Every morning, 84-year-old Hema Rao climbs up one floor of her house in Bengaluru with a small basket in hand. Once she reaches the terrace of her apartment complex, she walks around, carefully inspecting the blue coloured drums of lush vegetable plants, spread across 12,000 sq ft.
She picks the ripest vegetables, pulls out a pair of scissors, snips the branches and collects what she needs in her basket. Then, she brings the harvest back home.
The octogenarian has followed this routine for the past few years, providing fresh vegetables for her family every day.
Her son Aditya says, “The other day, my mother brought five eggplants and three bitter gourds. Knowing that these would be insufficient to feed our family of five, she innovated a unique recipe combining the two with jaggery and kitchen spices. It turned out to be delicious.”
Aditya says that these are the small joys of having an organic terrace garden. “Call it a hobby or whatever you want, having a garden with chemical-free vegetables has brought multiple benefits for us,” he tells The Better India.
On the terrace of Ittina Anai Apartments in Bellandur, a few residents, inspired by the Rao family, have come together to grow a variety of vegetables to reduce their dependence on market produce, in a bid to move towards organic farming. While the Raos began with 6,000 sqft of space, a few others joined in later.
The Raos harvest around 12 kilos of vegetables in a week, and say that their costs of groceries and such household expenses have reduced by 60 per cent.
An immensely rewarding activity
Aditya (47) says, “My family belongs to Hyderabad, and we moved to Bengaluru in 1999. We had a 2-acre bungalow back then, where my mother grew all the vegetables in her kitchen garden. Around 2012, we moved here in an apartment complex, and she started missing how she grew her own food, something she loved the most back in Hyderabad.”
This, he says, inspired the family to convert their terrace into an edible garden that not only gives them sweet solace, but also immense health benefits.
Hema and her daughter-in-law Chitralekha began growing food as a daily activity. “The apartment structure restricted my mother, and she missed the open space to roam around during morning and evening hours. So I brought home a few recycled drums, in which she started growing vegetables. These have now become a full-fledged garden with green leafy vegetables such as coriander, basil, mint, spinach, and gourds, as well as tubers like beetroot, radish, carrot and potato,” he says.
Aditya says the terrace also has tomatoes, peanuts, yams, amaranthus, chilli, capsicum, peas, different types of beans, and fruits such as papaya.
He explains that all the vegetables are grown using organic methods. “We used recycled plastic drums to fill them with coco peat and mix the sludge extracted from a sewage treatment plant installed in our society,” he says.
He adds, “The lighter soil mix makes repotting and handling the drums convenient. Plus, it prevents soil stains on the floor and reduces the water consumption.”
Aditya says sludge is the by-product obtained after processing sewage and has rich nutrients such as ammonia, nitrogen, phosphorus and others, essential for the growth of the plants. “We use minimal soil to combine the fertile mixture, which makes the drums much lighter. If we use soil alone, each drum would weigh about 50 kilos, whereas using the mixture reduces it to approximately 15 kilos. We have to be careful with weight as the load adds to the building structure,” he says.
The plants receive treated water from the STP. “We refrain from using fresh water from the civic body. This step reduces water consumption and saves precious resources. Unlike other residential societies, we do not hire transport to treat our sludge and other waste. All waste is treated at its source,” he says.
Aditya uses neem oil, water mixed with chilli and other natural methods for pest management. “We do not mind sharing food with squirrels, monkeys, pigeons or other biodiversity elements. But it is the bugs and infections such as fungus or infestation by worms, which needs remedial action,” he adds.
Aditya says that while organic farming is challenging and yields less harvest, it’s rewarding in terms of health. “At present, we harvest 12 kilos of vegetables in a week. We could have achieved 50-70 per cent more yield using chemical fertilisers. But then the objective of consuming fresh, healthy food would be defeated,” he adds.
He also notes that growing their own food has reduced their need for making trips to the market. “We still rely on the market to buy onion, potato, ginger and a few other vegetables,” he says.
Moreover, exercise has provided health benefits to the family. “My mother and wife were diagnosed with Vitamin D deficiency. But since they started spending time on the terrace, the health issue has been resolved. Family members fall ill less frequently, and require fewer trips to the hospital,” he says.
He claims that the green cover over the terrace also helps the apartments on the top floor remain cooler by 3-5 degrees Celsius. “So far, we have not spent more than Rs 25,000 on maintaining our garden, and the rewards are unmeasurable,” he says.
Inspiring others to join in
Aditya adds that their initiative has also inspired ten members in the residential complex. “Some of them dropped out later, but together, we are growing food on 12,000 square feet of space. All the residents living in 72 apartments spread across four buildings are direct and indirect beneficiaries. The surplus produce is used for selling, sharing or distributing by the food growers,” he notes.
Sudha Anand Bala, who took inspiration from the Rao family, says, “I was highly impressed when I saw their terrace garden, and started gardening immediately. Since 2021, I have grown eggplants, tomatoes, spinach, peas, bottle gourd, bitter gourd, okra, fenugreek and coriander.”
Sudha says she took lessons from Aditya on using organic fertilisers and experimented with growing multiple vegetables. “I gave away surplus chillies and other vegetables to neighbours. Some of them visited my garden and took an interest too,” she adds.
She also notes that the additional benefit is that more people have become interested in terrace gardening. “Earlier, no person visited the empty terrace space. But now, many residents climb up to take an evening walk around the greenery. It also makes children excited, and some of them show interest in wanting to grow vegetables,” he says.
However, Aditya wants enthusiasts to understand that maintaining an organic terrace or kitchen garden requires immense passion and dedication. “Many people inquire and question the cost-effectiveness and returns of the activity. However, it is for every person to realise that such an exercise is not on a commercial scale and can only suffice the needs of a limited number of consumers,” he says.
Edited by Divya Sethu