Our guest blogger Prerna Kumar – a healer, life guide and an avid reader and writer writes about her learnings in growing a terrace garden. For more, you can check out her blog here.
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells
And pretty maids all in a row.
I have some sea shells and round stones, no pretty maids to line up, and I would definitely love to have some silver bells hanging about in my garden. Yes, I have a garden, a terrace garden, to be exact. Every morning I find that this garden made of pots and plants brings to me happiness, gratitude and at times pleasant surprises.It is source of pure joy to plant something and see it grow. But the path to this joy is often marred with some failures and disappointments. But they are like learning curves, which lead to even greater satisfaction and happiness.
I was not always keen on getting involved with plants, or even flowers. My mom has always maintained a thriving garden, and when I moved to Pune, I started to miss the greenery. I tried to bring the green in my life with a few indoor plants, but only managed in withering and eventually killing them. It seemed that the proverbial ‘green thumb’ will always elude me.
To cut a long story short, with some help from my mom and a local gardener, I was eventually able to plant and surprisingly keep alive a few flower plants (roses, carnation, petunia, money plant, palm-tree, tulsi etc.) and green indoor plants. I slowly understood the importance of just enough water, sunlight and shade. After doing so and enjoying my beautiful flowers and green plants for some years, I finally felt that I am ready to try my hand at growing vegetables.
It was only last year that I endeavoured I finally took the leap. It started when some seasonal plants withered away. Instead of getting more seasonals, this time, I got some vegetable seeds. I had a chilli and a lemon plant, but they were more like standard fares, rather than actual vegetables.
The reason I wanted to start growing vegetable was that I had become frustrated with buying small amounts of mint, coriander, curry leaves etc. due to their short shelf-life and also finding them frequently out-of-stock, with in the nearby market or in my refrigerator, when I needed them urgently for some cooking.
I decided to plant first mint, then coriander. The mint is still thriving, it has already given us minty lemonades and chutney for 2 seasons now. The coriander, well, was a lost cause.
I began with tomatoes, curry leaves, mint, herbs like rosemary, parsley, sage and oregano, local variety of cucumber, and Bhindi (or Okra or Lady’s Finger), and graduated to more chillies, and turai (Ridged Gourd), cherry tomatoes and capsicum. So far I have have had 6-7 crops of okra and just as many of the ridged gourd, along with continuous crop of tomatoes, chillies, herbs and the curry leaves.
However, not all endeavours were successful. Some were surprisingly so, like the tomatoes were ‘fruitful’, from the day one, but some refused to yield more than a few bits of produce like the cucumber. I learned later that the cucumber plants had become overcrowded in the pots they were in, and so the fruit of the plant just did not get enough nutrition to grow.
One other major disappointment for me was an old round chilli plant, which had borne fruit one season, but had become plagued with insects and some other diseases. This whole year, with the help of my gardner, I nursed that plant and willed to become healthy. I cannot express by joy when this season we saw flowers after 4 years, and then small chillies finally! I was over the moon! My beautiful, hot, delicious chillies were growing again! We had done it!
The success on the other hand, make these disappointments totally worthwhile. For example, the cherry tomatoes are growing and blooming effortlessly, and we are enjoying their produce in our salads with utmost delight. Everyday I am amazed at these tiny little treasures. I am now waiting for my round chillies (they look like green cherries) to come up to speed, so we can once again experience their extremely hot temperament.
If you too wish to experience this connection with Mother Nature, and maybe a connection with soil and all things that grow in there, call out to you, I would like to offer some tips:
- Choose things you like to eat. If you are not fond of brinjal (eggplant), and you start growing it, chances are you will end up neglecting the plants, especially if you are new at it. Choose the vegetables that you like to eat, and ones that you will need in everyday cooking, like chillies, lemon, curry leaves etc. Growing simple plants will give you the confidence to go further into growing vegetables.
- Get seeds of good quality. This is very, very important. Find a good local nursery and get good seeds. To order organic seeds, click here. For some vegetables, you can harvest seeds from the actual vegetable by drying it out and then using the seeds. For cherry tomatoes, I brought dried some cherry tomatoes and used their seeds. They have worked wonderfully!
- Know your pests and pesticides. Your plants will attract various insects in various weather. For example, my lemon plant is right now being attacked by green leaf-eaters. We have to carefully remove them, while ensuring that we do not touch them with hand. Organic pesticides are your best bet, as the chemical ones will also send the chemicals to the fruit/vegetable, and negate the value of your organic home-grown food. You can also make your own pesticides with the help of neem extract/leaves and spray them on your plants.
- Don’t be afraid to get help. You can get it online, from a friend/relative who is into growing vegetables, or you can hire an experienced gardner to help with planting and maintenance. However, please understand that hired help will not be deeply invested as you may be about your vegetables. You have to get involved and ask questions and discuss your plants’ issues. Yes, like a mother does with her children’s teachers! Trust me, your plants need your constant involvement and attention.
- Even after you are no longer a novice, you may need help in maintaining your plants. The soil in Pune gets very tightly packed very easily, and then the roots are not able to ‘breathe’ anymore. This also obstructs water flow to the roots, which may cause the plant to wither away, even while you may be faithfully watering your plants. A good turning of the soil with a trowel at regular intervals, like once in two-three weeks, helps keep the soil airy. It’s hard work, and if you have more plants than you can manage, getting a gardner is a good idea.
- Don’t give up if something doesn’t work out. Treat it as a valuable lesson. Find out what went wrong, and correct it the next time. It is disappointing to see the seeds and effort go to waste, but does that mean that you should not have tried? Of course not! Sometimes, even failed efforts produce surprising results, besides being instructive and educational. I had tried my hand at sowing some garlic, and though I could never grow a single bulb of it, I did manage to get some soft leaves of garlic that turned out be great for making chutneys! So it was not a total loss. Those chutneys were delicious, and I am looking forward to growing garlic again soon, this time in not-so-shallow a pot.
- Try composting. I must confess I have not yet been able to do it, but I am planning to do it quite soon. This helps you to make a contribution towards the environment by using your leftover food, vegetable and fruit peels and other food wastes to make organic fertilizer for your plants. This make stout plants grow faster and healthier. For instructions on composting, click here.
- Do it with friends/neighbours. If you can form a group or community with your friends and neighbours, you can actually enjoy the hole process manyfold. When you become good at it, you can even barter some produce and feel like a true farmer! Not to mention all the money that you save! It’s been a year since we have paid for mint and curry leaves, and very soon our tomatoes and chillies will also become more generous.
In the end, it is all about having a kitchen garden that is a source of both joy and healthy food. I find that things grown in my own humble terrace kitchen garden are more delicious. They bring more than produce to my life – they are my very own and personal connection to Mother Earth and her bounty. You can choose to attach as much or as little meaning to your home-grown vegetables, but you will not be able to deny the freshness and nutrition that they bring to your daily plate of food. And after all, we are what we eat.
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