Shyam Gopal, gardener at ISKCON of Washington D.C. and his "friend"
As environmentally-friendly living becomes more and more of a concern in a modern society where Earth’s resources are fast running out, ISKCON has an increasing responsibility to set a good example.
After all, our philosophy is based upon our founder’s oft-quoted aphorism “Simple Living, High Thinking”—the practice of living naturally from the land while focusing on solving life’s mysteries.
This responsibility doesn’t fall solely on the shoulders of ISKCON’s rural communities—it’s also something city temples can join in on, thus lending our society much greater credibility in the eyes of the public.
One of those stepping up to the plate is Shyam Gopal, gardener at ISKCON of Washington D.C.
As well as offering good advice for other temples interested in going green, Shyam is walking the walk himself. That’s something U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama—
who encourages home gardens and planted one on the White House’s South Lawn just 17 miles from the ISKCON temple—would appreciate.
Shyam, 34, comes with quite a pedigree. The son of a gardener and a forester in Berkeley, California, he studied environmental science at UC Santa Barbara, worked as a park ranger and an eco-tourist guide, and served at the ISKCON farm in Mauritius before moving to D.C. in March of this year.
On only one third of an acre at the temple in Potomac, Maryland—a D.C. suburb—Shyam has already coaxed an impressive bounty from the earth.
Eggplants from seeds
“We have heirloom and lauki squash, golden and green zucchini, hybrid and cherry tomatoes, red and green bell peppers, and Thai, serrano, habanero, and cow-horn chilis,” he says. “We also grow eggplant, cabbage, okra, bitter-melon, cucumber, cantelopes, pole beans and bush beans, beats, carrots, mixed lettuce, various pumpkins, and two-foot long watermelons.”
He has to pause for breath, before reeling off a spiel that sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel song. “Then there are all the herbs: basil, sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill, fennel, fenugreek, and cilantro.”
With all these, the garden is ISKCON D.C.’s main source of organic vegetables, its sole source of herbs, and a considerable supplement to its overall food purchases.
￼And that’s not all: the temple doesn’t have to buy any flowers for its presiding Deities in the summer time, when rows upon rows of African, Mexican hybrid and double bloom marigolds, as well as red roses, white Tuber roses, and even seven-foot-tall sunflowers are available to make beautiful garlands with.
All this abundance is no accident. Shyam Gopal cares so much about the plants, which he calls his “children,” that he’s often spotted talking or singing to them. In the future, he’d like to set up some outdoor speakers to play them Srila Prabhupada’s kirtan.
This is nothing to laugh at. Shyam’s holistic, natural gardening techniques are no conconction— they’re embedded in both scientific and Krishna conscious principles.
Morning harvest on July 4th
“In trying to debunk the old research done on playing music for plants to improve their growth, researchers, for instance on the TV show Mythbusters, have only found that they couldn’t disprove it,” Shyam says. “It actually works.”
Plants, he explains, respond to music of all types—classical, ragas, heavy metal, and poetry— as well as simply being spoken to, with vigorous growth, more flowers and larger fruit development. They don’t have favorite genres; they simply like the interaction and are stimulated by the vibration.
“As I’m checking the plants for fungus, damage and pests every day by hand, I talk to them,” says Shyam. “I just say, ‘How are you doing?’ or ‘Oh, you have a problem here.’ And when I harvest from them I say ‘Thank you, we appreciate what you’re giving us for the Deities. You’re doing a great service.’ After all, they’re souls, just like me. I was a plant before. It was a rough life. So although they may not understand my words, I want them to feel on some level that they’re not living in vain.”
Shyam, following the best practices in permaculture, organic gardening, and biodynamics,
is considerate in all areas of his work. Seeing the soil as a living system full of complex, interdependent relationships, he avoids tilling once his garden beds have been made so as not to destroy this infrastructure. Instead, worms, which are carefully protected, do the tilling for him.
He also avoids walking on the beds in order to let the roots breathe. And rather than feeding the plants directly, he feeds the soil—considered to be “the stomach” in natural organic farming— with “Actively Aerated Compost Tea.”
This is made by blowing a household air pump, such as those used for an aquarium or air mattress, into a tank of water holding a “tea bag” made from cheese-cloth. The “tea bag” is filled with worm castings, a high quality compost created by feeding worms vegetable scraps and manure. This liquid compost mixture is aerated for 24 hours, then molasses and seaweed are added.
“Molasses increases good bacteria, and seaweed has natural plant growth hormones, which helps plants to uilize sunlight and photosynthesize better,” says Shyam. “It also acts like a B complex vitamin, boosting their immune system and reducing stress when you transplant.”
As he develops his garden, Shyam Gopal will also add Rishi-Krishi, the ancient farming techniques of sages described in the Vedas, to his practices.
Some of these techniques, written about by the great Parashara Muni in Krishi-Parashara and by Kashyapa in Kashyapiyakrishisukti, coincide with biodynamic principles, and thus are already being practiced in the ISKCON D.C. garden.
For instance, Shyam Gopal works by the lunar calendar, planting seeds as the moon is waxing, and pruning, transplanting and composting as it is waning. He also plants different items on the days the waxing moon goes through different constellations: for vegetables it’s the fire sign; for leaf crops, the water sign; for flowers, the air sign; and for roots, the earth sign. This, amongst all his other practices, makes for tastier and healthier crops.
Shyam encourages other devotees, at any level of experience, to start their own natural organic gardens at their temples or homes.
Morning harvest on July 6th
For beginners, he advises, “Start small. Don’t get overwhelmed by giving yourself way too much work. Start organic—there may be a pest or problem you can’t control organically at some point, but at least start organic and learn that way. And start with things that are easy to grow: herbs, tomatoes, a few flowers for your Deities.”
Specific local knowledge is key in gardening, Shyam says, so get advice from local gardeners in your area who know the local conditions. Your nearest university’s agriculture extension office or its website can also be an excellent resource for this.
Another key to gardening is awareness. “Observe how your plants are growing in different conditions,” Shyam says. “Go outside and check the weather every day. Get to know how reliable your local weather report is, compared to the actual weather. Get a simple rain guage and measure the rain. Get in touch with the cycles of the sun, moon, and seasons.”
Finally, Shyam encourages ISKCON temples to go green by purchasing biodegradable silverware and plates, since so many are used at every Sunday Feast and festival. He also suggests using shredded paper and cardboard boxes in the garden as mulch, and using all rotten vegetables as compost, not allowing anything to go to waste.
“Once you get started and build your knowledge base, it only gets better and better,” he says.
Shyam Gopal is happy to help other ISKCON temples go green and increase their fruit, flower and vegetable production. To speak with him and receive educational resources which he says have benefitted him greatly, please contact him at email@example.com.