For the last year all of us have been bemoaning the high price of vegetables. You can reduce that cost by growing at least a few of your own. Even if your green space is limited to a small rooftop or balcony, you can grow vegetable vines to harvest fresh vegetables. And now, in the rainy season, is the time to get started.
Time was when vegetables were grown discreetly, tucked away in separate kitchen gardens behind the house. Now, with garden space being a premium, this is no longer possible, nor is it necessary! Vegetables can be neatly mixed with ornamentals and the overall effect can be attractive and useful too.
Growing vegetable vines is an excellent way to maximise use of available space: since vines grow upwards, not out, they use vertical space, leaving the ground (terrace or balcony) free for flowers etc. Grown in large containers (you can even use cement bags) vegetable vines give surprisingly large yields. For instance, you can pick at least a quarter kilo of double beans or French beans every five or six days from a single vine. Certain vines such as winged beans yield not only tender pods and mature seeds, but also edible young shoots, leaves, and flowers; thus you get more food from the same space and plant.
Many vegetable vines can also double as ornamentals: bean species offer a range of flower colours including white, blue, yellow and red, and attractive pods; white snake gourd flowers are as delicate as lace; clusters of red tomato fruits hang like Christmas tree ornaments; and the glossy leaves and red stems of Malabar spinach ( basale soppu) make a lovely foliage plant. And finally, there's nothing like the satisfaction of stepping out on the balcony to pick your own fresh vegetables.
What to grow depends on what your family likes. Beans are the easiest and offer many kinds to choose from. You can enjoy the beans as tender pods and then leave some to mature and dry, storing the dry seeds for later use. Tomatoes may be slightly harder, but worth the effort, as the delight in the home-grown ones is in the freshness. You could also try cucumber or any of the gourds: snake gourd, bitter gourd, or ridge gourd. Vegetable marrow (also called chayote - seeme badnekai) is a perennial that will grow for many seasons.
You can buy vegetable seeds in the market (nurseries don't usually stock vegetable seeds) or share seedlings with your friends. Beans and tomatoes come in both bush and climbing varieties, so make sure you get the climbing ones.
Start with just two or three large pots, placed close to pillars where the vines can climb up and get plenty of light. Lightweight plastic pots are the easiest and will not damage the roof or balcony floor, but they are expensive. Actually, any large container (about 18 inches across and 12 inches deep) will do: clay pots, baskets lined with plastic, paint buckets (poke one or two holes in the bottom of the last two, for drainage). At a pinch, and if you're not too bothered about appearances, you can even use a double cement bag to plant in, but be sure to cut some slits in the bottom for drainage. Always place a plate under the container to hold water that drains out.
Put a two-inch layer of broken potsherds or bricks at the bottom of the container for drainage; cover this with a one-inch layer of sand. Fill the container up to two inches from the top with potting soil, available in nurseries. Use good garden soil mixed with manure. Water the soil slowly, letting the water percolate to the bottom of the container. Poke three or four holes in the moist soil, sow a seed in each one, cover with soil, and pat it firm. Keep the pot covered with clear plastic until you see the seeds sprouting, then remove the plastic. Water regularly to keep the soil moist, but never make it soggy.
When the seedlings are about four inches high, keep the two healthiest in each pot; discard the others.
Use the pillars
Tie a string around the pillar at intervals, and as the plants grow, train them up the pillar, holding them in place by twining around the string. If your balcony has a grill, let the vines twine around it. Save the water from washing rice, dal, fruits and vegetables and feed it to your plants. If you've chosen short-duration varieties, you can start picking fresh vegetables in about three months.