Hanging gardens: A complete guide to growing your own veggies

Hindustan Times | By, Mumbai
Nov 21, 2015 03:29 PM IST

In 2011, Priyanka Shah (now 29), an MBA student, started drawing up a business plan for an enterprise with a social impact. Shah grew up seeing her parents tend to lemons, chillies and curry leaves in a small balcony in their Powai apartment — which they then used in their day-to-day cooking. She reasoned that if her family could maintain a little patch of green in a small space, others could, too. She was determined to promote sustainable urban farming by providing the resources required to set up a kitchen garden. But she says her plan was met with scepticism. “People have a misconception that edibles can only be grown in rural areas. But there’s a lot you can grow in your balcony or backyard,” Shah says.

The rooftop nursery at Flyover Farms
The rooftop nursery at Flyover Farms

Shah went ahead and set up iKheti in 2012, which provides everything from seeds and organic manure to waste management and consultancy services. While Mumbai is infamous for its matchbox-sized apartments, green champions, like Shah, are proving that urban gardening and farming is indeed possible.

The new farm in town

Terraces provide the biggest spaces for urban farming, and one of the most successful examples of that is the Flyover Farm, developed by Fresh & Local, a start-up that works to promote urban farming in Mumbai. The 2,000 sqft community garden sits on the terrace of a residential building on Mohammed Ali Road. The name is inspired by the JJ Flyover that overlooks the building. From bananas, drumsticks and chikoos to mangoes and tamarind, more than 45 varieties of plants — fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers — are grown here.

The Table let you participate in workshops that are designed to impart skills and the desire to grow your food
The Table let you participate in workshops that are designed to impart skills and the desire to grow your food

Urban Leaves is another group of plant lovers with a specific target: they hope to see at least one green rooftop in every suburb of Mumbai. They currently manage two terrace farms — one on the Don Bosco School campus in Matunga, and one on the Bhavan’s campus in Andheri. Both Fresh & Local and Urban Leaves invite volunteers to join them in the weekly maintenance of these spaces, making them community projects in the true sense. Green Souls, a not-for-profit organisation, manages a farm at Our Lady’s Home in Dadar. Here, boys from the shelter are trained in practical urban farming, and their 5,000 sqft rooftop space isn’t just a pretty, verdant space, but one that meets a significant portion of their nutritional needs.

But beyond the sheer satisfaction of growing food yourself, should you care if you aren’t so much of a green crusader? Turns out you should. Some people are opting for urban farming as they don’t fully trust the food bought off shelves. And even though some of the produce is labelled ‘organic’, there is no better way to know your food is safe than to see it grow in front of your eyes. “I no longer buy leafy vegetables from the market,” says 49-year-old city resident Jyoti Patkar. “In our city, they are often grown near railway tracks and watered with sewage water. So, I decided to be self-sufficient instead.” Her love for farming led Patkar to cultivate an array of edibles — from cherry tomatoes, radish, beetroot to bitter gourd and lemongrass — on her 700 sqft terrace.

Go local

Growing locally has environmental benefits too, so while you’re saving yourself from unknown chemicals, you’re doing your bit for the planet. “Every day, trucks full of vegetables and fruits arrive in the city. The fuel consumption because of this transportation is massive. By farming yourself, you reduce your carbon footprint,” says Preeti Patil, founder, Urban Leaves.

But can the grow-it-yourself idea succeed at a scale larger than your balcony? The fine-dining restaurant, The Table, in Colaba, believes it can. It adopted the farm-to-table philosophy in 2012. All of their produce is harvested at the Table Farm in Alibaug. They even let you participate, to pick up skills and the desire to grow your food. At their workshops in Alibaug, people can try their hand at farming for a day. Participants gain an understanding of various aspects of farming, from planting seed trays and transplanting seedlings to harvesting and preparing a meal. Being a farmer for a day is an experience offered by Anusha Babbar’s Under the Tree, too. Babbar holds workshops on organic gardening and farming at her farm in Karjat. Participants can volunteer to plant seeds and prepare mulch, among other things.

The demographics of people showing up for workshops is quite varied — from college students to senior citizens, and from working professionals to homemakers. Apart from tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs such as sage and Italian basil, interest in microgreens (small greens used to enhance flavour and visual appeal) has also grown, says Aditi Punj, a former member of Fresh & Local. A few of the workshops (by The Table and Fresh & Local) are especially designed for children, to build awareness.“The beauty of gardening is that it is a leveller. Everybody gets their hands dirty and there is something for everyone to do,” Punj says.

Farmer for a day: A first-hand experience by Meenakshi Iyer

On a crisp, chilly morning last year, a few of us landed at the Gateway of India jetty to be whisked away to a quiet farmhouse across the sea situated in Alibaug. Owned by the folks who also run The Table, a popular south Mumbai eatery, the farm has been producing vegetables and microgreens used in the restaurant’s kitchen.

We were the first batch to (quite literally) get our hands dirty in the farming workshop conducted by Adrienne Thadani of Fresh & Local, a non-profit urban farming start-up. The morning began with a few quick tips on the ideal climate for farming, best kind of soil and information on organic gardening. Then, with the help of scrapers, we started tilling the land to get it ready to sow seeds. After almost three hours of digging, laying dry hay on the soil beds and filling them with soil again, the beds were ready to sow seeds of vegetables like okra, brinjal, cabbage, tomatoes and spinach.

Following this tedious exercise, we watered the beds and moved to the next task: plucking fresh microgreens to go in our lunch. As a reward for all that hard work, chefs from The Table cooked us a delicious meal of barbecued chicken, fresh farm-to-fork salad and wine. While the farm-to-table is a relatively new concept in the city, it is nice to see some restaurants taking the lead.

“After almost three hours of digging, laying dry hay on the soil beds and filling them with soil again, the beds were ready to sow seeds of vegetables like okra, brinjal, cabbage, tomatoes and spinach,” says Iyer.
“After almost three hours of digging, laying dry hay on the soil beds and filling them with soil again, the beds were ready to sow seeds of vegetables like okra, brinjal, cabbage, tomatoes and spinach,” says Iyer.

Learn the basics

The Table:Plant seeds and harvest vegetables at its Alibaug farm. Chefs will prepare a lunch with the day’s harvest.

Call: 98339 48363 / Email communications@foodmatters.in

Visit thetable.in


Urban Leaves: It conducts workshops on various aspects such as seed sowing, pruning, design principles for an urban farm, and building trellises.

Register on urbanleaves.org


Fresh & Local: Visit its Flyover Farm on the weekly open day to get all your questions about urban farming answered. They host volunteer days too.

Where: Rooftop of Mohamedi Manzil, Mohammed Ali Road, Kalbadevi

When: Every Wednesday, 3pm to 7pm

Call: 96198 24557/ Email info@freshandlocal.org

Visit: freshandlocal.org


Under the Tree: Be a farmer for a day at founder Anusha Babbar’s farm in Karjat.

Email anusha@underthetree.in

Visit underthetree.in


Blue Bulb: Its team will come over to your home and conduct a three hour workshop on urban gardening.

Call 3227 0033

Visit bluebulb.in

Make the most of your space, and grow plants that work together. Winter is the best climate to grow root vegetable

To Volunteer

1)Where: Don Bosco Provincial House Rooftop in Don Bosco School Campus, Matunga

When Every Sunday, 7.45am to 10am

Call: 2414 5228


2)Where: Sardar Patel Institute of Technology rooftop, Bhavan’s Campus, Andheri

Call: 2670 7440

Buy essentials

* iKheti: Offers everything from seeds and saplings to customised services. Also offers DIY seed kits which contain all the raw materials required to grow edibles. All you have to do is add water.

Visit: ikheti.co.in

* Trustbasket: Offers seeds, fertilisers, soil and tools required for urban farming. Offers DIY kits too.

Visit: Trustbasket.com

* Nursery Live: A one-stop online store for all kinds of seeds, pots and containers and fertilisers.

Visit: nurserylive.com

* Beej Pleej: A seed-saving collective that allows you to share, exchange and sell seeds you have saved.

Visit: beejpleej.org


    Manali is a senior staff writer based in Mumbai. She writes on Indie music, culture and trends for HT48Hours.

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