NIMBLA BAGH, Afghanistan -- Abdul Hakim can't remember exactly how old he is, but he's old enough to have fathered three sons and a daughter and to have seen his children's children grow up tall and straight as poplars. His smile is a spider web of wrinkles and he has only a few teeth left, but his eyes dance like a boy's as he tries to answer a request for details about his gardens.

"My father was a gardener in King Amanullah's time, and his father before him," he explains, walking through a dusty garden populated with a few loquat and apricot saplings. Fifty years ago, "King Zahir Shah asked my father to put his son to work here as well. I've been here ever since, and my youngest son works with me."

The place is Nimla Bagh, in Afghanistan's lush eastern province of Nangahar. An FAO mission has come to the nursery garden the Organization helped to re-establish over ten years ago to assess the damage wrought by dwindling resources, drought and war. It is one of almost 100 such gardens FAO set up or supported to promote agricultural diversity and commercial fruit production.

Between 1989 and 1998, FAO led the way in the establishment of nurseries and rehabilitation of traditional irrigation systems across the country. In neighbouring Kunar province, which was almost entirely depopulated by Soviet attacks in the 1980s, the valleys returned to life within a few years, and agricultural production boomed. There, the tiny nursery of Asman Bagh nestles amid mountain peaks, guarded at night by teenagers with kalashnikovs.

Nimla Bagh is special, says Anthony Fitzherbert, the mission leader and FAO's former programme manager in Afghanistan. It's not just that the garden survived Soviet bombardments. Nor that farmers come from miles away to buy young saplings from Abdul Hakim.

Gardens of earthly delights

"Nimla is the living legacy of centuries of refined and dedicated horticulture," he says. "These gardens were said to have been laid out as a classic Persian 'chahar bagh'-- the re-creation of Eden, with its four quadrants and four rivers -- by Emperor Shah Jehan in the 1630s. But I think they were the gardens that Zahiruddin Muhammed Babur, the first Mogul emperor, referred to a hundred years earlier in his memoir The Baburnama."

Traces of that former glory remain in the avenues of cypresses and formal arrangement of flowerbeds and fountains. But the once-sharp edges of the borders are shadows under the dust, and the water is sluggish and green.

In happier days, Afghanistan was a paradise of orchards and vineyards, spice gardens and forests. Sophisticated irrigation systems watered crops and were channeled into beautiful pleasure gardens for the leisure classes. In the 1960s, high-value horticulture and dried fruit provided Afghanistan with almost half of its export revenue. By-products of orchard fruits, such as pomegranate rind and walnut husks, were used to dye the brightly coloured carpets for which the country is famous, along with madder root, which produces the unique and varied red hues prized by buyers.

Core values of economic success

Trees are also an essential part of recreation and spiritual guidance in Islamic tradition. No house in rural Afghanistan is complete without a mulberry tree, often covered in vines, which provides fruit and shade to the men gathered on carpets on the dera, or rest area, in front of the compound.

Tradition aside, the nurseries are an important vehicle for one of FAO's key goals in Afghanistan - the privatization and decentralization of the agricultural sector. "We adopted a simple strategy of establishing at least two nucleus nurseries in every province," says Mr Fitzherbert. "These were run by the Government and were stocked with mother trees bought from abroad. The budwood from these was sold to private nurseries, which we helped to set up."

Moreover, in the first years after the Soviet forces left, the trees became an important symbol of endurance. "When people plant trees it means they intend to stay," says Mr Fitzherbert. "Some of the nurseries were set up as economically viable entities, but some were set up to re-orchard Afghanistan and undo the years of warfare."

In the coming months, FAO will be undertaking a nationwide horticultural survey and a study of potential export markets. Immediate assistance will be given to the most important orchards, but the long-term recovery of the sector depends on water, says FAO horticultural specialist Noorgul Hamzakheyl. "If the drought ends, then Afghanistan's gardens have a future," he says.

Deep-rooted resilience

In most of Afghanistan today, the gardens have been decimated by drought. All that remains of the extensive pistachio forests of Badakhshan province, for example, are a few trees standing stark against the mountains. "We have destroyed an economic resource," says the provincial Acting Governor, Muhammed Shah Zijhum. "And bare mountains mean more floods and soil erosion."

It won't be easy to persuade desperate people to put aside their immediate needs and preserve their trees. But Mr Fitzherbert is confident that once a few orchards become established, economic success as well as tradition will prevail.

Abdul Hakim lost a son to the war against the Soviets. But his son's son works with him in the garden, the leisure classes have been replaced by village children playing in the fountain and his country is finally at peace. "It takes me two days to count all the trees in this garden," he says. "My grandson counts beside me, and that gives me hope."