The buzz on the ground floor of this suburban Tiruchi home crests and troughs in waves of laughter. It could almost be described as a parent-teacher association meeting. But all the action is happening on the rooftop of this home in State Bank Colony, Crawford, where around 300 plants, from Nagpur orange and lime to vetiver, table rose, oregano and cacti (to name just a few), are growing in containers.
And seeing the pride with which their growers introduce their plants to the visitor, it’s clear this is a parent-teacher association all right. Except that all the ‘parents’ of the plants are themselves the teachers and learners, their only subject — organic terrace gardening.
Formed around two years ago through a Facebook page, the Trichy Organic Terrace Gardens (Trichy OTG) group is an online forum of 100-150 members based in the city, with a keen interest in sustainable horticulture.
The best reward
“Gardening is a costly hobby, and the only real return on all your investment is the happiness in seeing a plant flourish under your care,” says Ragothaman Narayanan, the banker who is the unofficial head of Trichy OTG.
An avid gardener, Ragothaman is also the ideas man behind the terrace garden that provides the green cover to the Crawford home of his friends K Lakshminarayanan and Revathy. “I do all the research, and Mrs. Revathy executes the planting,” says Mr Ragothaman. “We try and grow everything, whether vegetables, ornamentals or fruits.”
As a bonus, terrace gardens help to cool down the building. “That’s one of the many benefits of terrace gardening that we don’t really consider when constructing homes,” says M Vivekanandan, CEO, TRYCAE Engineering.
“My children cut the spinach for our lunch from our terrace garden and prepare it for cooking — small tasks show us the transformative power of gardening as a family activity,” he adds.
P Thomas, a retired Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) official, is researching the forgotten native vegetation of Tamil Nadu. Gardening, he says, is a way of educating youngsters on how greens are grown. “Even though I am a tree specialist, I have kept a small patch of land in my home garden for growing vegetables. One day, a schoolboy came and watched me as I was tending to my plants. After some time, he told me that though he had eaten all those vegetables, it was the first time he was seeing the plants that they grow on. Most kids these days see vegetables only in shops, so gardening shows them how they are in their natural state,” he says.
Adds Ragothaman, “We teach the children hand pollination in the absence of natural pollinators. Whether they bear fruit or not, we get the children to try it out with earbuds and toothbrushes. Once they know these things, they become heroes in class.”
For Mr and Mrs N Andrew, their 600 feet of terrace space is packed with 100 plants, arranged in steps. “With just the two of us at home, our terrace garden is a pastime that gives us much happiness,” says Mrs Rani Andrew, who grows, among other plants, asparagus, grapes and ornamentals.
Trichy OTG has inspired T Vency John to become a successful vegetable and fruit gardener. “There is a lot of satisfaction in growing something for our use,” she says. As an expert cultivator of orange, jambakai, strawberries and cherries in her terrace garden, she is also consulted often by agricultural colleges for tips on crop management. “Most of it is related to sunlight exposure,” she says. “I am now trying to grow apples, with seeds from Coimbatore.”
Tiruchi’s searing heat is one of the main challenges that gardeners face in the city. The other, is the shortage of purpose-built gardening centres.
“We don’t have a centralised market for gardening equipment and seeds, unlike in the bigger cities,” says Vivekanandan. “So gardeners waste time locating a tool in one store, a seed variety in another and so on.”
But pulling through this disparate crowd is the online friendship fostered by Facebook groups like Trichy OTG.
“As a newcomer, I feel inspired and curious about the planting work that our members do,” says Latha, a water lily enthusiast who hopes to convert her hobby into a business one day.
“Terrace gardeners are very generous with sharing information and even plant material,” says Ragothaman.
“I have got saplings from Kalimpong (West Bengal), and there’s one group that has shared over 100 packets of seeds with our members, all due to our online presence,” he adds.
It is a pity that local vegetation is often wrongly treated as weeds, say many of the group’s members. “Native plants like purslane (‘paruppu keerai’) grow on the roadsides and are often called weeds. But these are all edible plants, and the public is not very aware about them,” says C Balamurugan, an environmental engineer who has an extensive medicinal herb garden on his terrace.
Keeping the process reliant on organic rather than chemical pesticides has been easier to do with the help of the older gardeners in the group. “We learned that wood ash, from the kitchen fireplaces is the best fungicide,” says Thomas. “Also, things like the nutritive value of banana peel and buttermilk to enrich the soil.”
When they travel, most of the group’s members rely on automated drip irrigation to keep the plants from drying.
Up on the terrace, despite the searing heat that is barbecuing us all, the talk remains cheerful, and as is to be expected, centred around cuttings.
A ‘pei viratti’ (literally, ‘ghost chaser’) leaf is lit up to release the medicinal oil that keeps mosquitoes away. The plant is said to be a key ingredient of commercial insect repellents.
Terrace garden plants will thrive in the same pot for as long as possible, says Ragothaman.
“With regular pruning and weeding, they do much better than ground-level gardens, because we use cocopeat, which has a higher rate of water retention,” he says.
As the group expands, a catalogue of all the plants available in Trichy OTG member gardens is being compiled. “Being online, there are at least four expert groups that are willing to help us solve gardening problems within minutes,” says Vivekanandan.