Should everyone be growing their own food?
This question struck Saraswati Kuwalekar, the Deputy Director, News (IIS) at Doordarshan on a visit to a hospital, where she was meeting her friend’s son.
“He was 28 and had been diagnosed with cancer. I started reading up on it and found out that there is a rise in the number of people below 30 being susceptible to the disease. While factors such as genetics and environment increase the risk, the food you eat is equally important. What is the point of giving the best of everything to our children, if we fail to give them chemical-free food?” she exclaims.
Alarming facts about the life cycle of food—from agricultural production through to eventual consumption—prompted Saraswati to turn her gardening hobby into an opportunity to bring a change in her family’s lifestyle.
“I had no clue about growing food; my knowledge was limited to growing basic flowers. But I was ready to invest my time and efforts if it meant giving a healthy life to my kids and family,” says Saraswati.
There is another incident which pushed her towards this path.
“Thanks to my profession, I travel quite often. I was in a village in Maharashtra when I spent time with a farmer was growing food meant for the consumption of others, using pesticides. The ideal amount is 3 per cent, but he used nearly 30 per cent. Meanwhile, on a different patch of land, he was using organic methods to cultivate food—but this was for his family!”
Disturbed by the incident, Saraswati enrolled for a farming course at Mumbai University and also met organic farming and gardening experts, Rajendra Bhat and Nandan Kalbag.
“I learnt the requirements of plants from Kalbag and Bhat taught me the basic concepts of organic farming. I conducted many trial and error experiments and finally came out with a chemical-free urban kitchen gardening method,” shares Saraswati, who also ensured that it was not time or space consuming.
A Mini Forest in the Balcony!
Saraswati has three balconies at home, and although the one she chose to grow plants in is smaller than the rest, it receives ample sunlight and ventilation.
“Soil provides only 1.5 per cent of nutrition to plants and the rest is from sunlight. While it was a challenge to grow food in a balcony which is just 3×6 feet, I did it! I started my experiments with french beans, lettuce and turnips. Of all the seeds I sowed, less than 50 per cent grew into saplings. And it took almost four years for french beans to grow,” says Saraswati.
She implemented mulching, multi-cropping and microflora—the three rules of farming in the gardening process called ‘Own Grow’—to ensure an edible forest in her small space.
For optimal space usage, she planted two or more seeds in one pot and even ventured into vertical gardening.
“An advantage of sowing 3-4 different types of crops in one pot is that it helps in keeping the pests away—they get confused about which plant to chew on! Like this, I developed around 12 combinations of multi-cropping over a period of time,” she adds.
Next, she layered (or mulched) the soil with leaves and twigs to promote microbial activity and beneficial worms. It also helped her suppress the growth of weeds and maintain humidity in the soil. As for microflora, she allowed all kinds of microbes, fungi and bacteria on her plants.
“Microflora converts the nutritional elements in the soil to food for plants. They also prevent the need to use chemicals. From ladybugs, termites, earthworms to caterpillars, there are several microbes in our balcony. For the bad ones, I resort to garlic as it is an effective pest repellent because of its smell,” informs Saraswati.
Thanks to the ecosystem that she has developed in her balcony, Saraswati spends only 10 minutes every day for approximately 130 plants. She grows leafy vegetables, tomatoes, herbs, brinjal, dragon fruit, and so on.
In addition to gardening, she also prepares her own organic fertiliser from kitchen waste.
To spread her expertise among people, Saraswati has started a website and social media pages along with her daughter, Prajakta.
“It can be tough to maintain a garden with no time and space, but we wanted to encourage people to grow their food or at least practice composting. So on our pages, we try to build conversations around it by posting our methods and even answer queries,”
In a city like Mumbai, which is seeing uninterrupted horizontal and vertical development, and green spaces shrinking by the day, Saraswati’s gardening method could certainly be a long-term solution.