The image of an ideal kitchen garden of the past few decades has always been a patch of neat bordered squares, each holding a collection of plants, like nuclear families in apartment blocks. The Indian kitchen garden plan was largely influenced by Mughal gardens, which had formal structured kitchen gardens with the purpose of feeding large households, and their retinue.
In contrast, the gardens of most small farms and rural homes were a glorious medley of edible plants. An extension of the kitchen, it had essentials like curry leaves, coriander, chillies, tomatoes and herbs. Seasonal vegetables and greens grew alongside pumpkins and beans, bitter gourd and ivy gourd vines crept up the trunks of papaya, guava and chikoo trees. Tall coconut palms, mangoes and drumsticks dropped leaves and bark, enriching the ground with organic matter. Birds, insects and butterflies flew around pollinating, and earthworms burrowed deep, aerating and enriching the soil. Waste from the kitchen decomposed in a corner, soon to be transformed into rich manure.
This method of growing a variety of plants in one space, is a sustainable model for kitchen gardening, one that will continue to provide fresh, seasonal food.
A garden of mixed foods is an invaluable addition to your kitchen, providing at least a portion of your daily requirements. This is an organic way of growing food, each plant complementing the other; or if not, then grown a distance away, like disagreeable relatives. The bonus of this method of planting is that you can grow colourful plants along with your vegetables, or add vegetables and fruits to an existing flower bed. A separate garden just for growing vegetables is not necessary — the entire garden space is your canvas.
To continue last month’s guide for growing vegetables from seed, if your seedlings are over an inch above the surface of the soil, and show two or more healthy leaves, it should be ready for transplanting. If they are still spindly and weak, wait for another week till the plants are sturdier. Give them a dose of dilute organic fertiliser solution as a booster.
Instead of planting in neat rows or blocks, try this method of cluster planting to achieve a mixed food garden:
Gently loosen your previously prepared soil and sprinkle water. Using the companion planting guide, make a list of your seedlings. Chart out a rough plan in your notebook. An effective way to do this is to draw a circle of about three feet in diameter. In each circle plant three seedlings with a distance of about 1.5 feet between each plant. In time, you will learn how some plants need more space, and some thrive in crowded places. Ideally, your plants will be growing at varied heights and width, adjusting and making space for each other.
In terrace gardens, follow the same method; instead of growing each plant in separate pots, use large grow bags and troughs, which can accommodate up to five plants each. Or recycle large plastic paint buckets and sacks, which make excellent plant containers, with a few holes at the bottom to drain water.
Remember to note your garden activities and observations in your garden diary.
With long spells of heat and unpredictable rain patterns, watering your plants will be an indulgence; but you can keep your plants going with some conservation measures. Cover your growing surface with dried leaves and grass cuttings to prevent further evaporation. Drip irrigation is an effective way of watering with little waste; this can be installed in a garden of any size. In addition, a fine misting of water using a manual or tube sprayer keeps the foliage moist.
If you are transplanting lettuce, spinach, cauliflower and cabbage seedlings soon, wait for the next new moon phase; this period activates the balanced growth of leaves and roots in leafy plants.
Natural repellents like marigolds and calendula keep away most pests, so plant them around your kitchen garden. Grow mint, tulsi , onion and garlic in between the plant groups; they collectively repel insects such as sticky whiteflies, aphids and the varied textures and fragrances are a bonus.
Talking to your plants is a sign that you are developing green fingers; don’t be alarmed if you seem to be developing this habit. Most gardeners form a close bond with their plants, as they see them burst into life, and eventually form fruit. This connection is believed to be mutually beneficial.
Combinations that work well together
Beans, corn, cabbage, cucumber, amaranth, brinjal
Add sunflower and strawberries in between the other plants.
Keep onion, garlic and fennel away from these plants.
Tomato, corn, cabbage, carrot, okra, radish, garlic, cucumber, coriander
Do not plant potato or dill (Sui) near this group of plants.
Lettuce, carrot, corn, pole and runner beans, beetroot, turnips
Plant celery and parsley far apart from these plants.
Drip irrigation: A system of watering plants through a network of pipes that direct a slow drip of water to the base of plants. It is an efficient method that minimises water wastage.
Grow bags: Thick polythene bags that can be used for growing any plant as an alternative to heavy pots. Economical and easy to move around, they are ideal for terrace gardens. Grow bags made with recycled plastic are an environmental bonus, so try and source them through your local nursery.