Growing your own food: An amateurs guide
As my niece approached her fourth birthday, I thought it was time for her to know about the magic of “growing”. I took some rajmah (kidney beans) and spread them on a bed of moist cotton wool. To make it fun, we created a Growing Banner that said:
“To grow, we need: Love, Prayers, Sunshine, Water, Food and Lots of Patience.”
The joy on her face over the coming days as she discovered how the seed would sprout into a baby plant was priceless.
As the pandemic crisis curtailed our movement, more and more people took to growing their own food and revisit gardening. As the refuse bins began overflowing, consciousness of how much waste we produce as consumers dawned. Many were already on this environmental consciousness path but several were removed from this discovery. In fact I recently ran a little survey on social media where I asked people if they grew their own food.
Yes, in an allotment - 0% Yes, at home - 34%
No, I live in an apartment - 55% No, I don't have time to - 10%
Bit of colour
Being stuck in an apartment during lockdown, with concrete buildings surrounding you can be depressing and bland. To add a bit of colour, I like to buy fresh flowers for the home. Though there are times I have wondered if growing something might instead be better? Having scanned online suggestions to planters and easy ideas to home window sill gardening, laziness and inertia would kick in. The interface with gardens would be limited to a visit to the nearby park. In the pre-pandemic life, frequent visits to the Royal Botanical Gardens, or simply to the nearby “Garden Centre” would be my way of enjoying the myriad colours of the flora. I have always been aware that greenery in an otherwise dull surrounding not only adds some life to the ambience but also inspires good energy into your own space.
I have heard gardening enthusiasts including my sister tell me that there are all kinds of things that can be grown anywhere with the least amount of resources; most things can be just sourced from the kitchen or kitchen waste itself, for example seeds for methi, onion, mustard etc or buds from potatoes, garlic cloves, tomatoes, brinjal, all vegetables which can be sprouted in simple pots or troughs, bags and trays.
Most herbs don't need very much soil depth, so they can be grown pretty much anywhere; even simply water in a cup.
The pandemic reminded us that nature needed a pause, a reset for it to breathe. And the larger ideas of sustainability, eating healthier, toxin free food, breathing clean air, the joy of harvesting the fruits of loving labour and care are an unmatched experience.
My sister Pooja, who takes an active interest in “growing her own food” was my natural go-to person to know how difficult it was for a person living in the city, with minimal time at hand to engage in gardening, which seems a time intensive hobby.
She said: “Not every garden needs a piece of land. Wherever you are, you can grow something, if not everything.” So, here are some nuggets, I would like to share with you from a practitioner and gardening enthusiast:
1. You become aware of the food waste, almost all food waste can either be harvested for seeds or for composting nutrients to enrich your garden.
2. You become aware of environment and situations like moisture, heat, sun, ventilation while caring for green friends which may otherwise be unnoticed in our life. This awareness is particularly helpful when you plan to take up land to grow later as you already understand where to plant and what to care for. You can watch all the online videos and know about plants theoretically but unless you try it yourself, this experiential learning is hard to get by.
3. Since there is no one specific way, it makes you curious to know and learn from the many kinds of gardeners about their practices and solutions or age-old practices. There is mixed planting, hydroponics to vertical planters, to permaculture to urban forestry. There are many possibilities to learn from.
4. With a travel extensive life, the commitment to caring for plants may take a battering. Good news is that if you are going to be away, there are systems of planting your garden to be self- watering etc. So, there are really no excuses for not gardening except that you don't want to.
5. You don't have to buy very expensive tools or seeds or nutrients for growing food yourself. Old bags, broken cups, kettles, buckets, basins, packaging waste can all be repurposed to grow in. With minimal soil, you can make compost and that should be enough to get you started off, just using materials you use in the kitchen! With more experience, you would learn about better quality seeds and best practices of soil preparation, care, harvesting and managing bulk produce.
And oh, it is an important lesson learnt during the growing process that not all plants need to be grown from seeds although that may have a bearing on the kind of fruit you get. A lot of plants can be regrown by sharing cuttings and grafts between friends and neighbours - perhaps makes it more fun to share and grow together?
6. Care from pests and weeds is also a very open issue. Depending on how tolerant you are you will figure out ways to manage insects, slugs, plant diseases, and pest attacks. There are many approaches to this, some more murderous than others. More mindful of more species the better in the long run.
Leap of faith
In almost a parallel world, my dear friend Sandeep, a techie from London, moved back to India to be a farmer. In his words I recount his journey, “Turning farmer was a big step and not an obvious choice. It was a leap of faith, moving countries, a break from my tech job for couple years or more, and commitment. I started out from scratch. We didn't even own farmland, so that was the first step. Required capital. What we bought finally was a piece of land which wasn't farmed on for decades if not more. That meant it literally was a barren land. Slowly came on it, with hard toil, the first few permaculture elements, the tree periphery, underground water source, small infrastructure for living, finding more hands to help on farm etc. We are finally now at the stage where we almost always have 3-4 varieties of short crops on the farm, few of our fruit orchards have started yielding and green is the more predominant colour than that of just soil and rocks. I feel we still have a long way go though. Some of my goals are integrating animals into farm, setting up a crop rotation cycle which yields throughout the year, finding/establishing a farm to fork supply chain, utilising farm as a community space etc.”
If you are like me, with no time or space, Pooja and Sandeep are good inspiration. And what is more, they are one of us! Let's get growing, shall we?
Lakshmi Kaul is the London-based UK Head & Representative at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and an active Indian diaspora campaigner. In this regular Talking Point column for 'iGlobal', she will focus on issues that deserve spotlighting within the Global Indian community, referencing her personal experiences.