Your own secret garden

Last Updated 26 August 2010, 10:26 IST

Need green chillies to temper that sambhar – just step into your balcony and pick yourself some. Unexpected guests arrive home for tea – send the children to the terrace for some fresh spinach leaves to make some fritters.

Want to show off at the neighbourhood kitty party pot luck – how about a freshly tossed salad where all the ingredients are from your own garden – tomatoes, chillies, brinjals in a vinaigrette dressing topped off with some freshly cut sprigs of mint and coriander.  
Sounds great doesn’t it. Terrace gardening is not a new concept. Converting the space you have on your balcony or your terrace into a garden has been the answer to the prayers for several people blessed with a green thumb.

 But the driving force behind every terrace garden is interest asserts  B N Vishwanath, a consultant in organic terrace farming.  He says, “Terrace gardening is not a labour intensive task. You need to spend a total of half an hour a day, once in the morning and again in the evening in your garden. Careful watering and pruning is all that is needed.

This forms around 20 per cent of the work, the remaining 80-90 per cent is a keen interest in gardening.”

Start a terrace garden

If this has got you kicked about starting a terrace or a balcony garden of your own, then here is how you can go about it. Let’s get the monetary equation clear. Most people assume that terrace gardening is an expensive affair. It doesn’t have to be. The trick is to start small and then expand.

Vishwanath elaborates – “A 30 X 40 terrace space can easily be converted at a one time cost of around Rs 15,000. However, this is not the ideal way of going about things. Ideally invest in 10 pots each month. In pairs, plant mint, coriander, tomatoes, chillies and any vegetables such as brinjals, beans, potatoes, spinach etc. In 10 months you will have around 120 pots with crops growing in rotation. Each plant takes approximately three months to reach harvest level.” Here is how you can prep your terrace for a garden
If your terrace has not sprung any leaks till today, chances are it will not. Waterproofing your terrace therefore is not a necessity. However, Sobha from the AME Foundation that is dedicated to organic farming suggests that you can put down empty cement sacks and place your soil and mulch on that. 

If you are going to waterproof your terrace,  Vishwanath suggests applying a coat of white epoxy after you have done the job. Besides reducing the heat levels on your plants, it will also reflect heat off your home, cooling the house down considerably.  Try and install a rain water harvesting system in your home if you don’t already have one. This reduces the burden on your Cauvery or borewell water supply.  Prepare your own manure. Collect all your kitchen waste as well as the waste that develops from the plants once they have completed their growth cycle and place them in a compost pit. 

Get creative

Any crop can be planted directly into the soil that has been placed on the terrace. However, if space is a constraint, you could try this novel idea that is being tested out at the AME Foundation. Empty cement bags have been stitched together to form a tall cylinder. This has been filled with soil. The tall bag is held erect with ropes that are tied to the makeshift ceiling. To water the plants, a perforated tube runs down the centre of the bag. 16 plants have been placed in a circle of 4 plants each, all the way to the top. These are a mix of tomatoes, brinjals, beans and more. At regular intervals, flaps have been cut into the sack to allow the plant to grow outwards. As each plant grows, it is provided support with a hook that is placed close to the flap. 

Large tyres can be used as plant holders, as can individual empty sacks. All you will need to do is prune and support the plant as it goes. In fact, Sobha even spoke of one creative gentleman who used an old broken western toilet as a plant holder. Besides vegetables, banana trees, bamboo and even papaya plants can be grown on the terrace. These are called macro bonsais, where the height of the plant is restricted to around 5ft. Support is the key to growing these plants.  Some tips to keep in mind when maintaining a terrace garden is that each time you plant a new crop you need not throw the soil away. After 4 to 5 harvests, you can consider removing a layer of soil and mixing in some new soil.

AME gardeners Chikkanna and Murthy also shared an interesting tip. Most plants we see have a stream of red ants around them. Gardening enthusiasts do everything in their power to remove them. The gardeners suggest to leave them be. Red ants create small holes in the soil which actually provide growing space to plants.  Growing your own vegetables of course means not having to depend on market produce. Vegetables that can be grown on your terrace constitute almost 40 per cent of our food intake.  Besides the obvious organic food value of terrace gardening, our trips to the market are reduced significantly. This means a lower grocery bill, the lesser use of petrol and consequently lesser carbon emission. These may sound trivial now, but over time can account for something significant. 

You need not have to depend on what’s available in the market when you have a terrace garden. Having a garden also improves your micro-climate. Your house is cooler and you have a significantly larger amount of oxygen being emanated around you. 

(Published 26 August 2010, 10:19 IST)

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