Urban farming is slowly spreading its roots in Indian cities and bringing people closer to the food they eat, says Muskaan Sharma
On the outskirts of South Delhi, is the quiet village of Aya Nagar. From a distance, the village is like any other small township, but it is home to a unique farming venture called Farm 8. A two-and-a-half-acre organic farm and permaculture learning centre, Farm 8 is owned by urban farming consultancy, Edible Routes. The organisation provides step-by-step guidance on how to efficiently design, plan, build, and manage organic edible landscapes and home gardens, and create products to nurture the earth.
250 km away, in the city of Jaipur, Prateek Tiwari founded an organisation called Living Greens in 2002. Today, 16 years since its birth, Living Greens is reviving the ecosystem of the Pink City by transforming the rooftops of houses into mini-farms that grow all kinds of fruits and vegetables.
Farming consultancies like Edible Routes and Living Greens have cropped up in many Indian cities in the last decade, owing to people’s increasing interest in growing their own food in their urban surroundings.
Urban farming, often called urban gardening, is the practice of growing food in a city. As a practice, it is quite flexible and focuses on making use of any vacant space available in an urban setting to grow vegetables and fruits. Rooftop farming or terrace farming is another way to practice farming in urban areas. There are organisations that practice urban farming and sell the produce they grow, but now the focus has shifted to producing food for personal consumption.
Need of the hour
Food studies in the past decade have indicated high levels of pesticide residue in the food we consume, especially vegetables and fruits. The vegetables that appear shiny, round, and vibrant are most likely pumped with hormones and have traces of chemical fertilisers. This is also how seasonal vegetables are now available to us all year round. These harmful pesticides and insecticides are not removed even by means of boiling. The food quality is so low that many countries have recently stopped accepting India’s agricultural produce as it does not meet their health safety and quality standards. Scientists, today, have linked pesticides in foods to fertility issues and cancer.
“We as urban consumers are under the delusion that someone else is responsible for growing our food and putting it on our plates—and to do so in an ethical way. This has caused a disconnect where we now do not know who is growing our food, how it’s being grown, and where it’s being grown,” says Kapil Mandawewala, the founder of Edible Routes.
The Indian food sector has gradually expanded its organic market, as a large section of the population has become increasingly conscious of the food they eat. However, as the demand for ethically grown produce increased, the quality of produce from organic sources has deteriorated. This has left conscious citizens to take matters into their own hands by growing their own food.
Jeevna Murlidharan is a 47-year-old urban farmer who has transformed her terrace into a tiny farmland in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu. Her motivation, she says, was simply to provide poison-free food to her family “I kept coming across articles on the hazardous chemicals used in pesticides for agriculture and the need for awareness amongst ourselves towards consuming chemical-free vegetables. That’s when the idea of growing a few greens on my rooftop came up,” she says. Today, Jeevna grows vegetables like brinjal, tomato, beans, cucumber, and carrot and fruits like papaya, guava, custard apple, gooseberry, and grapes, and even spices like pepper on her rooftop.
Another crucial need for urban farming is the rapidly changing environment. The agricultural land is slowly getting urbanised and the population in cities still largely relies on the rural farmers for their food requirements.
“Agriculture has never been considered a part of the lives of city dwellers, but it can be a way to tackle the increasing environmental degradation. Increased human activity in densely populated areas has made our cities hotter. Exposed rooftops in cities can contribute to the increase in heat by up to 40 per cent. Farming on your rooftops can lower the overall temperature of your house by 7 per cent. Growing your own food can also lower the overall water consumption and make use of harvested rainwater. It decreases your food miles (the distance food is transported from the time of its production until it reaches the consumer) to zero. The green spaces in the cities are increased by converting our rooftops and backyards into organic food gardens,” says Prateek Tiwari, the founder of Living Greens in Jaipur.
Prateek aims to convert one million square metres of rooftop space into farms and initiate 100 green entrepreneurs, in various cities, who shall represent his dream of converting rooftops into lush green organic farms.
Apart from the obvious health hazards of inorganic food, the consciousness associated with food as the energy provider and an important part of our life has motivated people to tread the path of urban gardening.
It is often thought that growing our own food is a job for people with time on their hands and is not an activity that can be taken up by busy urban populations owing to their work commitments and busy life. But with the right tools and a fair amount of research, anyone can start a small garden on their balconies or rooftops. With as little as half an hour a day of management and ₹ 5000/- a month of expenditure, you can easily start growing most of the vegetables that you consume at home, without the harmful pesticides and fertilisers reducing their nutritional value.
Dr. B. N. Vishwanath Kadur is the pioneer of rooftop farming in Bangalore and has been an expert in urban farming for over two decades. The ex-professor of agricultural science is the founder of Garden City Farmers Trust, an NGO that fosters the growth of urban farming and Bangalore’s annual urban organic fair, Oota From Your Thota (Food from your Garden).
“It is not essential to have a green thumb to start farming. Just get started and try to learn as much as you can. Research more and you can expand your garden however you want to,” says Dr. Kadur. He shares his expert tips to give you an idea of the step-by-step process of starting your own mini food garden.
Any place with good sunlight can be used. It can be a balcony, terrace, or even a small ground space. For balconies, it is important to ensure proper drainage through outlets and for rooftops waterproofing is necessary. To check for proper waterproofing, plug all the drains on the terrace and fill your terrace with rainwater. If you see signs of water retention on the ceiling of the house underneath the terrace, you need to work on your waterproofing. If you see none, you’re good to go.
Do not splurge on pots for plants. Instead, use already available containers; paint buckets are great containers. Poke drainage holes at the bottom and fill the container with potting mix. The ideal potting mix should be equal parts soil, coco peat, compost, and vermicompost. For more conventional people, they can also opt for planting trays to start growing some seeds and transfer them to bigger pots after germination.
What to grow
Focus on your daily requirements. Grow tomatoes, herbs, onions, curry leaves—the veggies you need for every meal. Tomatoes grow in a bunch so even 1–2 pots are enough. Onions may require several pots. Curry tree requires a large pot for the tree to grow bigger. Herbs can be grown keeping in mind the daily consumption. You can grow more veggies as you expand your skills and investment.
Jeevna grows a wide variety of vegetables as well as exotic fruits in her rooftop garden. Kapil suggests to start out simple with herbs and green leafy vegetables.
No two plants have similar sunlight requirements, so ensure that you understand these requirements. Mostly all plants require 3–4 hours of sun every day. To prevent your plants from the extreme heat, a shade net can be easily installed.
Do not overwater nor give insufficient water. Keep an eye out for dried up soil; it indicates inadequate watering. Overwatering can drain the soil and get rid of all the nutrients. Drip irrigation can also be a sustainable method, but for beginners, a drip irrigation setup is not needed. If going out of town for a few days, poke a small hole in a plastic bottle filled with water and bury it hold side down in the pots. This can be a makeshift slow irrigation system.
These three methods can be used to control pest infestation in your garden.
Water: Spray water to get rid of all the insects from your plant. Use your fingers if needed. Using the water hose can be extremely effective. Give the plant a complete wash. Wait for 1–2 days and see if insects come back. Give a second wash if necessary.
Neem oil: Add 10 ml of neem oil to one litre of water. To this, add about five drops of liquid soap or 2–3 pinches of detergent. Mix it all well and give a generous spray to all the affected parts of the plant, especially the underside of the leaves. This you can do once in 10 days or so.
Chilli, garlic, ginger: Make a paste of either one or a combination of chilli, garlic, and ginger, dilute it with water, and spray it on the plants.
Jeevna Murlidharan prefers to go natural with pest control and grows insect repellent plants like mint and lemongrass to get rid of pests. “Anyone wanting to start his own rooftop garden should be patient enough to face all the challenges that would be in store for him in his garden. He should always stay motivated and have a positive outlook. Be ready to get your hands dirty,” she says.
Composting is a natural next step once you start growing your own veggies. It helps to supplement some of the requirement of manure/compost that you would have to buy from outside. It also helps to curb the amount of waste going to landfills. There are many different ways to compost but, to get started, beginners may try compost bins that can be bought online.
The way ahead
Prateek, Jeevna, Kapil, and Dr. Kadur are just a few members of a movement that is revolutionising our food system. Thousands of urban farmers are devoted to their idea of organic food and work tirelessly to provide ethically-grown nutritious food.
It is said that to grow in the future, we must learn from the past. When talking about our food, this saying holds true. Urban farming is now re-introducing people to the cultural aspects of food and the role it plays in creating more aware urban consumers that prefer organic food over conventional food and chemical-free food over processed food.
Cities all over the world have realised the potential of urban farming and gardening. With this growing awareness about the part that food plays in our daily life, an increasing number of people are turning into urban farmers.
“The perception of urban dwellers towards their food, towards the farmers who grow their food, and towards the earth is most essential to grow their food. Even though many have come to realize the interconnection between so many of the problems of urban sustainability and food contamination/degrading food quality, there still exists general apathy amongst urban folks towards making better food choices,” says Kapil from Edible Routes.
The benefits of farming in urban areas go beyond health and the environment. It is an economically viable choice that can majorly impact the food quality and nutritional density of food. It is a practice that can connect us to our roots of traditional agriculture. Agriculture was practised to provide for the family and it was through this practice that people stayed connected with each other and their food.
Providing nutritious food for your family while working along with them in growing your food is a sacred way of rehabilitating your bond with the eternal nourisher, nature. Urban gardens can be the front line of the modern food system.
INTIPANTA - Organic Kitchen/Terrace Gardening Facebook group
This 35,000-member-strong online community will help with your queries and doubts regarding your urban farming endeavours.
Oota From your Thota (OFYT) “Food from your garden”
This event is conducted in Bangalore. This is a must visit, if you want to buy anything you need to start off with your garden. You get pots, saplings, seeds, different types of compost, ready-to-use soil mixes, neem oil, and gardening equipment.
Edible Routes Workshops:
These events are conducted in Delhi every few weeks. These include introductory as well as intensive courses on farming and farm planning.
Geekgardener.in is an initiative by Manikandan Pattabiraman, a techie-turned- urban-farmer, blogger and entrepreneur. Sowing charts and tips on how to grow exotic foods can be found on this website.
A Handbook of Organic Terrace Gardening by Dr. B.N. Kadur is an excellent and precise guide to help you start your own terrace garden. The book covers a wide range of topics like pot making, different methods of sowing, planning a terrace garden, important tools and equipment needed, and information on different types of vegetables that could be grown on the terrace.
The following two YouTube channels are a great source of audio-visual guidance for your urban garden:
Edible Routes http://edibleroutes.com/
Living Greens www.thelivinggreens.com
Jeevna Murlidharan https://www.facebook.com/jeevasorganicgarden/
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