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The Mad Gardener

Urban farmer Madhavi Guttikonda lives in the coastal Indian city Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh), also known as Vizag. Along with her family, she has nurtured her terrace garden with such passion and consistency that it lives on as a thriving ecosystem of plants, birds and bees.

Passionate about plants from an early age, Madhavi began her terrace garden adventure as an experiment to grow leafy greens for her kitchen use. This exponentially grew when her children helped launch her YouTube channel Mad Gardener in 2018.

On her channel, she has a following of over 520,000 followers, with higher than 99 million total views of her content. Over time, she has shared her urban farming journey in Telugu and English on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. She has an active and growing following on all platforms.

In her videos, Madhavi explains the importance of methods employed, the understanding she has developed about her plants and ‘How to’ instructions for garden activities. She communicates with her viewers through comments and the videos they share about their own growing experiences.

She says when people look at the plants they’re in awe of what shows above the soil, while the real magic occurs underneath the soil. That is where the soul of the plant is, according to her. Madhavi shares about the science of the soil, from her perspective, as she walks about her own garden. When sharing the importance of microbes in the soil she often reminds her viewers to provide nutrients and moisture to new soil in order to boost its microbial activity.

The terrace set up

While the main section of her terrace garden is that of the seasonal vegetables with their short harvest cycles, Madhavi also grows fruits and has a dedicated section solely for flowers. Her garden is home to orchids, hibiscus and chrysanthemums, varieties of gourds and beans, tomatoes, cabbages, chillies, cauliflowers and leafy greens like spinach, amaranth and sorrel, mulberries, dragonfruit, papayas, strawberries, cherries, lemons and sugarcane. With the variety grown on her terrace, she has not just bees as visitors but even sunbirds nesting there.

Roughly 90% of her kitchen needs are met by produce from her garden. She also enjoys sharing the produce with her neighbours and friends.

She has received recognition from the agricultural magazine Rythu Nestham (which introduces farmers to new methods of organic farming). The award in the terrace garden category was presented to her by the Vice-President of India.

An essential activity for Madhavi is to compost her kitchen waste which she uses as a base for many of the vegetables she grows.

“Spending time in my garden is meditative for me. As kitchen gardeners, we are also designing the inner structure of the fruit and vegetables that we consume. I believe plants can sense our presence and this probably helps in increasing their yield,” she shared in one interview.

The initial experience of growing vegetables is known to be full of setbacks. In her opinion, this is when most are discouraged from pursuing their dream of growing vegetables. Her advice to new growers is to NOT give up at such times.

Here’s a video that provides a 360 degree view of Madhavi’s terrace garden.

Farming as an Alternative to Costly Food

Living in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana are communication and infotech professionals and married couple, Tumelo and Duduetsang Mapila.

While always interested in farming, the two of them stayed away from the prospect of farming due to a perceived requirement for huge capital.

The first major Covid-19 lockdown affected lives all over the globe, and it had quite an impact on their lives as well. Three months down, Duduetsang and Tumelo realised that it had gotten harder and more expensive to buy provisions from the local supermarket.

They sensed that if they had to endure another lockdown or a similar shortage of food supplies, they’d need to fend for themselves. This pushed them into launching their farming endeavour.

The duo are now urban farmers, living and farming in the outskirts of Gaborone. They began with a small garden outside their own kitchen, and attempted growing different vegetables there. Due to limited space and inadequate lighting, they decided to try their hand at farming on a larger piece of land.

Equipped with the knowledge gained from their numerous previous attempts, they eventually expanded their operation to include a field, with furrows and open air farming techniques. They say, “The plants don’t thrive as much in the kitchen garden, as they do on the farm.”

On the field they have successfully grown butternut, sweet corn, red cabbage, cherry tomatoes, jalapeno, habanero chillies and various herbs. The kitchen garden, now not as important, houses a habanero plant that’s a year old, and some wild rocket.

“Layout of the garden affects productivity,” asserts the farming couple. “Especially when growing a variety of crops.”

Their initial farm layout wasn’t well-planned, but as they learnt more about themselves and their crops, they planned their farm better. The field is divided into blocks and sub-blocks in accordance with the crop rotation plan designed by the Mapilas. While developing the layout, the two kept in mind accessibility to the water source as well as paths to walk around across their field.

While, presently, vegetables sold in their markets are priced higher due to import restrictions and high demand, the Mapilas have reduced their monthly spending on vegetables due to fresh produce from their own farm.

“Growing your own food is one of the most fulfilling things… especially starting off with no prior experience in growing various crops,” they say.

Once their harvests reached a sizable quantity, the Mapila family started distributing and selling fresh fruits and vegetables among their neighbours.

What started out with a heavy reliance on Google searches, has now evolved into communications with Whatsapp-based farmer communities. In their opinion however, the greatest learning they have had, has come through in-depth research on each crop they have planted on their farm.

Keep Calm and Curry On!

Native to the Indian subcontinent, the curry leaf plant (Murraya koenigii) is a low maintenance tropical evergreen. Depending on conditions and the space available, it can grow as a small bush or as trees reaching heights of up to twenty feet.

Sensitive to severe drought, extreme temperatures and infertile soil, the plant is ‘frost tender’ such that the slightest frost can damage or even kill the plant. When exposed to cold, the plant sheds its leaves and lays dormant until spring.

Provide the plant with proper light and care and it’ll give you thick foliage, and many little white flowers that’ll grow into tiny black edible berries. Curry berries contain a large amount of vitamin C and anthocyanins as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron, and are also being studied for their potential use as a natural treatment for diabetes. Don’t eat the seeds though, they’re said to be poisonous! However, the seeds produce an antibacterial and antifungal essential oil.

The curry plant can be grown from seed or cutting
Cuttings are the easiest to grow. A single leaf attached to the stem can be used as a cutting. As long as the stem is at least 3 inches long, you’re good to go. Plant it in a soil-less medium, kept warm moist; and the roots will grow out of the cutting within 3 weeks or so. While the seeds germinate much faster when the outer shell is peeled, if you like, you could even plant the entire fruit. Sow the seed in good quality soil, kept damp and warm. If the weather doesn’t permit it, you may place the plant in a greenhouse or simply layer the soil with polyethylene.

Growth
The plant will thrive in the sunniest part of your farm/garden! It likes dry soil, so use well-draining fertile soil. Nitrogen-rich fertilisers are ideal. If it rains or is over-watered, ensure that the soil is allowed to dry out. Regularly water the plant for the first 2 months. After that, watering should be moderate. Do use insecticidal soap to prevent and/or mitigate infestation of mites and psyllids.

Harvest
Within the first 2 years, pruning the flowers promotes richer growth of the plant. Dead branches and leaves should be pruned regularly. The leaves can and ought to be harvested periodically, not only to use these aromatic leaves in the kitchen but also to foster plant growth.

Using the Produce
The plant offers a distinct aroma, as well as a somewhat citric, spicy flavour. Commonly used fresh, the leaves may also be dried and powdered for usage over a longer shelf-life.
In Java, Cambodia and India, soups and stews are often seasoned with its leaves (fresh or roasted). It can be also added to vegetables, seafood and chutneys, similar to how one uses Bay leaves.

Antimicrobial and antiseptic properties allow for its use in treating infections and inflammations. Concentrations of vitamins C and E, antioxidants, iron and folic acid enable usage for lowering cholesterol, protecting the heart and liver and is even tied to the treatment of anemia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Limbolee oil, made from the leaves is added for scent in soap. The tree wood is used as combustion fuel in Southeast Asia.

Urban Farming Can Help Grow The Young Generation’s Attention Span

You are making your child read a story and they get through it incredibly slowly. You tell yourself that they are learning so of course they will be slower at it, but you can’t help feeling that you wouldn’t get distracted as easily at their age.

If this sounds familiar, don’t be surprised. World over scientists are noticing a reduction in attention spans for all age groups, and as the next generation begins its journey on earth they are expected to follow the same trend.

This trend of a deteriorating attention span can be attributed to a couple of factors. In his article on the subject, Johann Hari said: “Tech – which is normally the first cause we think of – is playing a significant role, but it isn’t the biggest of the causes [of our degrading attention span].” In this article, we will focus on another significant factor: nutrition.

Nutritional psychiatry, a relatively new field of study, studies the impact of food on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. An article in Harvard Health Publishing identifies a couple of foods that negatively impact brain functioning, processed/refined foods and sugars. It found that meals comprising vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy significantly improved the mental state of people.

This is where urban farming comes in. Urban lifestyles with their heavy reliance on preservatives-filled supermarket consumables make it very difficult for us to make these changes in our diet. Everything from the cereals we eat to the water we drink is processed in some way, very frequently with additives including sugar and salt, among others. Our grain is refined, our vegetables are polished, our fruits artificially ripened, and our milk artificially preserved. A significant portion of the nutritional content of our food is lost.

Urban farming provides a solution to this. Producing some of our daily requirements of fruits, vegetables, and fish within our houses ensures that we reintroduce unprocessed foods back into our diet. Taking steps to cut out things like preservatives and hidden refined sugars from our diet can significantly impact our health.

Children are still growing and their brains still developing. A Dutch study asked kids to consume a diet that removed almost all of the synthetic, processed foods we usually eat. The attention span increased for 70% of the children with the average improvement being as much as 50%.

Making smart choices about the food our children eat can benefit them for the rest of their lives, and involving children in urban farming can help in making that happen.

Kollam Lady Farms Paddy On Her Rooftop

Sugandhadevi is a resident of Kollam, an ancient seaport and city located in southern Kerala, India. While she wanted to engage in farming activities for many years, she was finally able to pursue her dream in her 40s, inspired by a Facebook video about a woman running a large-scale farming operation.

To set her farming journey in motion, Sugandhadevi approached the local authorities, who supported her with some guidance and also supplied her 300 grow bags. Using scrap wood and plastic sheets, she created seat-like structures on her terrace to place the grow bags. She has been operating on her own, with support from her son-in-law who helps by sourcing the seeds, nutrients, pesticides and other inputs.

While most people learning about rooftop farming begin with fruits, vegetables or even herbs, Sugandhadevi chose to start hers with growing paddy, a water intensive monsoon crop. Her first batch of paddy produced around 45 kilograms of rice.

She did eventually expand her operation to include a variety of vegetables. Fresh organic nutrient-rich produce from her garden is mostly used in self-consumption, which Sugandhadevi credits for her family’s health and well-being, particularly during the pandemic.

As and when there is an excess after the needs of the family are met, the excess produce is sold to others who approach them.

Based on her experiences, Sugandhadevi shares some tips for others who may wish to start small scale paddy cultivation at home:

  • Her recommendation for adding any nutrients, is to dissolve them in water rather than introducing them directly into the soil.
  • Her preferred soil mixture for a high yield of paddy constitutes a 1:1:1 ratio of soil, sand/wood shavings and cow dung. Before planting the seeds, this mixture is to be kept moist for a fortnight. After the first seven days, she mixes dung powder, urea and potassium in a cup of water, adds it to the mixture and then continues to keep the mixture moist for another seven days. At the end of the fortnight, seeds can be planted in the soil mixture.
  • Watering needs to be done 2-3 times a day – ‘never let the grow bag go dry’, she says.
    If unable to practice frequent watering, she suggests installing a drip or spray irrigation system for the plants.
  • She also insists that one checks for pests on a daily basis. Neem oil or another organic pesticide can be sprayed/applied to the plant every 3-4 days.

After over a decade of growing food crops and optimizing use of space available around her home, Sugandhadevi has expanded her growing operation by growing some crops at her son-in-law’s house too.

Lagos – Towards a Progressive Sustainable Economy

Nigeria is said to be one of the largest economies in Africa; with majority of its population engaged in agriculture. At the centre of this economy lies Lagos, the commercial heart of Nigeria, deemed a leading tech hub in Africa and the economic hub of West Africa.

Commerce and industry aside, even with the thrust on being an agrarian economy, Lagos city and state face shortages in meeting their demand for food. At present, Lagos is said to produce roughly 20-24% of its food requirements. Anticipating a significant growth in population by 2030, the state faces an immediate and urgent need to increase local food production.

In order to boost food security and increase access to fresh affordable food in metropolitan Lagos, the Lagos State Agricultural Development Authority is urging residents to adopt urban farming practices. Through this initiative, the government hopes to encourage and educate residents in overcoming the challenges of space availability while growing food locally within their buildings and community compounds.

Government communications encourage the use waste buckets, bags and tires to be filled with soil for growing food. Extra emphasis is being laid on even the smallest contributions made by individual households, towards reducing the strain on the overall market supply.

In interviews with local and international agencies, the State Commissioner for Agriculture Ms. Abisola Olusanya shares that she sees urban farming as an important component of a city’s food systems for its potential to nourish households and communities, create economic opportunities, and foster the growth of small businesses.

The Lagos government also recognizes the need to emphasize on the economic, environmental and social benefits of urban farming. Change in policy with respect to food and nutrition is driven by a need to holistically tackle malnutrition, poverty and extreme hunger across all levels within Lagos State. The state also hopes to strengthen collaboration among its public and private sectors.

In its efforts towards making Lagos a sustainable smart house, the Lagos State government is partnering with the Netherlands government. Netherlands is Nigeria’s 4th largest importing partner and 3rd largest exporting partner. Nigeria’s search for feasible farming solutions, modern farming practices and increased production of fruits and vegetables, will be met through Dutch innovation.

A Square Metre to Feed A Family

Launched in 2005, the National Horticulture Mission (NHM) is an Indian central government scheme that’s working towards increasing nutritional security and improving horticulture output – by assimilating into society, innovations created through traditional and modern scientific knowledge systems. (Upper north and north eastern states are alternatively covered by the Technology Mission for Integrated Development of Horticulture in the North Eastern States.) 

NHM’s aim is to synergise existing and upcoming horticulture programs while developing all systems from nurseries to markets, and it works towards creating employment – skilled and unskilled; increasing farmer/grower family income; and dispersing/diffusing funds to grower individuals and groups in the form of loans subsidy and materials. On their part, state governments decide how to contextualise the strategies to maximise fruit, vegetable, flower, nut, medicinal and plantation crop production in their own state. 

Kerala produces large volumes of rice, spice, flowers and vegetables. The state’s Horticulture Mission is now encouraging families living in urban spaces to take on urban farming initiatives to grow food and consume locally-grown food. In particular, they hope to get through to those individuals who don’t have a lot of space available but are interested and willing to learn and grow. 

The optimal use of available space and resources is central to urban farming initiatives. To this end, Kerala is encouraging the use of Arka, a vertical growing structure that requires only 1 square meter of sunlit utility area on the terrace or patio of a home. Designed by the Indian Institute of Horticultural Research (IIHR), the structure is designed for ease in personal handling: height of reach, mobility, light requirement, and control over water, fertilizer and pesticide. The contraption has a base frame with attached wheels, central support and additional support for the pots. At the top of the structure is a 25 litre plastic water container with networks of microtubes and drippers for the plants. 

Keeping in mind the height to which certain plants grow, the slightly taller ones are to be grown in pots at the base of the structure. Smaller leafy vegetables can be grown in the middle and herbs and medicinal plants can be planted in the top. Depending on grower and plant preference, one can use soil or soil-less growing mediums. 

The Kerala government has installed 10 Arka units in government offices across the state, and is looking to distribute 330 other units to homes in urban localities across Kerala. 

While each unit costs an estimated ₹20,000, through the National and State Horticulture Mission, 75% of total cost is subsidised resulting in a per unit cost of only ₹5,000, with additional benefits through the provision of seeds, fertilizer and pots for the structure.  

Spinach

Spinach originated in Persia, and was introduced to India and through Nepal to China. A few centuries later, the Saracens introduced it to Europe. Since then it has made its way into countless cultures and cuisines.

The American cartoon Popeye the Sailor Man – first aired in January 1929 – played a significant role in popularising the vegetable among its viewers in the USA and across the globe. Always getting into fights, the protagonist Popeye would pop open his ever-handy can of spinach which instantly gave him his infamous super strength.

Not just that, it was also among the first food items to be commercially marketed as a frozen food back in the early 1930s, giving rise to the frozen food industry.

This versatile vegetable is easy and quick to grow; healthy and delicious to eat.

Benefits

“Superfoods” are food items that have many different nutrients in high concentrations and hence provide countless health benefits. Spinach provides Calcium, Magnesium, Iron, Zinc, Potassium; vitamins A, C and K; fibre, antioxidants, folate, nitrates and carotenoids. Consuming spinach has benefits for upkeep and healing of heart, bones, skin, eyes and women’s reproductive health. It is also a good source of energy.

Things to know

There are a few things you’d like to know with respect to planning your garden and looking after the plant.

Spinach is a fast low-growing annual that one can start harvesting periodically, once it reaches 4-6 inches in height. Its leaves are usually medium to dark green in colour and smooth to touch. The plant grows tiny yellow green flowers just before seeding. Germination of spinach seeds takes about 10-14 days and should be done while the weather is cool.

As the roots of this plant grow neither too firm nor deep, a 10-12 inch container with holes for drainage works beautifully. Use loamy, well draining soil kept moist for the plant.

The plant requires just 3-4 hours of sunlight regularly. Strong afternoon sun and hot weather can cause the leaves to turn bitter though this can be mitigated with soil moisture and air flow around the plant. Mulch if necessary.

Nitrogen supplements, though not necessary, allow the plant to grow healthier dense leaves.

Harvesting

There are two methods by which to harvest spinach. You may harvest the whole plant or cut only the outer-older leaves, allowing the younger leaves within to continue growing for a later harvest.

While it helps to use gardening shears to cut outer leaves of the plant, when harvesting the whole plant, we can alternatively use our hands.

Care

Like many other plants, pruning is an important part of plant care for spinach as well. If you decide to harvest its leaves throughout the growing season, that is essentially the required level of pruning.

Aphids, blue mold and some other fungal diseases are common for spinach plants. It is better to uproot a diseased or damaged plant to prevent it from affecting others around it.

Consumption and storage

Spinach can be stored in different forms, effecting its shelf-life, permutations for use and taste.

Fresh/raw spinach leaves can be stored in damp paper towels or airtight containers and are good for about a week or two. The leaves retain some of the crunch and the smell is mild. Fresh spinach stored for more than a few days loses much of its nutritional value.

Possible preparations include making salads, smoothies or boiling/cooking it.

For longer storage, spinach can be canned, or blanched or cooked and frozen. Frozen spinach leaves are good for use for up to 6 months from the time of harvest. Thawing and then cooking makes the process a little more time-consuming.

Spinach can also be dehydrated to be stored as spinach flakes or powder. Once powdered, it can be used for years to come and can be added as an herb to just about anything being prepared, adding colour and nutrients to all.

Food, a Vehicle of Liberation

Numerous individuals and groups of African descent have come together to form the National Black Food and Justice Alliance, a civic body in the US, comprising of black urban and rural growers, collectively working towards food sovereignty.

Among the members of the alliance is a think-tank and collective action network called Black Yield Institute (BYI). The organisation works towards asserting their collective right to culturally-appropriate, affordable and healthy food.

To achieve this vision, they are working on accumulating land and capital, bringing black people to the center of decision-making regarding food – in other words, “building black community power through food sovereignty”.

In Cherry Hill, Baltimore, BYI has been helping neighbouring communities by providing not just fresh food but also employment opportunities and educational programmes via the Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden.

Since 2010, Cherry Hill Urban Community Garden has distributed over 150,000 pounds (about 68,000 kilograms) of culturally-relevant produce to surrounding food deserts – areas where over 50% of the people live in poverty, and life expectancy is said to be roughly 20 years lesser than wealthier counterparts of Baltimore.

Among the people involved with BYI is Nicole Fabricant, activist and professor of Anthropology at Towson University, who connects with youth from the community and her own students, learning how to care for farmlands as well as attending programmes conducted by Eric Jackson, founder of Black Yield Institute. In Nicole’s words, BYI is at the forefront of a food equity drive that makes people co-owners, not only creating wealth for black communities but also making Food a “vehicle of liberation”.

When BYI started, they reclaimed an abandoned plot of land to set up the community garden and the institute. This land is officially under the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, though thanks to negotiations with the help of the Mayor of Baltimore, Black Yield continues to operate on it. During the Covid-19 outbreak, the institute and community gained a lot of attention and support while partnering with city officials and activists to distribute food and produce to those in need.

The project is seen as empowering the communities that have so far lacked opportunities to become financially stable. As described by Eric Jackson, these communities aren’t “food deserts” but a victim of food apartheid – where the lack of food is a result of decades of disinvestment. Without access to food and land resources, poor people and poor communities will remain so.

Black Yield have continued to expand their operations through the creation of the Cherry Hill Food Co-op, a membership-based cooperative grocery store owned by the community; partnering with Restoring Inner City Hope (RICH) program to hire youth to deliver produce directly to residents. They are also seeking to take ownership of a 10-acre farm in the countryside to significantly scale up food production and are seeking investment, donations and loans to raise 7.5 million dollars for the planned expansion.

Beginner’s Veggie Guide

As individuals passionate about growing vegetables and edible plants at home, we wanted to share a simplified ‘starter’ guide for the newer and prospective urban farmers, particularly those with less space available.

Full-fledged farms are known to use a variety of techniques and inputs. Here, we share about some pointers to guide you towards a healthy and happy kitchen garden.

Organic compost/manure
Compost in soil helps increase soil health, provide nutrition and retain water. You can buy this locally or make your own from kitchen waste and garden waste.

Seed trays
Plastic trays work wonders but for those seeking a biodegradable option, you have coir trays.

Watering Can and Mister Bottle
A watering can with fine holes helps avoid over-watering. If you keep a mister spray bottle handy, you will be able to increase humidity for tropical or big-leaved plants.

Containers
When growing indoors, on terraces or balconies, instead of pots, you can use containers of various depths depending on what’s being grown. The need is to hold adequate soil, moisture and space for plants and their root systems to grow, while also draining excess water. An average depth of 40 cm (just under 16 inches) is suitable for most plants. Keep deeper containers for plants with longer roots. A metal container may heat up, causing soil temperature to rise as well which might not be good for the roots. If you do use metal containers use newspaper and/or cardboard lining as insulation. Window boxes are a good alternative to using containers, for windowsill planting.

Waste Crockery
Use shards of crockery to line the bottom of the containers to prevent the soil from filling the drainage holes.

Mulch
To protect the soil from the sun and to help retain moisture, dress the top of the soil with 2-3 cm of mulch, pebbles or grit.

Trowel/spade and garden clippers
These are your basic tools for plant care and upkeep.

Soil moisture check
An optional investment is a soil moisture meter. The alternative is to feel the soil – if it’s powdery or slushy, you know it’s got too little or too much water.

If you have the luxury of space, a kitchen garden can extend across inside and outside the house. You can start by sowing the seeds indoor and move the plants out when they are bigger. Harvest some months down the line and repeat the cycle.

Sowing the seeds
Dig over the soil, add some organic compost and tamp it down to rid the soil of air pockets. Draw a line in the soil with a stick. Place the seeds, spaced out along the line then cover the seeds with some soil from the sides.

Watering
Use a watering can with fine holes so the seeds and soil aren’t disturbed. Too much water may cause the seeds to wiggle out, move away and lose contact with the soil.
Alternatively, place the bottom of the seed tray into a larger tray of water for around 30 minutes. The soil will soak adequate water without disturbing the seeds.

Seed sprouting
Sprouted seeds can be transferred from the seed tray to their designated containers. Growing plants require light, water and space. Having to compete with their neighbours may cause many of them to suffer.

What to grow
For those looking to jump right in and make the most of it, plan your kitchen garden in such a way that you plant some herbs that are easy to grow and use, and vegetables with short growth cycles to be sown every few weeks such as salad leaves, radish, beets etc.