New beginnings, old ways

By TheHindu on 24 Feb 2017 | read

The growing of food can be a daunting prospect, even for a seasoned gardener; ‘food growing’ is deemed to be serious business, and failure is unacceptable. Yet, like any other venture, you must keep trying till you get it right. Fresh vegetables, herbs and salad greens are the ultimate reward, food from the garden direct to your kitchen. And once you start gardening, you realise there’s something happening every day, a leaf or bud unfolding, a vegetable or fruit just forming. Life will never be the same again.

As we approach spring, it is time for new beginnings, a good place to approach food growing is from where it all starts — soil and a space to contain it. How large, how small?

Your garden space

Your garden must receive at least four hours of direct sunlight daily. An area of approximately 12 feet by 10 feet, or 120 square feet, can supply a family of four with fresh vegetables, daily, week after week. In cities, the same growing space can be created on your terrace with containers, long troughs or large pots.

A kitchen garden of this size, packed with groups of vegetables, greens and vines, is adequate for a small family. Consider starting with a smaller space — increasing gradually, once you’ve had some success.

Healthy soil

Healthy soil is crucial for a productive garden. It generally means crumbly, loose soil rich in organic matter. New gardeners can start with ‘potting mix’ from a nursery. In an existing garden, the addition of dried leaves, grass cuttings and manure will improve the soil structure.

Loosen the soil with a rake and mix in an organic pesticide like neem cake: approximately one handful per pot or, one kg per 10 sq ft.

The plan

Make a list of vegetables you use in your diet: a combination of root and green vegetables, spinach, salad greens and herbs. This is your initial garden plan. An ideal method for the small kitchen garden is ‘Mixed Cropping’, a traditional system of planting mutually favourable crops in a shared space. Many crops grow best when planted alongside plants that benefit their growth, providing nutrients to the soil and attracting beneficial insects while repelling harmful types. Much of what you will be doing are age-old practices that farmers have been following for centuries and they always had a plan.

As with any new venture, begin on a day that is favourable. For instance, wait for the next new moon cycle to plant seeds, as the gravitational pull causes the soil and seeds to swell with moisture. Germination is most successful during this time as the soil is most receptive to the new seed. Traditional farmers still plan all agricultural activities according to the moon phases, knowing that it stimulates both soil and plants. Start with plants that are easy to grow: tomato, beetroot, lettuce.

Getting started

While you are preparing your soil, you can start sprouting seeds in a nursery or a seed tray.

Reserve a sunny corner of your kitchen garden, or use a shallow tray with a few drainage holes, to raise seeds. Mix in or fill with potting mix, water lightly and let it rest for an hour. Scatter the seeds (about 10 each) evenly on the surface and lightly cover with more potting mix. Sprinkle just enough water to keep the soil moist.

If the nights are still cold, cover with newspaper till the first sprouts appear. Use a fine mist sprayer to water daily, taking care not to over-water. Make sure your nursery gets a minimum of four hours of sunlight daily. Now wait for the first sign of life to appear.

The writer is a landscape designer, environmentalist and writer. Her book on traditional farming communities,Mother Earth, Sister Seed,will be published later this year


  • Spade, fork, gloves, watering can and mist sprayer, seed tray and potting mix.

  • Garden terms

  • Potting Mix:A growing medium composed of coco peat, compost, silica and humus, with all the nutrients necessary for plant growth.

  • Compost:Natural fertiliser made of decomposed organic matter.

  • Humus:Rich dark organic matter composed of decayed plant or animal matter found in forests and gardens with dense undergrowth.

  • Tips

    A garden diary/calendar is a must. Record every gardening activity; this will be an invaluable way of correcting and improving on your gardening techniques.

  • Lunar influence

    Though the moon phases last about three days, ardent gardeners have been known to work at night under a full moon, believing it to be the most favourable time.

    The writer is a landscape designer, environmentalist and writer. Her book on traditional farming communities, Mother Earth, Sister Seed, will be published later this year