The kitchen gardener
“There’s nothing more satisfying than eating fresh produce from your garden,” says Pune-based Maitri Mehta, who began setting up her rooftop kitchen garden about a year and a half ago. “It is a complete joy to harvest vegetables exactly when you need it. If I want to make a salad at 7 pm, I pluck the salad leaves at 6,” reveals the gardener, admitting to plucking a leaf or two of basil or paan and popping it into her mouth every time she takes a walk around her garden, talking and humming to her plants.
Maitri Mehta waters the plants in her rooftop kitchen garden
Mehta began her experiments in gardening with trouble-free herbs such as rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, chives, tarragon, graduating to the trickier tomato. While a number of kitchen gardeners suggest the tomato as a starter plant, Mehta disagrees. “In my experience, tomatoes are not easy to grow at all. They are very susceptible to pests and diseases. When you buy seeds from a nursery, you most often get hybrid seeds or those that have been chemically treated to prevent disease. Perhaps, this is what makes it easier for most other gardeners,” opines Mehta, who is completely against the use of chemical pesticides, relying only on organic remedies.
She now grows a number of medicinal herbs that are found growing wild across the country, several different varieties of vegetables such as broccoli, galangal, cucumber, zucchini and green leafy salad leaves. “I haven’t kept count of just how many pots there are, but my 200sq ft rooftop terrace is almost covered,” says the happy gardener.
Sapling on a windowsill
To encourage urban dwellers to grow their own food, Mehta decided to offer her expertise and services to help others set up kitchen gardens in the space available to them. Starting off with helping friends to grow veggies and herbs, she now offers two types of services depending on the space you have and the time you’re willing to dedicate to a kitchen garden. “When someone approaches me for help, I first determine the kind of space they have. I ask them to send me a picture of the area, I check for sunlight, ask about issues of waterlogging and so on. I also ask them questions about what they’d like to grow. I then offer my recommendations and dispatch my quotation,” explains Mehta.
(Clockwise) Spearmint plant, Thai coriander at Maitri Mehta's rooftop kitchen garden in Pune. Pics/Krunal Gosavi
Those who have a smaller space and can accommodate only three or four pots can buy potted saplings of plants, which range from R800 to R1700 — herbs are cheaper, while fruits like avocado and white jamuns are the most expensive. Mehta also provides a comprehensive guide which teaches you how to maintain and harvest the vegetables or herbs. “As soon as we’ve decided on the plants, I sow the seeds in an earthen pot. Once they grow into saplings, I send them across to the beginner gardener,” says Mehta, who offers a wide range of herbs, fruits and veggies and even a select group of edible flowers including jasmine.
Designing the garden
When Mehta is offered a larger space and a higher budget to work with, she has a much more challenging job ahead of her. “I visit the space — it could be a balcony, a rooftop terrace, or a patch in a garden — and get the soil tested. I determine which plants will grow best, they tell me what they’d prefer to grow and together we decide what to plant. At this stage, designing the garden is essential,” asserts Mehta. This isn’t merely for the look of it, she adds, although that is important too.
“It is essential that we place plants according to whether they grow well together and are mutually beneficial to each other or not. For instance, tomatoes and basil grow very well in the same pot. The roots release enzymes which help the other plant thrive. Chillies and tomatoes are a good combination too,” she says. But then there are those plants that must never be grown together — onions wiith chives are a strict no-no.
While Mehta promises to help you set up, maintaining and harvesting the plants is your responsibility. “Herbs require minimal effort — just a few minutes of watering daily and a bit more attention once a week — but growing fruits and vegetables needs a lot more time and dedication,” warns Mehta, who also conducts workshops for the caretakers of the garden — whether it is the client or their gardeners — to divulge the details of maintaining a garden.
“Every plant comes with a grow guide and a succession planting calendar. Succession planting helps you get a continuous supply of the vegetable you’re growing. For instance, if you want a constant supply of tomatoes, sow a batch of tomato seeds every 25 days. This will ensure you have a good supply. The trick is to study the life cycle of a plant, how long it fruits and then plan a schedule,” says Mehta, who has managed to work out a foolproof system of her own.
Mehta decided to set up a rooftop garden because she wasn’t confident about working on and managing farmland. “Besides, I realised that there is so much real estate in the city — every society has a rooftop which isn’t used and in Pune a lot of people have gardens or balconies which aren’t really used and I figured why not encourage people to use these spaces for urban gardening,” says Mehta. “The best thing about growing your own food is that there is no transportation needed. So your veggies don’t go through the stress that they would if they were coming all the way from Gujarat,” she points out.
Maitri Mehta offers some advice for a healthy garden:
> You can grow practically anything in Mumbai. But during the winter, cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and gourds are your best bet. In the summer, regular tomatoes and spicy chillies, basil and thyme, and in the monsoon, you could grow chives, lemongrass, all roots. Remember that if you must grow green leafy veggies in the summer, put them in the shade — they cannot tolerate too much heat.
Mix 4-5 drops of neem oil in a litre of water and spray the solution on your plants once a week. This works fantastically to avoid pests and diseases. Neem oil is available at any medical store.
Remove weeds from your garden on a regular basis as they compete with your plants for nutrition. If you don’t have the time, resort to mulching — cover up the soil near your plant with paper or dried leaves, without direct sunlight, weeds will not be able to grow.
> Communicate with your plants — talk to them and spend time with them. This really helps, I’ve seen my mom’s plants flourish because she communicates with them. They’re healthier, better looking plants.