"I made a basil omelette today," crows Divakar Uniyal, a chief engineer at ONGC. Uniyal is proud, not of his culinary skills but his green thumb, which grew the basil for his omelette on his terrace garden. "I look out of my 15th floor office window and wonder why more of the city doesn't use its rooftops for food," says Uniyal who has grown over 50 types of vegetables and herbs on a 1,500-sq-foot terrace garden in Noida.
While Uniyal's 'vegetable patch' may seem like a veritable field, according to Ritu Mathur of Upavan, a gardening venture in Gurgaon, a 'gamla' or pot could work just as well. "One can begin with herbs, followed by spinach, parsley, lettuce and other salad leaves. After this, look at okra, onions, garlic, bottle gourd, tomatoes etc. Choose seasonal seeds and saplings," advises Mathur, who sets up two to four kitchen gardens a month.
It doesn't cost the earth to set up one.Pots and soil or potting mix are the only investment. "Delhi soil tends to become hard. Plants need aerated, pliable soil, a mix of sand, coco-peat (derived from coconut coir) and compost," says Kapil Mandawewala of Sajeev Fresh, a Delhi-based consultancy that helps novices set up a kitchen garden. "We get at least two calls daily seeking advice on how to grow vegetable." The one-time price of setting up a kitchen garden with boxes, soil and draining mats (to get rid of surplus water) is around Rs 300-400 per sq foot.
Growing your own greens also saves the greenbacks. Mona Jugran from Hauz Khas knows this. The homemaker who used to buy organic sabzi decided to grow her own garden two years ago with a simple wooden box and some soil. "Today I just pluck and eat fresh food. We get around four to five bhindis growing each day. So if I collect them for four days, I have 1 kg of bhindi, enough for a family of four," says Jugran. She also has three Getty Images wooden vegetable boxes on her terrace and grows pumpkin, zucchini, torai, and even had a bumper crop of cherry tomatoes last winter. "I had so much that I distributed it to friends," she says. NCR has a bumper crop of terrace gardeners who swap gardening tips and advice on Facebook. When Saket's Anna Zimmer found her tomato leaves infected with white fungus, she sent out an SOS on `Urban Gardening in Delhi', a Facebook page she set up. Solutions ranged from buttermilk sprays to diluted neem oil. "A lot of people grow vegetables in their homes in Delhi, and they're very helpful," says Zimmer, a geographer whose favourite crop is methi.
Other Facebook groups include Organic Terrace Gardening and Grow Your Own Veggies, each with over 500 members who are happy to help those just starting out with their kitchen gardens. Khoj International Artists' Association even ran an urban gardening project for six months in Khirki village to draw more to the vine. "We asked people if they would like to grow what they eat, and many families were initially hesitant, but later when we provided seeds and encouraged them, they took it up," says Kush Sethi, Khoj member and researcher with Toxics Link, an environmental NGO.
A vegetable garden isn't only good to eat, but good to look at too. "We always intersperse food with flowering plants in the kitchens we set up," says Mandawewala of Sajeev Fresh, which also takes up projects for Resident Welfare Associations.
One isn't always born with a green thumb. "I have a lot of people who say, 'I have a black thumb, and nothing grows in my house'. But they must be patient," says Mathur, who says apart from herbs, it takes at least two months for any plant to go from seed to leaf. "Also, growing your own food, putting your hands into the soil and watching the sprouts shoot up is therapeutic."