If you’re looking to start your day afresh, amidst foliage and nature or just want to enjoy the company of plants, you should head on down to Maharashra National Park in Sion/Dharavi. Every Sunday morning, volunteers from Urban Leaves, started by the Vidya Vardhi Trust, an NGO, meet to grow a variety of fruits, vegetables and participate in the production of amrit mitti — a mixture of dead leaves, jaggery and cow dung that is a high-nutrient replacement for regular soil.
The two-hour sessions, which take place on top of a concrete 400-square-feet water tank, guarantee to have you down on your knees, dirtying your hands and tending to a variety of plants. You might not burn the same number of calories as when you do power yoga or spend an hour at the gym, but participating in this community farming project is more than just exercise.
“It’s about re-connecting with your body, mind, heart and spirit,” says freelance writer Neesha Noronha (31), who decided to volunteer with Urban Leaves after snails foiled her attempts to grow vegetables in her Bandra bungalow.
Like Noronha, volunteers with the trust come with their own agendas. Preeti Patil (42), a caterer, who was also instrumental in starting the group, wants to see Mumbai turned into “a biodiversity hot spot”. Chef Ubai Husein (28) plans to start his own organic farm on the outskirts of Mumbai. And housewife Jyoti Bhave (40) comes looking for methods and guidance to maintain the kitchen garden in her Chembur flat.
The group started in 2007, when Patil, whose terrace garden at Mumbai Port Trust had attracted a lot of visitors, decided to take farming to a community level. “There’s a certain charm to growing your own food, something people in Mumbai think is hard. But our efforts at Maharashtra National Park show what happens when you ‘do’ rather than just talk,” she says.
The Urban Leaves gardeners have taken advantage of the current monsoon season to plant saplings for fruits such as guava, custard apple, cherry and banana, among many others. Many volunteers can’t wait to try growing these in their own gardens. “I’m sure there are many people looking to start gardens of their own but just don’t know where to start,” says Bhave. “A few months at this park makes experts of even the most clueless gardeners,” she says. And it’s free — the session, the seeds and the saplings. All you need to bring is your enthusiasm.