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Sow, You want to grow?

The healthiest food is found closest to its source, so why not bring the source home? Whether you have a sprawling garden or a tiny balcony, here’s how you can grow your own greens.

Have you ever asked yourself where your food comes from?

Most of the vegetables, herbs and fruits that you consume on a daily basis are grown outside our cities on farms and fields. Tons of chemical pesticides are regularly sprayed on these vegetables to prevent any crop loss and cases where sewage water is being used to irrigate fields are common. After the harvest, crops travel in an open vehicle to the sabzi mandi where vegetables are treated with more chemicals to increase their shelf life, add aroma and make the skin look fresh for a longer period of time.

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Then the shopkeepers, stores and sabzi-walas come in and then, at long last, the produce actually makes it to your table. By the time it does, it’s gone through many hands and a whole lot of chemical treatment. It’s not good for the environment and it’s certainly not good for you!

But what if I told you that you could eat your own home grown chemical free organic food on a regular basis? And that too without a degree in botany!

You do not need acres of space to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, as even a small garden will support some edible crops. Whether you live in a bungalow with enough space to start a vegetable patch or a tiny apartment, there is an endless range of mouth-watering vegetables, herbs and fruits that you can grow organically throughout the year.

The First Steps

– An ideal starting point would be to ask yourself what you want to grow. Make a list of your family’s most loved vegetables and fruits. Also include herbs that you use daily and add new vegetables that you are curious about and want to try.

– Children love to sow fast growing vegetables. Get them on board and your kitchen garden can turn into a learning experience for your kids. You can even make them fall in love with vegetables simply by making them grow them from a seed!

– Next, try to consider what you can grow in the space you have.  Think about the quantity needed to feed your family. There is no point of having two lemon trees for a family of four.

– It’s a good idea to start with easy to grow vegetables just to gain confidence and ‘green’ your thumb. Most vegetables and herbs are problem free and can be harvested in 12 to 16 weeks.  Growing fruits on the other hand is a long-term investment. However, once they start producing fruit, it will keep coming for decades.

– Your kitchen garden will require your love and attention. Do reserve some time every day to water and watch your garden grow.

Designing and planting a Balcony Kitchen Garden

Now you must be thinking, what if I live in an apartment? Well, living in an apartment must not keep you from having a healthy green space. Even small spaces such as a balcony can become a rewarding and refreshing garden of your own. All you need is some planning.

Depending on the size of your balcony and also the amount of sun you get, select the sunniest location for vegetables and partially sunny spots for herbs. Clearly, you will be growing your crops in pots, so it is important that you provide nutrients organically to your plants. Try to get organic compost (see Natural Fertilisers) and add the same amount of soil to make a balanced mix for a combination of hanging baskets, terracotta pots and trays in your balcony.

Here are some crops you can grow easily in different sizes of containers on your balcony.

Soil depth               Crops

4 inches                 Lettuce, baby spinach, small radish etc

6-8 inches             Greens, container carrots, small beats, bush beans, basil, parsley, thyme,
coriander, mint, dill etc

10-12 inches         Beats, Chinese cabbage , cherry tomatoes, peas, spring onions, strawberries,

lemon grass etc

14-20 inches        Hot and sweet peppers, cucumbers , eggplants, bush tomatoes, pole beans,

broccoli, zucchini , corn etc

For a balcony garden, select crop varieties wisely. There is no point of growing a huge sponge gourd vine in a large container on a balcony; instead, grow a compact zucchini plant. It is a worthwhile investment to keep a lemon or lime plant in a pot too. Some fruits such as falsa berry, strawberries, pineapples, chikoo, citrus and even grapes will fruit in pots. Carefully select containers of the right size for your trees but do consider having fruits like strawberries that require small pots and can be moved easily if you plan to shift from your apartment.

Planting a vegetable patch

All this sounds intimidating doesn’t it? Well don’t worry, you do not need a team of gardeners and specialised tools to start your own organic vegetable patch. Vegetable growing can be highly decorative while being productive and fairly simple once you get the hang of it. Apart from pots and containers, you just need a small spade, a weeding fork (weeder) a watering can, a branch cutter and so on. Gardening gloves are helpful as well.

Soil is the most important element for your plants. Add lots of well rotted animal manure or organic compost weeks before you plan to plant your vegetables it it. During this time, start growing your seedlings in pots which will be ready to be transplanted in a few weeks. Some vegetables such as sponge gourd, beans, corn etc will be planted directly into the soil.

You patch can be a raised bed or be at ground level. Whatever the shape of the beds, make sure to keep them narrow so that you can reach the middle from either sides without stepping on the soil. Usually this width is of four feet. Some gardeners like to grow vegetables in neat rows, while others are inspired by cottage gardening and they plant vegetables and herbs closely combined with fruits and flowers to avoid weeds and to create an attractive display of edible plants.

The prettiest vegetables for your kitchen garden

Did you know that some people grow vegetables just to add to the beauty of their houses and gardens?

– Yellow pear cherry tomatoes are famous heirloom tomatoes that look stunning in any garden. Explore tomatoes; you will always have something new to plant.

– Beans come in diverse shapes and sizes and have beautiful flowers. Include any climbing beans to add height to your garden.

– Red cabbage, purple Brussels sprouts, Black Tuscan Kale: in short, a combination of Brassicas will look great in a winter garden.

– Vibrant and mouth-watering sweet peppers and hot chillies will add spark to your kitchen garden.

– Winter salads and leaves come in an amazing variety of colours and textures. Pick a mix variety and you will never get bored of having them every day!

– Chives, basil, parsley, fenugreek, dill, fennel, oregano and all other herbs can be included in pots or between your vegetable plants to enjoy their colours and to fill your garden with a pleasing fragrance.

An Organic Garden

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A garden grown by making use of nature’s ways of nurturing plants is not just beneficial for us, but for wildlife and the environment in general. Since you are starting an organic garden, these tricks will help you succeed without using any chemicals for fertilising your vegetables or for pest control.

Crop rotation: The vegetable plot must be divided into four or five sections. Permanent crops stay in one section while each year, other sections move to the next section. This prevents a build up of pests and disease, helps prevent nutrient depletion and results in healthier soil. If you have a container garden, you can do the same with your seasonal vegetable pots.

Companion plantation: This is when two or more crops are grown together to benefit each other in terms of pest control and to attract beneficial insects. This also creates a beautiful landscape and can be effective in container gardening too. Growing Brussels sprouts with dill in a large pot or having chives growing in a rose container helps keep the bad bugs away and also creates an amazing contrast of colours and textures.

Tomatoes love the company of celery, parsley, basil, carrots, chives, marigolds, garlic and sweet corn, whether it’s in a casserole or a kitchen garden!

Other pest control methods

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There are several ways of dealing with pests without using synthetic chemicals.

Provide correct conditions for plants. If they are healthy they can better fight disease.

– Hanging a compact disc is a fun way to scare away marauding birds.

– Water washes away aphids, spider mites and other small pests from plant foliage. Spray your plants with water regularly.

– Insecticidal soaps and botanical insecticides are also effective but need to be used frequently and sometimes can also harm beneficial insects. Avoid these except in cases of serious infestations.

– It is wise to include flowers like marigold to deter pests without using chemicals in your garden. Some edible flowers such as Calendula, Nasturtium and Pansies will grow well in hanging baskets and will also attract beneficial insects while adding pleasing colours to your kitchen garden.

Natural Fertilizers

Nature offers us many ways to fertilise our plants without using any synthetic chemicals. While it’s hard to maintain a 100% organic vegetable garden it is not impossible. Here are some ideas:

– Grow beans on your vegetable plot to fix nitrogen in your soil naturally. This will help produce healthy vegetables the next season.

– Add well-rotted animal manure to your soil to make it rich in organic matter. However, most of the manure that is available in the city comes from livestock farms that use antibiotics and other medicines on their animals, some of which is then transferred into the manure and can affect your vegetables. Knowing your source is important.

– Making your own compost at home is fairly easy. For small-scale outdoor composting, enclosed bins are the most practical. The least expensive method is to build one yourself from a heavy-duty garbage can. Simply drill 1.5cm aeration holes in rows at roughly 15cm intervals around the can. Fill the can with vegetable peels, eggshells, used tea bags, shredded black and white printed newspaper, brown paper, saw dust and garden waste. Add water if it is dry, or dry material if it is soggy. Stir the contents occasionally to speed up the composting process. Compost can be made in as little as six to eight weeks or it may take up to a year or more. Readymade organic composts are also available.

– For container gardens, using compost tea is also an option. This is made by steeping or soaking compost in water. Seaweed extract is also used by vegetables growers and can be made at home easily. If you can get a hold of seaweed, that is.

– The whole idea of having an organic vegetable garden is to first trace your source of food, and then try to make it as pure as possible by mimicking nature. Growing your own vegetables and making your own fertiliser and pesticides might seem like a lot of work but the satisfaction of growing food for yourself and your family is worth it. Sow something today!

Sow close to home!

To sow something today, you do not even need to get out of your home. Open up your kitchen pantry and look for fenugreek seeds (meethi dana), coriander (sabut dhaniya), onion seeds (Kalonji), fennel (saunf) etc. Cover them lightly with soil and water softly. ]

Get in the (growing) zone

Each city has a different growing zone that is calculated by the lowest winter temperatures it gets. It is a good idea to calculate what the range in your area is before you begin to select seeds. As you start on your gardening adventure, it’s a good idea to visit local nurseries, flower shows and such to develop contacts and learn tips and tricks. To help you out, here’s a handy list of websites and blogs that can be of use to you:

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, January 20th, 2013.

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Zahra Ali Husain is a sustainability educator, freelance writer and an environmentalist. She is also a co-founder of Organic City Pakistan and runs the Green Schools & the Horticulture Therapy programs along with Yasir Husain. Zahra also manages an organic farm.