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Publication:Times of India Mumbai Date:Aug 10, 2008 Section:Times City

Going green on the terrace

Joeanna Rebello I TNN

Mumbai: Who knew the Garden of Eden had been relocated to the Mumbai Port Trust? On the terrace of one of its canteens, no less.

The fruits of this kingdom swallow the eye—guavas hang like cannonballs, the lemons are pert and the pomegranates polished. Dragonflies, butterflies and birds are this emerald city’s flying squadron and slothful caterpillars and other creeps, its ground police. Mistress of these sights is catering manager of MPT Preeti Patil.

The patch of green started with looking for a way to dispose of kitchen waste produced from cooking for 2,000 employees a day, Patil recounts. It only took a workshop with seasoned urban farmer Dr R T Doshi for Patil to return with the lessons to turn waste to compost. She started with four saplings on her 3,000 sq-ft terrace—two of chickoo and two of guava. Five years later, 116 others fruits, vegetables and ornamentals moved in. Plastic laundry baskets, half-sawn drums and low brick rings (that can be widened as the plant grows) are now the tenements occupied by coconut, betelnut, pineapple, ladyfinger, tomatoes, custard apple, ginger, papaya, bananas, cherry, mango, amla, red guava, peppermint, strawberry, allspice, tamarind—the whole plant kingdom it seems.

The harvest, she says, weighs 3 kg ginger, 10-15 kg bananas and 6-7 kg cucumber per plant.

Now, Patil has miniature greenhouses and a compost pit that converts peels, pulp and other digestibles into high-nutrition feed for the farm. This once barren terrace has not just transformed into a cooperative farm with the canteen help eager to return to their roots, but it is also their ‘famers market’ where they take home fresh organic produce in exchange for their labour.

City fruits and vegetables are virtually insipid, Patil says, and with high doses of chemical inputs, their nutritional value is very low. “We city-breds are so out of sync with nature, we cannot even identify what grows around us, let alone what we eat. The first time I tried to grow corn on my balcony, I mistook the silk for wheat.’’

On Friday, Patil was invited to a dialogue on urban agriculture, where she, along with two others, narrated their experiences and research on recycling waste and growing food. It was a discussion initiated by the Centre for Education and Documentation and KISC (Knowledge in Civil Society).

For Pune’s Snehlata Srikhhande it was garbage that precipitated action. The Kachra Manthan, which she started with the local women, segregated waste, gave the inorganic recyclable deposit to ragpickers to ease their work and turned the rest into compost for terrace gardens. “Space should not be a contraint,’’ she says, producing the slide of a papaya tree growing on a narrow balcony.

“The roots don’t break into the floor, like people believe. In fact, only when roots need to anchor, they dig deep,’’ says Patil. “If support is provided externally, like a wall, for example, the feeder roots, which nourish the plant, only need nine inches of soil. And city plants should be pruned so they don’t grow too tall or you may not be able to pluck the fruit easily.’’ What an idea to be able to pluck a mango from a tree on your terrace!

Environmentalist Bharat Mansata propped Cuba as a macro specimen of urban agriculture. Mansata, who just launched a book, Organic Revolution, on the subject, referred to Cuba’s dire straits in the early 1990s, when it had to resort to growing its own food on account of the American trade embargoes and the collapse of its erstwhile supplier, the Soviet Union. In 2006 Havana grew 3 million tonnes of food; the city has 300,000 small gardens. No vacant land went uncultivated, he said. Citing Cuba, Mansata showed how urban farms are a unifying community tool, outside their tangible benefits of nutritional yield and green cover. “Let’s not wait to reach the brink, like Cuba did, but start growing our own food now,” he exhorted. “With food prices already high, we are not far from a stage when we have no food at all.” Srikhande ended with some practical advice—the next time you want to go on a tree-planting drive, begin at home.
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FRUITS OF LABOUR: The garden started with four saplings of guava and chickoo but now, from coconut, betelnut and pineapple to strawberry, it has almost the entire plant kingdom