The garden on the roof

The garden on the roof

It’s rather ironic that despite being christened the Garden City, Bangalore isn’t really home to many private gardens. Public spaces like Lalbagh Botanical Gardens apart, it would appear that most of the City’s residents lack the proverbial green thumb.

green thumb Manikandan holding a tub of spinach grown in cocopeat.And while many would attribute this to the fact that the apartment cult excludes the possibility of growing their own garden, Manikandan Pattabiraman begs to differ. “In Bangalore, nobody has a reason not to create a garden — the weather is just perfect,” he says.

Manikandan lives on the fourth floor of an apartment complex, but that didn’t stop this avid gardener from creating his own little Eden on the terrace of his building. He grows a variety of vegetables as well as ornamental flowers, but what really sets his garden apart is the fact that he doesn’t use soil. “It’s tough growing with soil, because you don’t know its source. It could have diseases, pests and certain pathogens. Lifting bags of soil up to my terrace is also a huge problem and besides, the earth leaves red stains which my landlord didn’t approve of. So, I took to soilless cultivation,” he explains.

He has substituted soil for replacements such as ‘cocopeat’, which is a by-product of the
coir industry, or pure water to which he adds fertilisers. He simply scoops these replacements into plastic bags or tubs and grows his plants in them. It’s a perfect way, he maintains, to grow on a small-scale. “I’ve tried with many different soil-less media, but cocopeat — which is basically dried coconut husk — is easily available and highly porous.
Water is a perfect medium for short-term crops like lettuce and spinach, which grow in a month. But for long-term plants, growing in water can be rather high-maintenance and requires a lot of technical know-how. So for crops like tomatoes, capsicum and chilli, which take about eight months to mature, I use cocopeat,” he says.

His initial days of setting up the garden came with their own share of difficulties — since there isn’t much information available on soil-less cultivation, Manikandan had to perfect his technique through a trial-and-error method. “It didn’t take that long to figure out, though. Initially, I used to pick up my seeds from different places around the City, including Lalbagh. But now, I have my own collection of seeds. Some of the first crops I grew were spinach, capsicum, tomato and mint — plants which are used regularly in the kitchen.”

Four years down the line, his garden covers a 500-square-foot area and includes vegetables and fruits such as lettuce, strawberries, watermelon, zucchini, five kinds of mint, coriander and drumstick as well as flowers like button roses, lilies and gladioli. He’s even succeeded in growing bhut jolokia, which is one of the hottest chillies in the world and is native to Assam. “I love spicy food, so I decided to give it a try. I wasn’t prepared for how hot it was,” he quips.

Manikandan admits that he steers clear of chemical pesticides and instead, protects his plants with a homemade concoction. “I simply combine some neem oil with a little soap and spray it on the leaves. It’s a simple way to protect my plants,” he explains.

On an average, Manikandan spends about one-and-a-half to two hours a day in his garden; but he’s quick to add that this is rather more than the norm. “Generally, about an hour a day is enough. One needs to water each and every plant, no matter the weather. Some time has to be spent in harvesting as well, which is pretty much the best part.
Other than that, it’s important to scout for pests and check for discolouration under the leaves,” he says. This dedication appears to be well worth the effort. Manikandan admits that he derives a huge sense of satisfaction from tending to his green wards. “I can literally eat whatever I want at any point of time. If I feel like making something with lettuce in the middle of the night, I can do it. I have a real passion for what I do,” he concludes.

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