereby contributing to the whole wider ecosystem and environmental care ethos.
As we are leaving the compost heap, I remark on the prevalence of what looks like a weed covering large areas of the heap to find that this is a high nitrogen plant called glyceridia, that is incorporated into the heap to accelerate the breakdown of matter and so the composting process. How neat, I can’t wait to see the vegetable garden after all this great stuff, I think to myself.
On the way Chaminda describes many natural phenomena at the place such as the 36 species of butterfly, many of which we see flitting and flashing past us along the way; the tailless peacocks that only show them off for breeding between November and April; the fact that over 95% of the trees and bushes on the property were deliberately planted for their medicinal benefits; the few mango trees dotted around; and many more including the Rambuk plants around the dwellings with private pools that provide shelter for birds (sugar cane had been suggested in the past but elephants really like this and the last thing guests relaxing in their pools want is an elephant crashing through the bushes to within feet of them whilst doing the breast-stroke).
We finally arrive at the vegetable garden and I’m presented with the sight of a large concrete slab with tables, chairs and a roof next to a postage stamp patch of greenery with a few plants. I now understand the initial look on Chaminda’s face when tasked with showing me this garden as he proceeds to tell me it has now been abandoned, but for a few banana bushes on the postage stamp, in favour of providing the large workforce with somewhere to eat and drink from their cafeteria. I am however delighted that Jetwing take good care of their staff and that a new much better sited and larger area has been identified for the new garden where they will grow all manner of delicious foods including radishes, beetroots, snakegourds, long beans and many more and will be offering them up to guests, staff, locals and wildlife alike.
I’m reminded after not seeing the vegetable garden in its full glory that true Sri Lankans don’t like to say no or answer a question negatively so I’m honoured to have been given such a great tour of the grounds and shown all the amazing work that goes on environmentally behind the scenes. Work that looking at the ten years of wild life records is clearly bringing more bird and animal life back into the area every year. In fact as I tuck into my fabulous five course dinner that night I am thrilled to think the wildlife that have turned this into a top spot to be hosted are also eating like Kings, who built the spectacular rock fortress that over looks this incredible site.