Strawberry fields on my terrace

Sunday, 29 December 2013 - 10:24am IST | Agency: DNA
Move over coriander and curry leaves. To combat increasing levels of pesticides in foods, terrace gardens across India are blooming with more exotica, like lavender and thyme. Gargi Gupta gives an aerial view of these home gardens.

Chillies, okras and tomatoes on potted plans? Nothing new about that. A lot of people grow these staples on their balconies or terraces — but how about strawberries? If you think they are too exotic to grow at home, think again. Aparna George, a Bangalore-based freelance writer, grows them in pots in a corner of her terrace, along with other vegetables like zucchini, lavender, carrots, beans, brinjals, cauliflower, cabbage, and palak, methi, coriander, rosemary, thyme and parsley.

George’s tryst with growing vegetables started, she reveals, around four years ago with the realisation that there are very high levels of pesticide residue in food. She began with a few pots of brinjals and tomatoes, using the organic manure she got by composting kitchen waste at home.
It’s expanded steadily to around 60-70 pots since. Last year, George invested in a 10X10 metre plot at Green Thumbs Mini Farms, a “micro-eco farm” set up by former software engineer Anand Maddur early last year. The farm, comprising of small plots (a minimum of 10X10), at Sarjapur Road on the outskirts of Bangalore caters to those living in the city who want to grow their own food.

George is at her farm at least once a week, often with her daughters, to till her farm. On the farm she’s grown onions, potatoes, turmeric, ginger, etc, and even fruits such as guava. Her efforts, she says, are enough to meet her vegetable requirements for a few days every week.

Grow and eat

Hers  is not an isolated case; there are a number of people in all the major metros of India who are turning farmers, trying to grow as much as they can of their food requirements. Bangalore is at the centre of this growing movement. They have a Facebook page — Organic Terrace Gardening, which has nearly 14,000 members, and have even been organising an annual event, “Oota from your Thota” (food from your farm) for three years now, to spread awareness about organic terrace gardening through workshops and interactions with vendors of seeds and gardening materials.

Dr B Narayan Vishwanath, an agriculture scientist, has been promoting organic terrace farming in Bangalore for close to 20 years now. Growing vegetables on his 75 sqft terrace, in 10 pots and 8 boxes 2X4 feet, Vishwanath says he is nearly self-sufficient in his food. “I have to go the market only around once a month,” he says. He has come up with a special mix which is 50% lighter than soil that is ideal for growing vegetables on the terrace/balcony; it consists of coir pith, soil and organic manure mixed in a ratio of 1:1:1. He’s been doing it for so long that he has devised a way of cleverly rotating his crops so that he has a steady supply through the year. For instance, he says, onions take 4-5 months to harvest, greens are ready in a month, and okra, tomatoes take a couple of months, so he plans his crops in a way that gives him variety on his plate.    

Farm2fork, a movement of people — individuals or communities — growing their own foodstuff, is a large global phenomenon, part of the slow food movement where conscientious eaters try to food that is produced locally, in order to minimise the carbon footprint of what they consume. India has, of course, had a long tradition of kitchen gardens where people grew vegetables, greens and fruits. But much of that has been lost because rapid urbanisation has meant few people have backyards or front gardens any more.

Community farming
But now health-conscious city-dwellers are taking matters into their own hands, finding innovative ways to get around the problem of land and the fact that balconies seldom get the amount of sunlight needed for vegetables to grow.

Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi and even Mumbai have active groups of urban farmers. In Hyderabad, Hariram Sreenath says with pride that he grows 40 varieties of vegetables on his 45sqft terrace; the Chennai group has a Facebook page called Grow Your Own Veggies which has members eagerly posting pictures of their gardens, and slolwy maturing fruits and vegetables.

In Delhi, Ritu Mathur, a landscape architect and a keen urban farmer, has been growing everything from okra to turmeric, garlic and ginger for the past year-and-a-half. But the more acute problem is in Mumbai where most live in matchbox-sized apartments that do not have large balconies, let alone terraces that can accomodate pots. A great example of community farming is The Flyover Farm, a 5,000 sqft community farm that came up last year on the unused rooftop of a building on Mohammed Ali Road. The 50 families who live in the building, contribute with the kitchen waste that goes into the composting for organic manure and get a vegetable each day with the remaining sold to vendors for a profit. Clearly, it’s a win-win situation in every way.

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