Growing pollution, rising awareness about health and a sense of challenge are making Delhiites grow vegetables. Many do so to ensure that they are eating organic and seasonal but everyone has a different reason for doing so. For some it is a hobby, others had a green thumb when they were young while some do so for they want a better environment.
Architect Manu Goel began growing her own food, and lots of it on her rooftop, as she wanted organic food. Now she finds it more gratifying than gardening and growing ornamental plants. Her immediate trigger was the poor air quality in Delhi and the seasonal bronchitis that her children got. She had experience of growing plants as a child in Dehradun so she replicated her knowledge in Delhi.
Goel says: "We began by water-proofing our rooftop. We checked the load of the building, accordingly put soil and made beds for the vegetables. Now I even recommend to our customers that they should grow vegetables on their factory, office or restaurant rooftops." Because of the conversion of the roof, there is less heat ingress in their home and the kitchen garden attracts birds and snails.
The family has been growing herbs – haldi, spices, basil, mint, lemongrass and rosemary. Her vegetables include edible greens, lettuce, spinach, bottle gourd, tomatoes, French beans and many others according to the seasons. Every three months her rooftop colors and landscape change completely.
Besides the fresh, health, chemical-free and good quality vegetables they harvest from the roof, her children possess knowledge that no school provides and can identify vegetable saplings. "It is not difficult to grow a kitchen garden on the terrace on in pots even though it is a scientific and technical process." She finds that it is possible for a family to sustain if they eat seasonal vegetables. However, they still have to get some from outside.
On the other hand, Amita Bhuwania, a medical tourism consultant, is growing vegetables in both pots and in beds on the rooftop. She began growing vegetables eight years back and surmounted many challenges. Used to gardening on a plot of land, she found growing vegetables on the terrace a different ballgame. Recalling her initial days, Bhuwania says: "My first year turned out to be a disaster. I started growing vegetables in the summer which was not the right time. Nevertheless, the winter season turned out well. I also began reading and learning on how to plant the right way and the precautions to take."
She also found that the Delhi seasons were difficult for plants due to the extreme climatic variations. Now the family grows 28-30 varities of vegetables and herbs – lemongrass, oregano, chilli, mint and even baby corn. According to the seasons she harvests lettuce, cherry tomatoes, pear tomatoes, brinjals, spinach and fenugreek.
Of these, she is highly particular brinjals and all leafy vegetables. "We do not buy brinjals from outside as it contains the maximum pesticides. Even with leafy vegetables, we only consume the home-grown ones as what is sold in the market is not healthy."
Her experimentation and keen observations also resulted in newer experiences like companion planting in which she grows two varieties, tomato and corriander, together and gets double the harvest in the same space. Another combination that has worked is tomatoes and garlic in the same pot. Bhuwania gets her satisfaction not just from growing and nurturing the plants but also from the fact that she is eating the right food at the right time – which is healthier.
In her words: "If you start consuming what you have grown at home you feel satisfied. Also, you will eat more parts of the same plant, for example you are more likely to consume radish leaves. Our main urge was to eat pesticide-free, chemical-free and fresh food."
Interestingly, for most people the yearning to grow their own food, even if living in Delhi flats, has been prompted by that voice from decades back, when they either had a kitchen garden or ornamental plants at home. The same bug now motivates them to grow their own vegetables.
Saket Mittal too has been growing vegetables and herbs on his roof top. He says: "As a child I used to stay in a small place and had a kitchen garden. So, the basic know how was always there. As I used to miss fresh herbs/leaves, therefore started my own roof-top hobby. Also, I wanted to use my own compost which I had been doing earlier." This is another satisfaction for people – most city-dwellers begin composting at home and as a natural corollary start a kitchen garden. It happens vice-versa as well because plants needs good-quality manure, and home compost supports that.
Mittal tries to stick to vegetables which require less effort. He also finds that for both – the plants and the grower, winters are easy compared to Delhi summers. He adds that one needs to find time on a daily basis to grow vegetables. But during the change of season, "I require a full weekend to re-pot and sow the fresh crop." For the small-scale urban farmers, there is no bigger satisfaction than seeing the seeds sprout, grow into vines and plants, and give edible gifts. The produce is healthy, seasonal, organic and ultra-fresh.
The effort and home-made compost makes the entire process endearing and blissful. More than anywhere else, the concept of 'farm to the fork' works either for the farmer in the village or the smart urbanite in Delhi..