Homing in on home-grown vegetables

Homing in on home-grown vegetables

Vegetables straight from the terrace to the table - that's the aim of some organisations that are encouraging people to grow their own food

July 4, 2015

In 2013, 23 children in Bihar died after consuming vegetables suspected to be laced with a banned farm chemical. The following year, Delhi High Court ruled that some of the capital’s fruits and vegetables are unfit for human consumption as they contain unacceptably high levels of pesticide residue. In the absence of a well-implemented government policy on pesticide use (World Health Organisation reports that India allows the use of many pesticides banned elsewhere in the world), what can urban consumers do?

Kapil Mandawewala, a US-educated ex-management consultant, has the answer. Grow vegetables on your rooftops and balconies, he says. The Delhi-based entrepreneur has designed high-yielding vegetable patches on city balconies, terraces and backyards that can supply a household with all the vegetables it needs. “I’ve spent several years researching what can be grown in small spaces and small containers in as little as six to eight inches of soil,” he says. “And now I can say with certainty that it is possible for a 100 sq ft space to yield enough vegetables for two people for the entire year.”

Although a notorious sceptic and inadvertent plant-killer, I set off to see the terrace garden that Mandawewala’s Delhi-based garden consultancy, Sajeev Fresh, had created less than two months ago. A row of beds, covered with netting (for sun protection and temperature control) stands on the exposed, concrete terrace. When the net is pulled away, the fragrance of moist earth wafts up as I behold lush beds full of cucumber, zucchini, okra (lady’s finger), basil and maize. “We always sow together tall and short plants compatible with one another. Not only does this ensure that the owners enjoy a diversity of vegetables, this also mimics nature better,” says Mandawewala. “Companion planting controls the spread of crop-specific pests and yeilds greater productivity from a small planting area.” As I munch on a crisp cucumber straight off the vine, he shows me how friable (moist yet crumbly in gardening lexicon) the potting mix is.

“By adding water retentive elements and mulching (adding a cover of dry leaves on the soil to retain moisture and fertility) regularly, we minimise water consumption,” he explains.

We sit amidst all this bounty as Mandawewala explains why growing food on urban terraces is a practice that is gaining currency across the world. From Bengaluru to Brooklyn and Chicago to Venezuela, urban rooftop farming is a huge global trend. “Freshly harvested crops have 50 per cent more nutrients,” says Mandawewala. Sajeev Fresh uses only natural pesticides such as citronella in the potting mix. Growing food on one’s terrace has another, intangible but important, benefit. “It enables us to re-establish our connection with food,” says Mandawewala. “It enables jaded city-dwellers to learn to make better food choices and to eat local and fresh.”

Much of Sajeev Fresh’s work is about spreading awareness. “Since we began working in Delhi last year, we have set up over 60 vegetable gardens on terraces, balconies and backyards. More important, we have held countless workshops to spread awareness about rooftop gardening,” he says. “Our focus hasn’t just been on the urban rich; we are also working with schools in the capital where we’re teaching students to maintain their own gardens.”

I attend Mandawewala’s lecture at India Habitat Centre in Delhi, where over a hundred urban gardeners have gathered to listen to how they can use their green spaces to grow food. Chatting with some of the participants later, I learn that Sajeev Fresh isn’t the only organisation that promotes rooftop gardening. Vividhara and Organic Terrace Gardening also have vibrant groups where planting and composting tips, garden plans and desi seeds exchange hands.

However, what becomes clear is that while there is interest in vegetable gardening, people who live in cities need a lot of instructions and hand-holding to begin their own gardens. This makes Sajeev Fresh’s offer to build, operate and maintain organic vegetable gardens an attractive one for gardening newbies. “We’ve set up a self-watering garden for an elderly couple in Delhi who can’t climb up to their terrace. With watering down to once a fortnight, they can simply sit back and enjoy the produce,” he says. The installation cost of these gardens ranges from ~100 to ~300 per square foot, depending on the nature of materials chosen.

Mandawewala is now expanding operations to reach out to larger audiences through lectures and hands-on workshops. “The wonder of watching one’s vegetables grow and the simple pleasure of the harvest is something that we, and definitely our children, should experience,” he says. “I’m working towards the day when more and more people are able to bring fresh and healthy produce from the terrace to the table.”

Learn more at http://sajeevfresh.com/ or log on to their Facebook page.

Next fortnight, the story of Manzil, an innovative space where young adults from low income backgrounds learn, teach and perceive their world in unique, creative ways