The Kitchen Gardener

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Lavanya Keshavamurthy writes about Ananya Mehta who started her organic garden thirteen years ago and has now made it her mission to inspire others to take up gardening and farming.

 Garden City Farmer

Ananya Mehta was a Software Product Engineer for 13 years trying to juggle her career, family and passion for ecological farming. A growing concern towards environmental issues made her take up her gardening hobby as a career. Today, Ananya is a regular volunteer with Garden City Farmers, an NGO in Bangalore that supports gardeners in the city. She conducts training and awareness workshops to get more people to grow their own food when she is not gardening at home with her 8-year-old daughter. As we strike up a conversation in the Garden City Farmer’s stall at the annual horticulture show in Lalbagh Garden, Bangalore, Ananya fondly remembers how plants were an integral part of her childhood in Jamshedpur where the family garden had a profusion of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. And though life pulled her in many directions to many different places, she continued to keep in touch with the gardener in her – growing herbs and flowers wherever she travelled. “At one time, I even grew cacti in my balcony”, she says, recalling her zeal for growing plants of anykind, anywhere.

 

For a long time when she wasn’t growing edibles she felt strange buying fruits like guava, seethaphal or pomegranate. “I don’t remember buying these fruits during my

childhood.” In her 700 sq. ft. of growing space (500 sq. ft. in the backyard and 200 sq. ft. of terrace), she grows almost all the vegetables that she needs – tomato, several varieties of chillies, radish, beetroot, greens, brinjal, bhindi, zucchini and even lettuce. Her favourite ‘line’ of vegetables are native greens. Here is a short list…(and no, it is not an extract from a biology lesson)

 

• Methi – Fenugreek; Kannada: Methisoppu

• Mustard - Kannada: Saasuvesoppu

• Malabar Spinach – Basella alba; Hindi: Poi; Kannada: Basale

• Alternanthera; Kannada: Honnegonnesoppu

• Ceylon Spinach – Talinumtriangulare / fruticosum; Kannada: Belabasale

• Summer purslane/

Portulacaoleracea; Kannada: Gonisuppu; Hindi: Kulphabhaji

• Centella Asiatica; Hindi: Brahmi; Kannada: Ondelaga/ Gotukola / Mandukaparni.

• Punarnava– Boerhaviadiffusa; Kannada: punarnava, komme.

• Oxalis - Clover; Kannada: Hulisoppu

• Amaranthus; Hindi: Chaulai; Kannada: dantusoppu

• Mountain spinach; Kannada: Chakotha

 

In her backyard, Ananya grows plants on raised beds. On the terrace, almost anything that can hold growing media becomes a planter – containers made from recycled wood with a metal frame and plastic crates used to carry fruits and veggies. Creepers such as mint, peppermint and oregano hang beautifully from pots. Her garden is also home to guava, pomegranate, chickoo, lime and orange. Among spices, the list includes two varieties of ginger and turmeric, garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano and many many varieties of herbal teas – lemon balm, lemongrass and Pandanus to name a few.

 

Garden secrets

“I spend 45 min to 1 hour everyday, surveying and talking to my plants. I do have a help for watering the garden everyday. However, surveying and checking each and every plant is very

important as I can act quickly if there is a pest attack or a plant that looks weak. I never use pesticides. Pest removal is always through mechanical means – I

just removing the affected leaf or plant, and in some cases, using a water spray.”

 

Ananya’s daughter loves helping her mom, especially when it comes to harvesting! She understands the value of life contained within a seed and saves seeds from all the fruits that she eats, with the hope of growing them. “I do not want to disappoint her, so I have germinated some of these seeds and given away the saplings to whoever has the space to accommodate them.” Dealing with dirt As with any ecosystem, urban or rural, there will be garden pests that feed on our dear plants. Ananya never tires of repeating her favourite quote regarding insects. “Insects have been around longer than us and will continue to be on this planet long after we are gone. So, in our own interest, it is best to co-exist with them. Using chemical pesticides is meaningless.” With 90% of these insects being beneficial to us, by using chemical pesticides, we usually end up killing the good ones too. The garden has a micro-climate of its own and we need to allow an eco-system to develop on its own, slowly and naturally. Nature has a way of balancing everything – it brings in lovely butterflies, bugs and other predators that keep our gardens alive. “Caterpillers love citrus and curry leaves. As long as they leave my fruits alone, I let them be.” The challenge is in understanding soil. City dwellers neglect this important part of the ecosystem that lies buried under. But ask anyone who has ‘dirtied’ their hands and they first talk about soil. Listen to experienced gardeners, experiment and take good care of your soil. The last of the challenges is knowing and understanding sunlight patterns, especially relevant in urban spaces.

Almost all plants need good sunlight, so it is important to plan your garden according to the sunlight it receives. 

 

Essential advice for amateur gardeners

 

1. The first and foremost thing is recognizing the importance of growing food in a natural, organic way. You will notice the difference in taste and in nutrition value.

 2. Start small. Even 2 or 3 pots with tomatoes and chillies are fine for a start. “I did not add all my pots in one day. I got them one by one as I got comfortable and confident.” In the beginning, losing plants can be demotivating and having too many plants can be overwhelming. So start with common plants such as tomato, chillies, palak, methi, etc. Greens are great because they are easy to grow and you get to eat them within 30 days of planting.

 3. Be prepared for failures. “We are dealing with living organisms here.” Gardening is not magic, but we do not have to give up because a few plants die. 

4. Pay attention to soil. “Healthy soil leads to healthy plants.” It is worth researching about taking care of your soil and growing media.

5. Read The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoaka to understand Natural Farming methods. Also, Sir Albert Howard’s book, The Soil and Health – A study of Organic Agriculture is a must read. An Agricultural Testament is valuable if you want to understand the wisdom of farmers and the history of agriculture in India.

 

Ananya Mehta lives with her husband and 8-year old daughter, in a home witha kitchen and terrace garden, near Sarjapur Road, Bangalore.