Farm Fresh From Home

By TheHindu on 02 Jul 2015 | read
Nothing has stung Malayalis quite as much as the idea of being fed pesticide-packed vegetables. A generation of Malayalis who had turned their backs on farming is getting back to it resolutely. Large fields and empty yards may be a luxury in the city. But the new converts are undeterred by space crunch. Sheela. S, assistant director, Kozhikode block, says noteworthy attempts at urban farming are many within the Kozhikode Corporation limits. “It has immense possibilities to grow too,” says the agriculture department official. Kitchen gardens grow on terraces and pathways, out of coke bottles and empty cans, broken buckets and tiny trays. The satisfaction of growing and having healthy, organic vegetables inspires the part-time farmers. As one of them puts it, “We have gone back to growing vegetables in order to stay alive.”

A catalogs of vegetables:

Garlic is Chandran Chaliyakath’s big test this year. Their wiry, green stems grow out of a couple of plastic cans on his terrace. Last year, he harvested onions. “I got about 20 kgs,” says Chandran who makes metal grills and shutters for a living and grows vegetables for passion. In the past eight years, ever since Chandran moved into his new house in Cheruvannur built on 10 cents of land, his family began to grow vegetables. From his terrace farm they have obtained batches of onion, potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, cauliflower, long beans, tomatoes, egg plant and okra.

The small terrace is now taken over up by an army of ginger and turmeric ready for harvest. Chandran grows almost all his vegetables in plastic cans that have been sliced into two. “There are many footwear factories around from where I get latex cans,” he says. After experimenting with sacks, Chandran turned to plastic cans as it promised longevity. “Every time I watered the plants, manure and soil seeped out through the pores of the sack and that dirtied terrace. Though agriculture officers suggest we change the soil with each harvest, I haven’t done so in eight years. But my vegetables grow well,” says Chandran. The nourishment for the soil is kadala pinakku (ground nut cakes), veppin pinakku (neem cakes) and cow dung. To keep the pests away are traditional techniques — garlic, small chilli and cow’s urine. “I also hang a yellow board smeared with grease and oil. The colour lures the pests and they get stuck to it,” says Chandran.

He only practises organic farming and over the years has garnered a lot of attention and a steady stream of followers. His phone rings and it is a farmer from Kochi asking for advice. “To keep ants away from spinach plants sprinkle rava ,” he tells her. “I get about 10 calls a day. I have just sent some seeds to Chennai. Someone wants to grow veggies in their balcony. A man came from Lakshadweep to see my garden.” An organic kitchen garden has nurtured a community of those like Chandran. While he periodically attends classes held by the agriculture department, he is also egged on by other farmers. “I got the seeds for the elephant-trunked okra from a teacher in Kannur.”

A kitchen garden, says Chandran, is unending learning. Experiments may go awry, but there is always a handy lesson learnt. Chandran’s cans are now sprouting onion and carrot. A batch of cauliflower and cabbage too are getting ready. “November to March is the best time to grow them.” In a few cans he also grows paddy every year. “I get about 4-5 kg every year. Last year, I faced rat menace and have to find ways to tackle it now.” He says, “A kitchen garden takes care of 25 per cent of your needs. We use what we get from the garden and give the rest to neighbours and relatives. I sell only the seeds.”

Tomatoes out of coke bottles:

Abu Haneefa is a grocer and his kitchen garden reflects that. Egg plants grow out of large chocolate cans and tomatoes out of cookie jars. In Haneefa’s garden, vegetables grow out of large sacks, plastic pots, grow bags, small cans and coke bottles with equal ease. In the front yard of his house in Thiruvannur, one is greeted by a row of cola bottles each growing tomatoes. “People are fascinated by something like this. It is an experiment. The yield will be less when compared to plants growing out of large bottles. The difference is that of growing ordinary fish and ornamental fish,” explains Haneefa.

He took to gardening seriously only three years ago. “It was my father who first suggested I grow vegetables. Initially, I had flowering plants and he told me vegetables will give both flower and fruit,” he says. The attention his vegetables received at a road show got Haneefa hooked. His garden bears testimony to his devotion. Long bean plants make a canopy and really long beans hang down from it. Another canopy has healthy snake gourds and a fat ash gourd dangling from it. Egg plants dot the garden. Curry leaves the household need grows out of two pots. Spinach is growing in a thick bed of soil. “Now everyone including my mother and children pitch in,” says Haneefa. In what is a first, he is trying to grow a batch of cabbage and cauliflower. “The saplings are ready.”

Haneefa goes about growing vegetables in his own way. “I plant the seed in soil which has mud, sand and cow dung powder in equal measure. The soil is put into small paper cups and then the seed is sown. The paper cups come from wedding venues. Once the sapling grows, it is transferred into a larger pot. One just has to tear away the paper cup and the young plant can be transferred undisturbed,” he explains.

Haneefa’s mornings are spent with his plants. “I spend it looking out for pests. I water them in the evenings. It is welcome relief for the plants that would have borne the brunt of the sun the whole day. Also, that is the time I get after closing my shop,” he adds. For pest control, his remedy is neem oil and garlic juice. And almost all organic waste is manure. In his side yard are piles of pineapple and plantain waste. “It is from a juice shop nearby. They put it here and after a while it is all manure for my plants.” His kitchen garden now attracts a few visitors. “Relatives who visit are given sample vegetables and they call up and say the snake gourd tasted of childhood. Children of the house mostly have tomatoes raw. If there is surplus, I keep them at my grocery shop and it is gone in a jiffy.”

Raising vegetables:

Premalatha T.K.’s garden is in transition. From the terrace of her house, her farming ground since 2007, her kitchen garden is slowly finding its way downstairs. The terrace was recently covered and Premalatha moved her vegetables to the pathway and planted many more in the empty plot in front of the house in Kolathur. “The search is for sunlight,” she says. “The plot in front is my brother-in-law’s. Now I have planted turmeric and ginger which have reached full growth. I am set for the season of vegetables and have sown carrots and onion in 25 bags on the small terrace,” says Premalatha. She is a trifle worried about her carrots, her first attempt to grow them. She peeks into the cloth enclosure to see the small plants sprouting well and is relieved. “The enclosure is to keep the hens away,” she says.

Nothing is wasted in Premalatha’s garden. Small tomato plants grow out of broken Dalda cans and even smaller plastic pots. “I have grown vegetables out of thermocol boxes, broken basins and buckets. People are regretful that they have thrown away their old, broken plastic when they see my garden,” she says. Premalatha is spurred on by an encouraging family and neighbourhood. “There are people who give me the large cans from the footwear factory for free,” she says.

Premalatha grew up amidst her family’s paddy and uncle’s watermelon fields in Chelari. Years after she moved to Kolathara after marriage she opted for vegetables as they grew in smaller spaces. “I would collect indigenous seeds whenever we travelled to agriculture colleges and farms in Mannoothy or Thavannur,” she adds. Her terrace garden won her handful of recognitions too.

Farming is her endeavour, though her husband pitches in when patches of land have to be prepared for sowing. “My niece too helps out. As soon as my son leaves for school at 6.30 a.m., I step into the garden,” she says. Watching out for pests take up considerable time. “Worms and pests are usually seen early in the morning or after sunset. I have lost a whole patch of bitter gourds to mosaic disease. So whenever I see worms I don’t rest till I have wiped them out. At times I go out at night with a torch to spot the worms. I would pick them out, kill them and burn them at a corner,” she says.

It is now the season of nurturing in Premalatha’s garden. Green tomatoes, small bitter-gourds and egg plants are growing out of multiple bags. “I work in a footwear stitching unit and have taken a few days off to tend to my plants,” she says. Last time around her turmeric yielded rich harvest. “Turmeric powder from it went to all the neighbours and the rest ran my kitchen for two years.” Premalatha is geared up to learn as much as she can. “I recently attended the global agro meet in Kochi.”