February is the sunniest and driest month in the Maldives. Although the official temperature never changes much from 29 degrees Celsius, night and day, at the moment, it feels extra hot. Any snatched hours spent at the beach are huddled in the shade, and I am moving around the island as one large blob of SPF 50.
Despite the heat, Soneva Jani has a large garden area where much of the food for hosts and guests is grown year-round. And so, it was on a sweltering Thursday that I joined a tour of the beautiful gardens by our Area Permaculturist, Ritu Mathur.
The gardens are spread over two large sections behind the host accommodation, with beds for growing cut in pleasing geometric patterns, they are tended to by Ritu and her team of five gardeners. One half of the garden hosts a plant-based restaurant, So Wild. The tables are set out in the spaces between the growing beds, and the garden is lit with candles and lanterns, creating a peaceful evening dining destination.
I would have assumed that the constant heat would make it difficult for growing. However, Ritu says, ‘If you ask me the temperature and climatic conditions are ideal for growing a lot of food. And we put in a great deal of work in making layered raised beds. As a result, a good lush growth. Yes! We do need to save the lettuce from burning. Hence it is protected from the harsh sun by a shade net during the afternoon hours.’
‘The only time that is difficult for us is the time when it rains a lot and continuously. It's at that time with high humidity that the leaf decay and microbial ecological balance changes, and we lose a lot of sensitive plants, primarily all lettuce and greens.’
Seasons in the Maldives barely differ, meaning Ritu is not bound by seasonal growth, so once a crop is ready, she can harvest and replant very quickly, getting many more cycles of crops grown compared to growing in places like Europe. However, several plants cannot grow here as it is just too hot or the plant relies on a dip in temperatures at night, for example, strawberries, other berries, and apples.
Ritu still manages to grow over 60 crops, leading us around the garden pointing out fruit like bananas, watermelon and pineapple. Vegetables such as Maldivian cabbage, cucumber, pumpkin and spinach. And a range of herbs and spices; basils, dill, rosemary, mint and turmeric.
The growth of spices here on the island creates a ‘full circle’ moment, as it is thought that some people first settled in the Maldives due to the Spice Route, which connected Western merchants to China around 2000 BC.
The tour finished by the sugar cane plants, as a gardener was busy hacking them down for us to try. He cut down a long, thin trunk then we attempted to copy Ritu as she stripped the bark with her teeth, much to her amusement. We did the same as she bit chunks off and chewed the sweet wet sugar out of the pulp.
As many people do, I feel at peace when surrounded by greenery and nature, but as beads of sweat raced down my back, it was time to get out of the afternoon sun and a relief to return to the cool bliss of the Barefoot Bookshop.