A few days ago, I was on my way to a fruit stall ( Pazhamudir ) outlet on Venkatakrishna Road, Mandaveli in Chennai. After a minor test in parallel parking on Thiruvengadam street, I got out of the car and looked up at the veritable roof garden across the road…..glossy, green, yet unripe tomatoes and brinjal, graceful snake gourd and was that cauliflower in a garden? I was aghast! Blaming the illusion on Chennai heat, I walked towards my destination. Then, on second thoughts, I traced my path with long strides determined to find out if it was indeed cauliflower in a pot, on a balcony of a small bungalow on the busy streets of Chennai!
I walked up two short flights and rang the bell. The young man who answered the bell, obviously hiding his amusement at my enquiry, called out to his mother. A simple looking middle-aged lady appeared, with a humble smile and introduced herself as Lakshmi. She informed me promptly that they were cabbages. All the same, I conveyed my incredulity at what she had achieved in a little balcony. As she showed me around, I found to my utter surprise, radish, lemon grass, papaya, slender brinjal, bajji milagai (a chilli variety) and many more plants, but all in pots. From the pergola above was suspended a frail looking pandal laden with gundu malli (jasmine), ridge gourd, and betel leaves. Economical and ecofriendly, I was told. Hidden in a corner, I found two large pans with different keerai (greens) varieties. “Supplies my family with enough greens twice a week,” she said casually.
In the course of a conversation interspersed with my oohs and aahs of admiration, Lakshmi informed me that the kitchen garden was the result of a never-give-up attitude developed over 20 years of hard work, frustration, failure and discouragement. She had experimented with different types of soil, containers and watering patterns to arrive at what was the most suitable for her balcony garden. She also procured spill-proof and rodent-proof grow bags from a rural supplier to keep her balcony spic and span. Lakshmi proudly said all the vegetables were organically grown. Vegetable wastes from hotels and fast food joints across the city were composted at a friend’s house outside the city, and this was the main medium. Organic sludge from industries and coconut fibre were recent additions to her inventory. A paste of turmeric and neem leaves keeps pests away. She refrained from adding inorganic fertilizers and growth enhancers to the soil.
Lakshmi gets nearly 75 per cent of her weekly requirement from her balcony and distributes the surplus to her neighbours and friends. She has found her vocation and passion. She now employs a dozen hand-picked and trained gardeners and maintains numerous family and corporately-owned gardens around the city. Now if she is not self-made, who is?
For those who want to give gardening a go, Lakshmi is more than willing to help. Get in touch with her at firstname.lastname@example.org
(The writer’s email ID email@example.com)