NowActivism: The Rooftop Revolution

by Shirish Kher and Vanaja Vaidyanathan

Starting a vegetable patch at home in a city isn’t simple, yet it is delightful. As first time farmers, it took us to places and people we wouldn’t have known otherwise.

We have been trying to move towards a healthy and personally fulfilling lifestyle for some time. Part of this attempt includes growing our own food and creating a conscious kitchen in our home. Our efforts began three months ago, when our first step in this journey was to collect ‘green garbage’ as we’d often seen plants growing on garbage (instead of in soil).

We kept our eyes peeled for any opportunity to pick up discarded waste. We soon acquired bhusa (straw) from our fruit vendor, coconut husks from a lady selling coconuts outside a temple, rotten veggies/ leaves of vegetables thrown away at a subzi mandi (vegetable market), and dry leaves swept up at a local shopping complex. We also found discarded pieces of granite/marble, and used coconuts from a tender coconut vendor. Most people were curious to know what we intended to do with the ‘garbage’. When told, were eager to help. Thus began the first step of our journey. Finding the free green wealth is not difficult!

We weren’t sure how exactly to go about making the garden on the terrace. Luckily, we met a few people in Pune who already had thriving terrace gardens: Rashmi’s garden with a 10-foot long, fruit-laden papaya tree growing in just four inches of soil, and Jyoti Shah’s garden with many vegetables, flowers and fruit trees growing in green garbage, without any soil. Seeing this gave us new confidence and ideas.

We got to work: cut up plastic sheets and laid them, used granite bits and coconuts to create beds, lined the bottom with coconut husks, straw and used pattal (leaf plates). Finally, we put the vegetable waste on top, and lo!, four beds were almost ready!

We now needed soil. Getting hold of soil can be quite tricky in a concrete city area. But as we looked down from the terrace, we spotted a pile of garbage with a lot of dry leaves in an empty plot in front of our house. Apprehensive at first about what we’d find — plastic, metal, sharp objects — we were soon elated to find such rich manure right beside our home. We salvaged about four sackfuls, which went right on top of our beds. The first plant to go in was ‘khajur’ (date palm) which we’d found growing on the garbage heap itself.

It was all in a morning’s work or karma yoga as we like to believe. And we even got a bonus! We found two whole cabbages with just their outer leaves decaying. So we simply took off some of the outer leaves and were left with goodlooking fine cabbages for our lunch. Our veggie patch had started yielding vegetables even before we could plant!

We watered the beds for a few days to help the green matter begin to compost. The top layer of soil was drying up quite fast, so we covered it with jute sacks to preserve moisture. A few days later, we planted our first seeds. In the first bed, we put fenugreek and mustard and, in the second, spinach and rajgira (amaranth millets). In the third, we put a pineapple head, a bulb of onion and ‘mango ginger’ (ambe-halad in Marathi). In the fourth, we put safflower and coriander.

Up to now, we have harvested spinach, mustard greens and amaranth greens twice and enjoyed including them in our meals. It’s a delight to eat what you have grown yourself. We are still exploring where we can source local seeds from, what seeds we should plant and when, and how much of each variety we should plant in order to provide for our needs.

Our journey with our terrace garden continues. A beautiful off-shoot of this process is that we’re meeting several people who are engaged in similar experiments. Meeting them provides us with good ideas and encouragement. It’s almost as if other people are nurturing us, and we’re nurturing our plants in turn!