As I stepped on to the roof of Rajesvaran’s house in Vishwanathapuram, I caught a glimpse of the future.
Inside a clean, perfect and healthy green house with not a speck of dirt or soil, he has grown over a dozen varieties of fruits, herbs and green leafy vegetables. The soft sound of gurgling water in the compact enclosed room and the sunlight filtering in through the green mesh over the fresh plants in contrasting colours was an instant feel-good and a sight to behold.
“These are the growing green walls of hydroponics,” he says with pride. Still visibly fascinated by the less water-based and no-soil planting system, he says initially he too did not believe but the yield he has got in just four months has made him chew his thoughts. He is the first Madurai resident to successfully grow a hydroponic garden at home.
The abundance of the very healthy looking green spinach, parsley, local keerais, mint, asparagus, celery, red and green lettuce, bok choy has magically revved up 400 sq.feet on his roof top. “You can actually grow up to thousand plants in 500 sq feet,” he says, “and I have just begun.”
He is very happy to get a head start on his dream project, the idea for which came from a friend. This was about two years ago when he had to take his bore well from 250 to 900 feet. “And when I got the water tested in the lab, it showed lot of microbial elements and two dangerous elements – chlorine and sodium – much above the normal levels.”
The quality of keerais grown locally in the city already under the grip of water shortage struck him and he began reading about hydroponics on the net. “Israel and the US were full of success stories and it was very heart warming to see how technology had automated soil-less growing methods, such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics,” says Rajesvaran.
There are techniques like the Dutch bucket system or the single bucket deep water cultivation but Rajesvaran chose hydroponics based on Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) because mixing 16 types of water soluble macro-and micro nutrients and trace elements in different measures and practically directing the plants to grow brought out the chemistry student in the otherwise quintessential businessman.
In places where there is not enough fertile ground or enough water, hydroponics can provide a much needed solution, wows the 68-year-old now who in the last 12 months -- through trial and error -- has also grown brinjals, lady’s finger, types of beans, cucumbers and water melon.
But it is the rich harvest of cherry tomatoes and two exotic breeds of tomatoes – the Big Boy from UK (resemble our desi tomatoes but are bigger and bright red in colour with resistance to cracking and work well in salads and sandwiches) and the San Marzano, the famous plum tomatoes of Italy known for the elongated pointed shape, thick flesh, fewer seeds, sweeter and low acidity – that has put Rajesvaran on a high.
Experimenting with circulating water and soluble nutrients was challenging enough but growing plants of different climatic conditions and temperatures required regulated conditions and constant monitoring. It prompted Rajesvaran – whose family markets motor pump boosters, stabilisers, inverters and solar panels and run restaurants in the city besides a cosmetic manufacturing unit in Pondicherry -- to turn into an ardent urban farmer in no time.
“He grew up in verdant Kanyakumari before shifting to Madurai in 1963, so his passion for greenery was showing,’ says his wife, Grace, “it was like he was living his dream.”
For weeks together, both of them would check day and night the seeds they had sown, the progress of the plants from sapling to trees and anxiously awaited the first fruits. Just a fortnight back their green house, which they have named ‘Southern Springs Hydroponics’, was a riot of red and greens. The tomato trees had grown 10 feet tall and with much joy they went around distributing the fruit. “It has been a very rewarding experience,” beams Rajesvaran.
“Greens are the easiest to grow but once you understand the basic concept of hydroponics, you can grow anything,” he adds.
Hydroponics will save Madurai’s water, he makes a case, as struggle for land, water and resources will increase. “Indoor or roof top gardening will make our food more accessible to us. Hydroponics make plants grow much faster because they neither have to search for nutrients like in soil nor fight the soil bugs. Safe from fungal attacks, they requires no weeding and we can also regulate their growth to any height and increase the yield as well,” he further explains.
Rajesvaran spent Rs.Two lakhs to set up his green house and put the NFT Hydroponics system in place. The green house is designed to give complete control of the growing environment, including light, temperature, humidity, CO2 and nutrition. He has used the regular irrigation tubes through which the water circulates continuously and is mixed with the enriched solution so that the plants’ roots are bathed in the nutrients. Rajesh has connected his NFT to a 500 watts solar power plant which keeps a motor running for oxygenation in the tubes and four small fans that circulate the air inside the enclosure.
“Once the set up is established, you just have to learn to balance the water chemistry by getting right mix of nutrients, with the right seeds, and at the right pH,” he says, adding, regular cleaning of the tubes after each harvest is equally important.
“Hydroponics is less wasteful farming future,” he says, “It gives you the real, delicious, fresh and also fast food that is not necessarily seasonal,” “The Babylonians used hydroponics at its most basic for their ancient hanging gardens and we have come full circle.”
Hydroponics uses up to 90 per cent less water than soil farming and you can grow high-density, high-value, rich in taste organic food 365 days literally anywhere -- D D Rajesvaran
For the beginners
The hydroponic system is uncomplicated, easy to learn and maintain, says Rajesvaran who has devised a starter’s kit to make the system more accessible to all. It contains a 20 litres plastic basket with a cover tray and the pots to sow the saplings, different varieties of seeds, a small air pump to oxygenate the water, a TDS meter to check nutrient level and the water soluble nutrients divided into four groups of master solutions. It costs Rs.3,800.
He is also in the process of developing a Junior kit that will be the miniature model of the water circulating system. Priced at Rs.10,000