Grow nutritious organic food in your very own kitchen garden

Always dreamed of having a kitchen garden but didn’t know how to create one? We tell you all you need to know to get started

As a child growing up in Mumbai, I believe I was fortunate to have the privilege of a big garden in our home. Both my parents took great interest to care for our plants and I could recognise most trees by looking at their leaves. My mum even had a bringal corner with every possible colour and shape of brinjal. It was wonderful to have such an ‘earthy’ life in my growing years. Post marriage I ventured into kitchen gardening in our apartment window.

I started with growing simple herbs and slowly moved towards growing fruits and vegetables. I have learned to use whatever little harvest I get from my garden to make food. The flowers, fruits, vegetables and herbs from our window garden have cheered and comforted us. Kitchen gardening in small spaces may have its own challenges but the joy and thrill of plucking a part of your meal from your own garden and knowing that it has zero chemicals makes it worthwhile. If I can do it successfully from my apartment in Mumbai, I think anyone can.

Once the gardening bug catches you, there is no turning back. Suddenly, your weekend outings may revolve around trips to the local plant nursery to buy seeds for your kitchen garden and your vacations will involve asking the customs officers to allow you to carry a Meyer lemon tree back home.

What can you grow in a balcony garden?

Consider growing only those plants that you will use, take into account the space that you have, while making sure it adds aesthetic appeal to the place. Here are some examples.

Leafy vegetables: Palak, methi, amaranthus [green and red], Ceylon spinach, Malabar spinach, purslane, gongura, lettuce, kale, drumstick leaves, onion greens [excellent for omelettes], Colacassia [Patra].

Micro-greens: These are a balcony gardener’s delight. You can try mustard, saunf, radish or methi.

Spices: You can grow allspice [an aromatic plant which smells like a combination of spices—and use the leaves for an aromatic blend in stews], tej patta, peppercorns, turmeric, ginger.

Herbs: Mint, thyme, parsley, celery, garlic chives, cuban borage [commonly known as Ajwain patta] green chillies, basil.

Vegetables: Try growing the bush/dwarf varieties in small spaces. Tomatoes, broad beans, double beans, french beans, cluster beans, brinjals, capsicums and all gourds grow well.

Root Vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes, turnips, carrots and taro roots [arbi] can be grown at home.

Fruits: Strawberries, mandarins, kumquats, star fruits, passion fruits and musk melons. The yield may not be large but again even a few home-grown fruits have a pleasure of their own. If you own a large terrace, you could even grow mangoes, bananas, papayas in drums!

Edible Flowers: Red gongura flowers, pansy, butterfly pea flower [shankapushpa], rose, nasturtiums and hibiscus [petal colours are water soluble—do use the five petal varieties only].

The yield of each plant varies, for example a chilly plant will grow for 2 – 4 years and yield plenty of chillies. You could let them ripen on the plant and dry the red chillies. These can be ground to give you home-made red chilli powder from your kitchen garden.

The joy and thrill of plucking a part of your meal from your own garden and knowing that it has zero chemicals is worth the trouble

What you will need

Balcony or kitchen gardening is about growing plants without the use of any chemicals either as pesticides or fertilisers.

For achieving the above we must focus on providing good growing conditions and pay attention to the nutrition of the plant. This naturally ensures that it is not prone to any plant diseases/pest attacks.

  • Sunlight – Choose a well lit balcony, for fruiting vegetables like tomatoes 4 – 6 hours of sun is good. Leafy greens do well in 3 – 4 hours of sunlight. If getting sufficient sun light is not easy then go for shade loving plants.
  • Containers – You can choose from pots, ceramic containers, terracotta pots, clay pots, grow bags, recycled broken buckets or even 1 – 2 litre soft drink bottles.
    10 inch pots are ideal for vegetables, while a rectangular shallow pot can be used for leafy greens. For fruits like lemons and star fruits, you can use larger pots.
  • Potting mix – This should be in the ratio of 1:1:1:1 red soil: vermi compost: coco peat: compost/cow dung manure. When growing vegetables you need to add about 1 tsp of neem cake and 2 tbsp of wood ash to the potting mix. This will give a kick start to our plants and also combat any pest problems.
  • Nutrition – In addition to the potting mix/soil, which is the first step to healthy plants, some nutrition should be provided once a week or every 10 days. For this, add a handful of compost/ cow dung manure/ vermi compost once a week/ 10 days. Neem cake should be added once a month, while bone meal and peanut cake dissolved in water can be added once in 15 days. Liquid fertilisers can also be added; I make my own compost tea or use leachate from my compost bin. I also use Panchagavya, which can be made or bought from the store and used after diluting with water.
  • Water – I cannot stress enough on how over-watering not only attracts pests but is also more detrimental to plant growth. Some plants love a lot of water but none of them like wet feet. Watering also depends on the season, during the heat in summer your plants may need to be watered twice a day but in monsoon they might not need watering.
  • Seeds – If you are new to kitchen gardening, start with seeds from your kitchen cabinet. Some of the easy to start with plants are palak, methi, amaranthus, chillies and tomatoes. Growing as per the season gives maximum yield. For example, sowing watermelon seeds in late February gives you juicy watermelons in the summer months.
  • Saplings – You can buy saplings from nurseries, especially for fruit trees like lemon, which are generally the grafted kinds, so fruiting starts faster. When buying saplings of vegetable plants from nurseries, avoid those which are loaded with vegetables… they may not do well in a new environment. When you buy saplings, make sure they are young so they grow under your care and mature to give ample vegetables.
  • Tools – You will need to buy a shovel, a spade, a garden fork, a watering can and cutting tools or pruning shears.

Be an urban farmer

  1. Harvest of the day: root vegetables like potatoes and radishes are easy to grow at home
  2. Sweet success at growing bitter gourd
  3. Tomatoes lined up and ripening
  4. Egg plant almost there
  5. Zucchini and its blossoms make a pretty sight
  6. Strawberry to top a cup cake
  7. How many capsicums can you spot?
  • Pics: Nitya Anand Nadar

 Process

  1. Sow the seeds in small containers—even empty yoghurt containers will do. Large seeds like beans need to be buried an inch deep into the soil whereas tiny seeds like lettuce and amaranthus can be loosely scattered on top of the soil and an inch of potting mix/cocopeat can be added on top.
  2. Once you sow, sprinkle gently with some water.
  3. Keep these containers under indirect sun, preferably on a window sill. Some recommend covering the containers with a cardboard lid.
  4. Within a 7 – 15 days you will see your seeds germinating.
  5. Shift them out and expose them to a few hours of sunlight daily and then return them to the window sill. After a week you can leave them out for the day and night.  Water gently or only spray when you see the soil a bit dry.

Transfer plants like chillies, tomatoes and brinjals within a month to a larger pot.

Creepers like cucumbers, passion fruit vines and bottle gourds will need a trellis for support. Once you transplant them to a bigger pot, get creative with ropes or bamboo to give them support on the balcony walls and grill.

Lettuce and other leafy greens can be sown directly in big pots.

Ideally you should transplant the plant in the evening so that your plant settles into its new home in the gentle cooler temperature of night. Once transplanted, water quickly with nutrient-enriched water. Water with compost tea once in 10 days.

Over-watering not only attracts pests but is also more detrimental to plant growth

Pest management

If your plant is healthy, pest attacks are minimum. Planting ornamental plants in between edible plants helps curb pest attack. For example, marigold flowers will attract all the pests and your other edible plants will be spared. Planting mint/ basil/ garlic chives alongside tomatoes keeps most pests away. The flowers from your ornamental plants may also attract bees for pollination of your brinjal flowers. Should your plants get infested with pests, you can grind chillies and garlic to make a robust pest control spray. Strain the chilli garlic paste, dilute with water and spray onto plants. Another good organic pest control mix is neem oil mixed with water to which a few drops of liquid soap has been added. Spray it fortnightly.

Growing food is a glorious process. Your kitchen garden will not only enthral you, it will soothe, surprise and comfort you. Join your local community gardeners and meet fellow food growers.

If you live in Mumbai and would want to know more about balcony gardening, join BLOOMS on Facebook. It is a platform for enthusiastic home gardeners and you can be a part of fun-filled and interactive gardening meets.


A version of this article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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