Step through Ashwin Patel’s front gate and you arrive at a magical garden where literally thousands of orchids and hundreds of bonsai trees are mostly in full bloom and on display everywhere.
The orchids are in and outside the five open-air ‘green houses’ that Ashwin’s constructed over the last 30 years. And you will find the bonsai both on pedestals that he and his assistant of 19 years, Peter Mutisya have built. Or they are growing in giant 20-liter buckets that Ashwin recycles.
“We occasionally sell the orchids, but not the bonsai,” says Ashwin who, with his electrical engineering wife, Aruna, bought their land in Nyali 35 years ago.
“It was cheap back then, but now it’s not. We built this house ourselves,’ says Ashwin who is not a trained architect.
He taught himself to build the best ‘green houses’ for his orchids. “They need wind, sunshine and lots of water. But the water must be misty and light, not heavy or it can damage the plants,” he says, moving swiftly from his living room outside, onto a veranda-like area that’s topped with beams covered in a semi-transparent green mesh tarp.
“This is one of my green houses,” he says, walking over to a switch attached to a brick pillar that turns on the misty spray, the kind he explains he’s installed in all five of his open-air [wall-less] green houses.
“Orchids need plenty of water, so Peter switches on the mist at least twice a day. This assures that our orchids will bloom and the blooms will stay fresh,” he says, adding they also need insecticide and fertilizer to ensure they grow well.
His insecticide is organic. He uses hops [‘the leftovers’] from homemade beer poured out onto trays at the base of his orchids so the snails and slugs (the most problematic pests) get attracted to the hops’ sweetness, drink it until they get ‘drunk’ and then they die.
“My son is a mechanical engineer but he’s also a brew master who studied how to make his own beer,” says Ashwin who also uses organic fertilizer. “We mix cut grass with the waste from our septic tank. Then we let it dry a few days and put it on all our flower beds and potted plants.
Ashwin says he started growing orchids 12 years ago after he decided he didn’t want to give his wife cut flowers anymore. Peter was already looking after his miniature bonsai trees, many of which are over 40 years old. But then they began experimenting with growing orchids so that today, he decorates his whole house with them.
Indeed, just as you step through his front gate and see green growing things everywhere magically sprouting out of buckets, crawling up giant trees and planted in everything from terracotta pots to gigantic seashells, so when you step into the foyer of his lovely home, you are dazzled by the wide array of orchids looking fresh and pretty in shades of pink and purple with yellow lips, ensconced on marble shelves.
The first ones I see are Oncidiums, which are a pastel yellow. Then come the Dendrobiums which have the pink and purple blooms that Ashwin says last just 15 days.
Then in the front hallway, I find lots of lovely Vandas, each of which has entangled roots hanging down like a scraggly-haired little girl who needs a haircut.
“They can last anywhere from three to four months in perfect bloom. They capture the water they need from the air,” says Ashwin who insists they be taken outside every four days to bask in the sun and get some fresh misty water.
Ashwin admits he doesn’t know all the names of the trees in his garden, although as I point, he easily informs me one is a rubber tree, another’s a guava, and another’s an umbrella tree. He’s even got a Banyan or Bodhi tree which he says is the kind the Buddha sat under for seven weeks until he attained enlightenment.
What lights up Ashwin’s life is his discovery of how to transform any tree, even the Bodhi, into a baby Bonsai.