By Kapil Mandawewala
(Pictured above: Organic Kitchen Balcony of Priyanka Khaitan, Kolkata)
Turn your terrace or balcony into your very own mini organic farm
When you visit your relatives in smaller cities and towns, two realisations hit you. One, that nature’s bounty is tremendous, joy-inducing and health-invoking. And two, that you are not enjoying any of it. While your non urban relations enjoy home grown vegetables, fruits, and herbs, you, as an urbanite, are forced to eat produce that is of dubious source. Besides the problem of pesticides, the vegetables and fruits available in urban cities are often not fresh due to the long journey they have undergone to reach your dining plate. But while most of us hold up the virtues of self-grown produce of the simple life, and lament not living in the suburbs due to jobs, careers, children, etc, we fail to realise that we do not have to deny ourselves the pleasure of fresh, pure, unadulterated, unmodified, organic produce—a very basic and unambitious aspiration.
It is very possible and equally easy to grow one’s own produce in the home, even for those that reside in high rise apartments. People with backyards and terraces can build mini organic farms there, whereas those with only balconies can do the same!
With food prices escalating to an all-time high and increased public concern over pesticides and chemicals, growing your own food is the best way to reconnect with nature, boycott industrial farming, and save money in the process. Not to mention, organic food will keep you from the death bed (not to be morbid) a little bit longer.
“But how?” thinks everybody. The truth is gardening is no rocket science. Most of us have planted seeds and watched them sprout as part of science projects when we were children. Creating a garden that produces fresh vegetables isn’t all that different. All it requires is a bit of knowledge and some patience. In fact, all it really requires is some terrace or balcony space, and the love of a committed urban gardener. Following are some considerations to keep in mind when you begin work on your organic garden.
Where to Plant?
Vegetable gardening can be done on almost any scale. You can grow nutritious sprouts on a counter top, salad greens on a windowsill, dwarf fruit trees on a patio, tomatoes on a balcony, and much more. A small but well planned garden can produce a lot of fresh vegetables. Start by finding a spot that gets 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day. It should also have ready access to water. Further, a south-facing balcony or terrace is usually necessary for the winter, else your plants will feel cold and deprived of sunlight.
Depth of Soil
Plants with shallow roots such as lettuce, spinach, radishes and most herbs, require only 6 to 8 inches of soil depth to grow well. On the other hand, deeper-rooted plants like tomatoes and squash need 12 inches of soil. Make sure your containers have holes for drainage and are big enough to support the plants growing in them.
Nurturing the soil is the urban farmer’s first responsibility. If your soil is fit and fine, your plants will follow suit. Fill your containers with potting mix (soil) that is friable (easily crumbled) and drains well. Potting mix is usually a combination of equal parts soil, manure, and ideally, coco peat (coir pith). Make sure your mix isn’t too clayey or sandy. One of the biggest advantages of using potting mix is that you get to skip the backbreaking work of weeding and amending soil.
For gardening in containers you only require a trowel, a watering can and scissors. If you use a good potting mix, you won’t require any tools for weeding. Your two most important tools are Love and Care; without these even an unassuming carrot will be reluctant to grow for you.
Simple is Good
Start small, start simple. Grow seasonally and begin with plants that are easy to grow; ex, leafy greens, pink radish and bush beans in the winter, or Armenian Cucumber, ladyfingers and brinjal in the summer. This way, you can increase your chances of a fruitful harvest and tune in to the rhythms of the season.
Weed Out the Bad
Weeds steal water and nutrients from plants. They also harbour pests and can wreak havoc on your garden. Weed out alien shoots and grasses the moment you spot them encroaching upon the space of your plants.
Fertilise for Fecundity
When growing in confined spaces like containers and boxes, frequent fertilising with liquid manures such as Panchgavya or Jivamarit and compost is critical to success. Good compost should have a sweet earthy smell like the one soil gives off after the first monsoon rains.
Prevention is better than cure when it comes to plants. Pests target weak or unhealthy plants, so choose seasonal plants that are suited to local conditions. Don’t let plants get too wet, too dry, or too shaded.
One of the best organic methods of pest control is to collect fresh neem leaves and soak them in half a bucket of water. Once the leaves have dissolved into the water after a couple of days, apply the mixture around the base of your plants or spray a filtered and diluted solution of the same on them once a week.
Water your garden early in the morning or in the evening. Cooler temperatures mean less evaporation and, thus, more moisture for your plants. Direct your hose or watering can at the soil around plants to give them the maximum moisture, with minimum evaporation. For people who travel frequently, self-watering containers can be created that only need to be watered once every two weeks.
Harvesting & Eating
Once the produce is ready to eat, harvest it in a timely manner. Add a handful of compost and replant the space with a different type of plant the next time around.
Gardening is an investment of your time and labour. But, like a little seed that grows into a gigantic pumpkin, your efforts will yield delicious bursts of flavour, better health, a greener planet and lower food costs! Besides, gardening is excellent exercise and can hold its own when compared to your average rambunctious gym session. So, sow the seeds today, to reap the organic benefits for your body, your family, and your wallet.
Every little patch of Mother Earth is unique. So, sometimes one rule may not apply to all. Getting to know and nurturing your own patch of land will take a little time and adjustment, somewhat like making a new friend. So, be patient. The yield will be worth it and more.
The author is CEO & founder of Sajeev Fresh, an organic gardening consultancy, which holds workshops and creates urban gardens and farms across the country, so people can grow and enjoy fresh, organic, home-grown food