As per the Tamil calender this is Agni masam, the hottest of all the months in the year. Plus, seasons in Chennai are hot, hotter and hottest!! The days are longer, the sun is beating down on us, clear blue skies with no sign of clouds or a drop of rain. The point is, its just getting really really hot week by week. When I started writing for the blog, it was very hot, and somewhere in the middle (read, dragging the blog entry), clouds gathered and it rained until the heat escaped from the ground and remained cloudy and very humid. I admire the stamina and adapability of the cricket players in the IPL match in Chepauk - from the 1st over onwards, they were drenched and soaked in sweat due to the humidity, though it has been good time for the plants. In a few days, it will be back to being sunny and hot.
On the Tuesdays and Thursdays we work in the garden (Saturdays too, for watering), under the cool shade of the neem trees, the temperature somehow seems few degrees lower. We continue to work around in the garden, chatting, sharing, planning and coming up with ideas, not feeling the heat until the sun comes up all the way from the other side of the building and is right above our heads or when we step out from under the shade to work on other not-so-sheltered areas. And, the heat hits us suddenly as soon as we leave from CI. The kids who come to work with us complain of heat only when they are not doing anything. Never heard Nidhi complain though, she just seems to have a wonderful time everytime she comes with Anita. Speaking for all those volunteers who come every week, each of us looks forward to working in the garden. Priya is grounded due to a viral fever and she is complaining of serious withdrawal from her gardens. Hope she is better this week and back in action soon!
Until I was studying in college, summer was my favourite season. Summer meant fun, friends, holidays, timelessness, outdoors, mangoes, extended family, water, playing in my village..oh! the list goes on! Yes, I made time for all that in college too! Heat was the last thing on my mind. From the last few years (note: from when I started working), summer equates heat, others slowly fading away, except when we were in Gibraltar for a few years. I continued to say it was the best season and when it started sounding hollow to me, I stopped. I realised that summer was fun because of all the elements that made it enjoyable. Sadly, once I grew in age and with the continual life changes, all that remained of summer was the heat. This summer is my first after coming out from corporate life, and not a big surprise, that I have rediscovered my love for summer months. Everyday brings in new and interesting things to do and people.
We were concerned that saplings will wilt and wither in this month and planned to not sow any seeds until end of May or early June, but the temptation was too much..we gave in and planted some gourds, bhindi, flower seeds and some saplings of Solenostemon (coleus), adeniums, pavazha malli (Nyctanthes arbortristis or night flowering jasmine), sweet potato, pasalai keerai (Indian spinach). And, seeds sprouted from the compost in the beds - gourds from Anita's, yam from the CI kitchen waste and water melon too.
Last Thursday, Priya was showing signs of a fever and wanted to rest after (read: lots of) lifting, bending and moving about. Archana and I joined her and relaxed under the trees, watching the garden, the foliage in the beds and talking about the changes. And then, there were these two birds hopping about, chasing worms or flies, moving from one bed to another, ducking under the plants and absotuley at home.They were such a sight! we saw some ravens drinking from the water bath - they flew away as we entered the garden. A beautiful ecosystem has developed here!
On Tuesday, the usual click was not there...all seemed to be tied up with something - Archana put up a 'do not disturb' sign as her son arrived home for vacation, Priya was still out with fever, Kavita was out of town and Anita usually comes on Saturdays and either Tue/ Thur. I was in the garden, on my own, checking if the plants were watered and generally wandering about. The littering has reduced, else, the first thing we have to do is go around with a garbage bag to remove the litter. The fence was 90% completed and coming up at a good pace. The garden now looks smaller, contained. I sat by each bed and couldn't help reflecting on how we started it, what we added, the plants growing in it and feeling the garden. Though I missed everyone, I did have a very peaceful, alone time in the garden.
I had to come back to CI later in the day, and this time Dr. Vidhubala was also in the same campus, so I showed her the garden. She was very excited and happy to see the beds, the plants, smell the beautiful soil in the beds, bird bath in front of the play area, the fence and overall transformation of an empty, weed-filled patch of land to a thriving garden. Her words and reactions were very encouraging and rewarding.
Its my birthday today. I enjoy my birthdays like a child..now, I dont throw parties or have gala events, but just that the day makes me feel warm and fuzzy, like eating cotton candy.. so is the gift of another year in this journey of life. Take in the warm wishes from friends old and new, sit back and introspect on what has been and you know, everything on this day feels very special. Today has been a gift too - awesome Thursday in the CI garden with the young volunteers, buzzing with energy and enthusiasm in the Chennai heat. Kavitha is away for a few days with her family and Archana couldnt join us.
Little Mahima, who has been coming regularly for the last couple of weeks, came as usual, with her cousins Vinisha and Keerthi, who are on vacation in Chennai. Vinisha's mother joined us for a day. She was very helpful, seemd to know and appreciate what was being done and immediately connected with us. Karan came to CI for the first time with Priya. The kids worked very hard - they watered the beds, planted some gourds along the small pandal, okra in the coconut trunk bed, keerai seeds which we harvested from the nursery and yams in the key-hole bed. They also worked on the beds near the entrance and helped us make another circular flower bed. Mahima, Karan and I made small paper cones, filled them upto 3/4 level with compost from Archana's, put one okra seed in each cone and then pushed the cone into the soil. Vinisha and Keerthi sowed yams (colocasia/ arbi) in the key hole bed. The girls were very thrilled when Priya showed them how to harvest seeds from the keerai growing in the nursery; we used the same and some more in the keerai bed.
The new bed is a circle, lined with cement bricks under the critical eyes of these young geometric minds, adjusting a brick here, and brick there, to form a proper circle to their satisfaction (!!) Priya brought peels and left over bits from a kirni (a local musk melon kind of fruit) juice cart just outside the hospital. Then we all collected dry leaves from the grounds, filled the bed with lots of mulch and compost from Archana's home and finally, watered thorougly.
Creating a flower bed - Mulching
the flower bed is ready!
Last week, Mahima and gang came walking to the CI garden with bags of dry leaves and a bag of flowers from a tree near their apartment. We were touched by their interest and committment! They are involved with joy in everything that is happening in the garden - digging, destoning, collecting mulch, watering, planting, composting and anything else that we ask them to do. When we asked them how they felt about coming to the garden, Mahima said that she enjoys her time here and looks forward to it. When her mother first informed her about the gardening work, she assumed it would be like someone 'planting some here and there' and maybe boring, but when she came here and saw that the aunties are doing lots more than just planting, she became very interested. She says she started coming here out of her own volition and not because amma asked me to go. She says that she is learning a lot about plants and nature, enjoys working here, and spending her summer vacation in a meaningful way. She says that it makes her feel good that what we are growing will be, one day, food for someone in the hospital. A close friend once said the kids pour life into us! We are amazed that she has such a humane vision to her work here. Vinisha and Keerthi felt that this is a good learning and enjoy coming here. The girls are slowly becoming advocates of natural farming.. they now use words like 'bio-mass', understand if soil is ready in the beds and are very keenly checking progress in the compost pit.
planting some seeds
Towards the end of today's session, I found a large glass container in the trash. Priya and I inspected it, and decided to place in the newly created flower bed as a bird bath. We also put it there so that no one takes it away. Slowly, more elements are coming into this ecosystem.
Parthenium was growing all over the grounds, among other weeds, so we took the help of volunteers from NSS, Anna University to do a thorough weeding and cleaning sessions a few weeks ago. (Parthenium is a poisonous, pernicious, problematic, allergic and aggressive weed posing a serious threat to human beings and livestock. This weed has been considered as one of the greatest source of dermatitis, asthama, nasal-dermal and naso-bronchial types of diseases. Besides these ill effects, it also causes several other problems like blockage of common pathways and orchards and reduces the aesthetic values of parks, gardens and residential colonies) Weeds were all piled in a spot away from all beds and in direct sun, and this was out of our radar. Last week, we noticed a new bed that came to be on its own, had good soil and there were keerai and watermelon saplings growing in it.
Priya spoke to volunteers who were engaging the kids in the playroom and requested them for posters about how they felt about the evolving garden. We are looking forward to some creative posters made to order by the kids!
Together, with these young volunteers, we could achieve so much.. overall, a very fulfilling day!
Building this bed brought such joy and squeals from all of us working in it! Kavita had her eyes on a water tap attached on the wall of the Pediatric Ward, to plant colocasia or such water loving plants near the tap so that the plants are watered each time someone uses it. This tap was fixed in late Feb this year, after we started work on the garden, so that it is convenient for us to water the plants (thanks to Mr. Manohar from Mahesh Memorial Trust). Parents of the hospitalised kids started using this tap to wash up after eating or wash clothes. We found that the water just collects around the tap and forms a slushy patch. As per our fencing plan and design, the tap will be outside of the fence. On the day we were making the bed (I think it was 28th March), many ideas were flowing on how to change the direction of the water, the shape and size of the bed and such. We started with just the aim in mind that we’ll have to bring the water in and build a bed around it. Kavita, Priya and I took turns to dig the water path and finally a key hole bed took shape. We added a thick layer of mulch and watered it, then compost from Anita's place and sprinkled panchakavyam generously to accelerate the decomposition.
Started by planting sweet potato cuttings from Orur Kuppam, another community gardening site where Priya volunteers with street kids. Later, we sprinkled moong beans, planted potulaca, some flowering plants, and such. The bed looks beautiful and rich!
We found herbs like a wild variety of Tulsi, wild brinjal/ kandan katri growing wildly in quite a few places, surviving among the weeds. Kavitha took home a few of the small wild brinjals to cook, and she says they were different and quite bitter! In one such area, we created an enclosure that included a lot of herbs. Once we finished, it looked like a small mango..a wiggly one. We lined this bed with coconut shells and spread a thin layer of sugarcane bagasse and watered it every day. In the next few visits, we added mulch and just allowed the herbs to grow. We planted aloe and karpura valli, that were donated.
The wild herb patch is flourishing - the herbs are growing, bright and green!
- Shakuntala Devulapally
One Saturday, with the help of NSS volunteers, we started work on a large bed. We used 4 coconut trunks in the hospital premises as the border for the bed. So, we call it the Coconut Trunk Bed . As the ground was very hard and full of debris, we decided to dig this area and then layer with bio-mass and mulch. For bio-mass, we used sugarcane bagasse / banana leaves and stem. Mulch was from the grounds and also brought in by the volunteers. The bed area was roughly demarcated into 5 sections. We dug 8 – 10 inches deep insection 1 while setting aside top soil outside the bed area. The trench was then filled with bio-mass, then the top soil from section 2 and finally lot of mulch. Similarly, the top soil of section 3 was used for section 2 and top soil of section 5 used for section 4. For section 5, we used the top soil of section 1. We put a lot of mulch on top of the bed and watered it every day.
The bed was prepared over 2 Saturdays in 2 – 3 hr sessions with the help of the NSS volunteers. On the first Saturday the group of 15 boys and girls were involved in the heavy work of digging and moving the trunks, weeding, clearing litter and collecting mulch. They made the 4 benches under the neem trees with cement bricks and Kadappa stone slabs. After refreshments, we sat down in a large circle, a round of introductions followed and then we explained the meaning and purpose behind what they did and tried to give them the larger picture. Fortunately, the next Saturday, we had a few volunteers from this group (about 25 turned up). So, they were quite happy to explain the beds and mulching and clarify some doubts of their peers. We divided them into 4 groups to complete the work on the coconut trunk bed, to put together 2 trellises/ pandals (check the entry on Trellis), to weed, remove stones and collect mulch and the last group was asked to make signs/ placards (check the entry on Signage).
Each subsequent visit, we added more kitchen waste, mulch, Panchakavyam, a layer of soil. Sometimes, we add only kitchen waste and mulch. When the soil in bed was soft and ready, we planted a few saplings from the nursery and some that were given by volunteers. We planted water melon, marigold, pumpkin and some greens (manathakkali). That area of the bed was covered with coconut leaves, so that the young saplings have some to shelter from the harsh sun. The garden receives the west Sun, if I have not mentioned earlier. And, also to protect them from the deer. So far, we have not had any visits from the packs, but we are being sufficiently, regularly warned about them!
NSS volunteers and parents of patients moving the coconut trunks
Digging the hard ground in the remaining sections of the bed
Kitchen waste layer in the coconut trunk bed
Kavita spreading more mulch on the coconut trunk bed.
Some watermelon, marigold, greens and pumpkin saplings
- Shakuntala Devulapally
All the material we are using to build this garden is coming from the grounds of the hospital and volunteers bringing them. We are using the waste from the Kitchen/ Canteen (they cook meals for inpatients and the hospital staff who eat here), leaf mulch from the trees and bio-mass that volunteers bring in from their homes/ neighbourhoods and from in and around the hospital, other materials from the hospital grounds and strewn around as waste and not needed. There is a lady who sells coconut water from a cart along the footpath outside the hospital gate. We requested her to give us the used green coconuts for the garden inside. She agreed to give, but wanted us to have someone pick them up from her cart. We arranged for pick-ups twice a day. As a few days passed, we noticed that she was bringing in the coconuts in the sacks. Curiosity brought her in and interest in the progress is bringing her every other day! This is what we want and more.
Benches made using locally available waste stones and slabs
Currently, volunteers from reStore are working on the garden in CI on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We also work on Saturdays when NSS volunteers come and other days if needed. Veerasamy, the gardener in CI lends us some tools, collects bio-mass, shares ideas and helps us in watering the beds.
This sign made by the young patients says 'Gardening in Progress: Nature's Way'
After refreshments one work day, we all grouped together and shared our thoughts and feelings about the the work they have done. I would like to mention two observations here. The playroom of the Pediatric Ward has huge windows opening to the garden side. While the volunteers were working, the young cancer patients were keenly observing the activities and very extremely curious about what’s happening. Most of them are not allowed to be in unsterile, unprotected environments due to their low blood counts as a preventive measure against any infections. They kept calling out to the volunteers towards one open window, bombarding them with questions and their requests for the trees or plants they wanted. Initially, the volunteers seemed flustered and soon the kids enveloped their hearts. The volunteers could not tear themselves away from these excited kids! That was some scene to watch! Very heart- warming! Another thing that happened on that day was these NSS volunteers became so engrossed in the work that they were not leaving back to their campus. It was getting close to lunch time and these kids have to be in their campus Mess on time else, they will miss lunch. It also happened that other volunteers from reStore could not come and I was working with this energetic group going in all directions. I had to physically pull them away from what they were doing, tell them that they can come again as there is so much to do. Some of them shared how they felt seeing the beds, the trellises coming together from waste bamboo and most of all, the excitement and anticipation of the kids in the playroom.
NSS volunteers enjoying watermelon after work
A few months ago, I met Dr.Vidubala (a senior psycho-oncologist at The Cancer Institute) at reStore, when she was shopping for vegetable seeds and kanji mix. When she knew about our recently launched initiative ‘reStore Gardens’ she took me aside and said ‘We have plenty of land in our campus. Can you help us raise a vegetable garden there?’ We thought what better place to start an organic garden than the cancer hospital itself! Anita and I planned a visit right away.
The Cancer Institute has two campuses, one in Guindy near IIT, the other in Gandhi Nagar right by the canal. The CI provides free cancer treatment for the poor. Families of cancer patients travel from distant rural and urban areas and spend a few months at a stretch for the duration of the treatment. They spend almost all their time inside the buildings in the wards. The Gandhi Nagar campus with the paediatric ward is an especially heart-wrenching place with infants and toddlers sitting and lying down exhausted from all that treatment. The CI has been consistently working on getting facilities like a montessori play room, an art studio, a library, etc. within the building for children to explore their creativities. But the children almost never stepped outdoors for it was unclean and unsafe, the land being full of glass bottles, wild weeds and grasses. If we could make a safe and beautiful garden right here, then the kids and parents would be able to step out and feel some fresh air and get some respite from their trauma.
During our first visit and meeting with a group of doctors and CI volunteers, we were being approached as landscaping consultants who would give them a blueprint and budget, to get a conventional-style organic garden (with lined-up pots filled with red soil and compost) up over a few days. We insisted on a workshop where our rather different approach to gardening would be explained.
Very soon, we organised a two-hour workshop with a few doctors, staff, Mr.Manohar (representative of Mahesh Memorial Trust), the chief gardener Veerasamy, volunteers from both CI and rG. We talked about forests and permaculture principles. The staff and doctors shared with us their list of needs and constraints. We talked about raised beds, mulching, crop-diversity and soil-building. We talked about earthworms, insects, birds and frogs. We talked about working with life at its own place. Everyone was visibly excited about this radically new approach to gardening. The gardener Veerasamy was especially very forthcoming, sharing his experiences as a farmer and agreeing to work with us on our new approach.
We spent an exciting one hour walking around the buildings pooling in all our ideas to design the place based on permaculture princples. Where there were garbage piles, we imagined stone benches and raised beds. Where there were wild grasses, we imagined a beautiful flower garden for the children. We talked about co-created and emergent plans, instead of a blueprint. From this point on, Kavitha Ramakrishnan took over as the main person coordinating this project.
After five months of Kavitha’s several visits to meet with the doctors, administrative staff and the CI director, we finally had everyone on board to raise a community garden nature’s way. From their initial idea that we were landscaping experts who would tell them what exactly to do for a fee, we all soon became friends exploring, wondering, planning, working and learning together. Our gardening vocabulary changed radically!
During our first visit to the CI, we met Shakuntala who was a volunteer there. Over the last few months, she has turned into a curious and passionate gardener herself and has enthusiastically joined the rG team! When she learnt about soil building and the role of mulching, she started telling us about her sleepless nights over the huge piles of leaf litter along roadsides and about how the municipal corporation was “stealing” them! And we knew her life had changed forever!
Shakuntala planting colocasia in a planter
Priya Gopalen and Archana Bhargava, who volunteer regularly at CI, experimenting the coconut-shell bed inspired by Green Souls
We started working at the CI garden about a month ago. Our volunteers go there three times a week. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings 9.30 to 11.30 am. On some Saturdays, NSS students from Anna University come to work with us.
Anna University students carrying a long coconut trunk to create a raised bed
Students use locally available slabs and stones to make four beautiful benches for people to sit on
On the second day of the conference, about 24 of us visited three farms in Auroville: Bernard and Deepika's Pebble Garden, Krishna McKenzie's Solitude Farm, Baburam's Matrikunj.
We were welcomed by Bernard and Deepika (B&D), the owners of the farm. Our group gathered under a beautiful gazebo with a natural thatched roof supported by pillars made of tree trunks.
Bernard started with the history of the local area: It was once a forest with a myriad species of plants, trees and animals. The city of Pondicherry was built by the French with wood – teak, rosewood etc. - from the local forests. In three wars with the British and the subsequent rebuilding using forest resources, much of the native forest cover was destroyed. As Bernard explained, the dry-wet climate of Tamil Nadu, has a long dry period followed by intense rain. In such climate, a denuded landscape is left parched during the long summer, setting the stage for quick erosion of the top soil during the rains. Even a small trench in the soil turns into a ravine after the rains have done their work. Bernard displayed a photograph of the area taken in 1984 (Bernard and Deepika moved into the farm in 1994) and it evoked a movie set by the famous Tamil Director Bharathi Raja where the lands were bare and not a blade of grass to be seen.
B&D started their farm with the principles that they would use no external inputs and no external labour. Ethically they were opposed to the idea of diminishing one place to improve another. This meant that they were faced with a seemingly insurmountable task: To build a farm on pebbles (hence the name of the farm). They needed large quantities of biomass. B&D first sought unsuccessfully to find locally available hardy trees to grow in these harsh conditions but then eventually settled on a species which Bernard described as “controversial”: the Australian Acacia. The Australian Acacia has several properties that suited the task at hand: once it sprouts, its roots will go into toughest of land to find water; it grows fast and produces copious leaves and wood. But what if it spread everywhere? This doesn’t happen because after some green cover is established, the Acacia, which needs full sunlight to sprout, will stop sprouting. So the Acacia was used as a pioneer plant.
All soil in the tropics is built by termites. Termites start chewing/eating the dead leaves, twigs, logs, either cut down manually or fallen from the tree. Termites bring out soil matter deep inside the earth and build mounds on dead and decaying matter. In the rainy season, the soil built by the termites was washed out to little ponds on their property. They started to prepare the soil for raised beds with the following recipe.
- dry leaves from the farm (mostly Acacia), soaked in water for 12 hours prior to bed preparation
- charcoal (obtained by burning Acacia branches), charged with human urine
- silt (termite soil) from the ponds
A layer with of soaked leaves is laid on which a thin layer of pond silt is sprinkled. This dual layering is repeated 3 times and then a thin layer of the charged charcoal is added. The layering process is repeated to finally have 12 layers of leaves, 12 of soil and 3 of charcoal. Now the seed are placed (sowed), and covered with a thin layer of silt. Deepika prefers to follow the Prayog Parivar (Dhabholkar) methodology and sows first a diverse variety of seeds like mustard, sorghum, corn, peanuts, sunflower etc. When these plants grow to a foot (or close to 1 month), they are chopped off above the roots and mixed in with the composted layers. At this point the bed is ready for the final sowing.
B&D focus exclusively on seed preservation. Their vegetable patch extends over 1/2 acre and contains mind boggling varieties of okra (multi-color okra, cow-horn okra, elephant-tusk okra, to name a few), brinjals, maize, chilli, peppers, basil, gourds and other vegetables. B&D have saved over 90 varieties of open pollinated seeds. So devoted are they to the cause of saving seeds, they do not consume any of their own vegetables!
Aggressive marketing of hybridized seeds by corporations has severely impacted the usage of open pollinated indigenous varieties of seeds and left gardeners and farmers at the mercy of corporations -– Deepika explained. This was a moment of enlightenment for me and I vowed to use open pollinated varieties only in my garden. Deepika mentioned the possibility of sending seed packets to reStore in Chennai for the city gardeners to access.
The Solitude Farm
By the time we completed the Pebble Garden visit we were ready for lunch at the Solitude farm run by Krishna. On arrival, we went straight to the farm’s restaurant. The sumptuous lunch consisted of red rice, sambar, papaya salad and cucumbers, all grown locally on the farm.
Lunch was followed by a guided tour of his farm by Krishna McKensie, who is originally from the UK, now settled in India and with fluent Tamil. Krishna follows Permaculture/Natural Farming principles and conducts regular workshops on farming.
We walked amidst vegetable patches filled with huge okras, giant sized winged beans, loads of bananas, cow pea, salad greens, tomatoes etc. Krishna explained how intercropping works and showed us how tomato and basil planted together afford protection from pests. Krishna also showed us areas of the farm where the crops were not doing well due to shortage of water. For paddy cultivation, Krishna uses a no-till method which employs green manure crops. Before the paddy season starts Krishna sows the green manure crops like cow pea, sorghum etc. and leaves it to grow for 1-2 months. He then broadcasts rice on top of the standing cover crop and then waters the field well. After this he chops the cover plants just above the ground and rolls the cover forward as if rolling a carpet. After all the cover has been cut in this manner, the “carpet” is rolled back. In the process the rice is also trampled into the wet soil. The seeds sprout under the green manure residue which gives protection to the seeds from birds. This green manure decomposes over time and becomes part of the soil providing the paddy crop with nutrients and also adding organic matter to the soil.
Baburam’s Farm (Matri Kunj)
Baburam hails from Orrisa and came to this 40 acre farm in 2000. Baburam was instrumental in converting the farm, originally steeped in pesticides, to organic ways over the years. It was a great to see that his perseverance and persistence has paid off over the long term as the farm is now completely organic. After his arrival at the farm Baburam put a stop to insecticide and pesticide use and mulched the entire coconut grove with coconut husks obtained freely from a coconut vendor. To enhance soil fertility in the grove he treated it with amrit jal, once in two weeks initially and with lesser frequency over the years. People who doubted Baburam’ s organic approach started seeing the results with their own eyes as yields from the coconut grove improved and inputs went down.
During the guided tour of the farm we saw rows of pineapple plants in the borders. Baburam explained that this was done to stop the porcupines that otherwise eat all the root vegetables. This reminded me of a Tamil saying “Mulla mulladhan edukkanum” meaning a thorn inside the body has to be taken out by another thorn. Among the usual vegetables like radish, rocket, tomatoes etc., we spotted a rare thing: a cinnamon tree. A few of us collected saplings that we found below this tree. Baburam grows a lot of herbal plants, like the “mouth freshener” plant: chew its leaves and suddenly a burst of freshness spreads in your mouth. We also saw a perennial coriander. Baburam showed us many more herbs and plants and talked about their medicinal and other properties.
As the last demo of the day, Baburam showed us an all-wood human driven rice pounder built in the farm workshop using local wood. We finished the tour with some hot and heavenly lemon grass tea.
The 3rd National conference was held in Chennai from 25th - 27th January 2013. The events on the 25th and the 27th were held in Chennai and 25 participants went to Auroville on the 26th for a farm visit. The previous two national conferences focused on growing food in urban areas by individuals. In this year's conference, we included a focus on urban gardening for a community. This, we believe, will bring about a greater change, to create a momentum that would make urban living more personal and sustainable. One of the initiatives in many cities around the world is having community gardens which not only grow their own food but also build communities. Additionally, growing our own food makes us sensitive to our ecology, biodiversity and the control of our seeds.
Day 1: January 25th
While there are many community gardens around the world, this movement is just budding in India. Welcoming participants from over 10 states across India, Sangeetha Sriram of reStore Gardens from Chennai briefed the participants on “Understanding community gardening in the Indian context”.
After a quick ice-breaker where participants got introduced to each other, a panel of individuals working with children shared their experiences in a session titled “Green thumbs: Children and gardening.” Ritu Mathur from Delhi talked about her work with a children shelter in Delhi. She also briefly described the Amrit Jal and Amrit mitti techniques. Usha from Thanal, Trivandrum shared the work that her organization has been doing with children for some years now. Many of their initiatives have been adopted by Kerala Government. Priya Gopalen from Chennai talked about her pleasurable experience of bringing together the heady mix of children with nature. Children from Kids Central, a school in Chennai presented their triumphs, failures and the lessons learnt as they began to engage in gardening at their school. Dr. Rajesh from Bangalore also shared his journey with composting and waste management in their family-run school. Before breaking for lunch participants visited the edible patch in Pudiyador's after school center in Urur Kuppam, near the venue ,to get a first hand view of the work that children there were doing to grow a garden over the last 2 months. These initiatives in cities across India suggest and reinforce that it is joyful and rewarding to work with children in raising edible gardens.
After lunch, participants went to Mrs. Lalitha's residence in Kottivakam. She and her family have shared their front yard with reStore Gardens to create a community garden. reStore Gardens' volunteers talked about their learning experience and the journey in the garden and invited suggestions and ideas that can be implemented. Lively demo sessions followed. These included mushroom cultivation by Shekar of Good Governance Guards, Kombucha cultivation by Adithya Mathai who made the afternoon come alive with his sense of humour and finally Bee Keeping workshop by Vasanth Kumar. It would be fair to say that this day ended with a buzz.
Day 2: January 26th Auroville Farm visit
Day 3: January 27th
The 25 participants who went to Auroville were filled with awe and wanted to share their experience with everyone. Ritu and Anupama spoke a few words on their trip and their feelings. As Ritu said, “The trip made us see that we have to live more sustainably, that is our only way forward”. And the sessions for this day were precisely set for this.
The first session that morning titled 'Best Practices in Urban Gardening' was led by Martin Scherfler from Auroville and Priya Gopalen from Chennai. They shared several ideas from across the world on urban gardening. This was followed by a sharing session titled 'Urban Gardening experiences from around India' where participants from different states talked about their work. Dr. Vishwanath and Laxminarayan from Bangalore, Maheshwar Khillar from Bhubaneshwar, Jignasha from Vadodara, Edwin Raja from Madurai, Amanjot Kaur from Punjab, and Poornima from Delhi presented their work. This session made visible the passion in their work and their love of life and work, and we all walked away with lot of ideas and enthusiasm to carry on our work.
After a very tasty and nutritious lunch, the afternoon session focused on discussing difficult questions that emerge in an urban setting such as can we turn waste into a resource in an urban space? It was answered by 4 speakers. Mr T.K.Ramkumar from Exnora talked about bringing down our bulk in our dustbins by the use of composting. Mr. Lucas Dengel, Auroville made it clear that the present day way of depleting our land and polluting our water will not take us far. We need to consider recycling human waste and enriching our soil. The concept of Ecosan Toilets was explained by Mr.Subburaman from Scope (Tiruchy). He showed how composting can be done in a simple and hygienic manner rather than our current practice of flushing with so much fresh water.
And finally, Mr.Indukant Ragade talked about the proper use of grey water. This was pertinent given that water is a finite and dwindling resource.
Can urban gardening be made into a livelihood? This question was discussed in the final session by participants in 3 groups facilitated by Mr.Ramasubramaniam, Samanvaya, Consultant on rural livelihoods, Govt. of Tamil Nadu. As the closing of the conference neared, participants were in a reflective mood discussing ways to take the urban gardening movement forward. The conference ended with participants looking forward to the next conference, to be held in Gurgaon, Delhi.
Stay tuned for more pictures!