The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 19, 2014 |

7days

How green is my terrace

Rising vegetable prices have prompted people to grow their own plants in terraces and balconies. Reena Martins discovers that some keen gardeners have halved their vegetable bills

  • Cost cutting: Vijay Satish poses in his garden

In a middle-class colony in Mumbai's western suburb of Goregaon, Nrupal Gharat grows greens in a slit of a windowsill. Coriander cascades from a two-litre soft drink bottle hung from the grille, and spinach sprouts straight off compost laden soil laid out on a tin sheet on the base of the window.

Every week, the tiny green patches on his living room, kitchen and bedroom windowsills of the west-facing one-bedroom flat feeds the middle-aged stockbroker's family of three. Last month, he replicated the experiment in a terrace corner — twice the size of the windowsill — of his family home in Uran, on Mumbai's outskirts, only to be bestowed with three times the yield in a single month.

"My parents don't know what to do with so many vegetables," he says.

Gharat is one of the many gardeners who are growing their own vegetables. Most are happy that they are battling costs. After prices went through the roof last year, the keen gardeners found an added reason to grow their own plants. It's not just healthy, but a cheaper option as well.

The growing interest in balcony and terrace gardening can be gauged by the number of people who have joined the Bangalore-based Organic Terrace Gardening (OTG) Facebook page in recent times. It started with barely 50 members in 2012. Now it has over 15,000 gardeners from across the country.

While most in OTG grow mainly everyday herbs and vegetables, a small percentage doesn't need to go to the market very often, group administrator Ananya Mehta says.

Dr B.N. Vishwanath, a former entomologist, makes only fortnightly trips to the Bangalore vegetable market, depending heavily on produce from his 65 sqft terrace garden.

Vijay Satish, an IT professional in Bangalore who grows 150 varieties of tomato — from the Italian ox-heart-shaped tomato to bright orange beefsteak tomatoes that weigh up to 350gm each — doesn't need to haggle with the sabziwallah either. This third generation agriculturist makes hardly a couple of trips a year to the vegetable market.

The gardeners have handy tips for newcomers. Vishwanath advises them to start with daily essentials such as tomatoes, chillies, coriander, mint and other such herbs. "After that you can grow what you like, eat what you grow," he says. "And if you can't find organic seeds, go for open pollinated seeds — avoid hybrids — and wash off the pesticides coating them," he recommends.

To keep the kitchen larder stocked with homegrown essentials, he plans ahead. So once the tomatoes have been transplanted to the pot — packed with equal proportions of soil, compost, vermicompost and coir powder — he has the next seed tray rippling with germinated heads. It takes six to eight weeks for tomatoes to be ready for picking. Even faster to land on the plate are greens that arrive within a week to less than a month.

Bangalore-based IT professional Hariram Pagadala Sreenath's weekly vegetable bill has fallen from Rs 1,250 to Rs 500. These days, he needs to buy only potatoes and tomatoes. His 500 sqft terrace garden feeds his family of four and has plenty left for the two neighbouring families above. When Sreenath sees enough vegetables to last for three to four days, he throws the garden open, but with a small caveat. "Pluck only what can be cooked the same day," he says.

Brinjals, like spinach, are Sreenath's most prolific plants. Priyanka Kumari, a housewife in Mumbai, is happy with her gourds and cherry tomatoes. Maheshwar Khillar is more ambitious — he grows 29 vegetables on his 800 sqft terrace in Odisha.

The gardeners stress that growing vegetables is hard work. Vijay traps the soil's moisture by scattering paper or plastic shreds over the broken bucket, old fridge or washing machine that serve as pots.

Very little escapes his green thumb, as he picks up exotic varieties from his travels abroad or international seed exchange groups. Not to say he hasn't burnt his fingers from handling the fiery bhut jolokia —the red hot Naga chilli that took 45 days to germinate and about six months to show up.

The first time he plants a seed from an heirloom variety or from abroad, he prefers not to eat the fruit but harvest seeds from it. "The second generation of seeds will be better acclimatised to the local climate," he says.

Khillar shares his sentiment. "A baby born in an air-conditioned hospital also does well on coming home," he says.

But the pests that these gardeners have to reckon with do not discriminate between the local and the exotic. Hariram sticks short broomsticks in his pots to deter birds from perching and feeding on seed or shoots. Those plagued with pests in the garden find interesting remedies on the OTG page. Spread plastic sheets around the base of the tapioca tree to scare away bandicoots with its rustling; spray a buttermilk concoction to drive away spiders; a peg of alcohol diluted with half a litre of water knocks out mealy bugs; fly in the ladybug herself to make a meal of aphids.

"Spray a soup of boiled cigarette butts or bidis," says Sushama Pillai, a retired IT professional in Mumbai. "Though it's embarrassing for a woman to go and buy bidis," she laughs.

But certain pests will take a lot more to bite the dust, naturally. Vipul Amrutlal, whose terrace garden in central Mumbai feeds his family four or five meals a week, had no choice but to leave around boric powder-stuffed dough balls to kill the black cockroach-like insects that had devoured his garden in days.

But once the pests are taken care of, all is well. Tomatoes and onions may cost the earth — and even an election or two — but the terrace growers have a field day.