The Kitchen Gardener: ‘I spend an hour just talking to my plants’

‘There is no economics without ecology’ , says Ananya Mehta, who left her 13-year-old software engineering career to grow her food. In conversation with our kitchen gardener of the week.


Ananya Mehta had a flourishing career in Software Product Engineering for 13 years before her environmental consciousness caught up with her. Believing strongly that today’s education seems to be missing the point that economics cannot exist without ecology, Mehta conducts training and awareness workshops to get more city people to grow their food, when she is not gardening at home with her 8-year-old.

A walk inside Ananya Mehta’s garden that has every conceivable native ‘soppu’ (greens) variety, besides many vegetables and fruits:

Ananya Mehta

‘It just felt weird to buy fruits like guava, seethaphal or pomegranate’

For software professional turned city farmer Ananya Mehta, growing plants had always been part of her growing up. As we walk and talk in the Garden City Farmer’s stall at Lalbagh’s annual horticulture show, she fondly remembers her childhood days in Jamshedpur where their garden had a profusion of flowers, herbs, vegetables and fruits. As life took her places, she still continued to keep in touch with the gardener in her – growing herbs and flowers wherever she travelled. “At one time, I even grew cacti in my balcony.”

For a long time when she was out of touch with growing edibles it felt weird when she had to buy fruits like guava, seethaphal or pomegranate. “I never remember buying these fruits during my childhood.”

13 years of being in the software industry, trying to juggle career, family and passion for ecological farming, together with a growing concern towards environmental issues made her take up her gardening hobby as a career. She is now associated with Garden City Farmers which conducts workshops, trainings, awareness events and farmers markets across Bangalore city.

Final Produce from the Garden

Fresh produce from the garden.

‘I grow most of my food – from native greens to lemon grass’

In her 700 sq. ft. of growing space (500 sq. ft in the backyard and 200 sq. ft of terrace), she grows almost all the vegetables that she needs – tomato, many varieties of chillies, radish, beetroot, greens, brinjal, bhindi, even zucchini and lettuce.

Spinach

Ananya has multiple varieties of native greens growing on her terrace.

Her favourite ‘line’ of vegetables are native greens including methi, spinach (regular, malabar, ceylon varieties), purslane, amaranthus, mustard, etc. Here is a short list.. (no, it is not an extract from a biology lesson)

Malabar Spinach – Basella Alba (hindi: Poi). In Kannada: Basale
Alternanthera – Kannada: honnegonne soppu
Ceylon Spinach – Talinum Triangulare/ Fruticosum. Kannada: Nela Basale
Summer purslane/ portulaca oleracea – Kannada: Goni suppu, hindi: Kulpha bhaji
Centella Asiatica (brahmi) – ondelaga/ gotu kolla/ mandukaparni.
Punarnava – english name: Boerhavia diffusa L. (Nyctaginaceae). Kannada: Punarnava, Komme.
Oxalis/ clover. kannada: huli soppu
Amaranthus – hindi: chaulai, kannada: dantu soppu
Mountain spinach – kannada: chakotha

In the backyard, Ananya grows her plants on raised beds. On the terrace, almost anything that can hold growing media becomes a planter – containers made from recycled wood with a metal frame, and plastic crates used to carry fruits and veggies. Creepers such as mint, peppermint and oregano hang beautifully from hanging pots.

Her garden is home to guava, pomegranate, chickoo, lime and orange. Among spices, the list includes 2 varieties of ginger and turmeric, garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano and many many varieties of herbal teas – lemon balm, lemon grass, Pandanus.

Garden secrets

“I spend 45 min to 1 hour everyday, surveying and talking to my plants. I do have a help for watering the garden everyday. However, surveying and checking each and every plant is very important for me as I can act quickly if there is a pest attack or a plant that looks weak. I never user pesticides and pest removal is always through mechanical means – i.e., just remove the affected leaf or plant, and in some cases, use a water spray.”

Fruits on tree

“I spend 45 min to 1 hour everyday, surveying and talking to my plants.”

Ananya’s 8-year-old daughter loves helping her mom, especially when it comes to harvesting! She understands the value of life contained within a seed and saves seeds from all the fruits that she eats, with the hope of growing them. “I do not want to disappoint her, so I have germinated some of these seeds and given away the saplings to whoever has the space to accommodate them. Couple of Avacado trees have found a place in urban farmer Laxminarayan’s farm.”

Dealing with dirt

As with any ecosystem, urban or rural, there will be garden pests that feed on our dear plants. Ananya never tires of saying her favourite quote about insects. “Insects have been around before us and will continue to be on this earth long after we are gone. So, in our own interest, it is best to co-exist with them.” She is strongly against the use of chemical pesticides. With 90% of these insects being beneficial to us, by using chemical pesticides, we usually end up killing the good ones too. The garden has a micro climate of its own and we need to allow an eco system to develop on its own, slowly and naturally. Nature has a way of balancing everything – it brings in lovely butterflies, bugs and other predators that keep our gardens alive. “Caterpillers love citrus and curry leaves. As long as they leave my fruits alone, I let them be.”

Produce on tree.

Produce on tree. Fresh and ready to be used.

The next challenge is understanding soil. We usually neglect this important part of the ecosystem that lies buried under, but ask anyone who has dirtied their hands and they first talk about soil. “Ask around, experiment and take good care of your soil.”

The last of the challenges is knowing and understanding sun light patterns, especially relevant in urban spaces. Almost all plants need good sunlight, so it is important to plan your garden around the availability of sunlight.

Essential advice to amateur gardeners

1. The first and foremost is recognising the importance of growing food in a natural, organic way. “You will notice the difference in the taste and nutrition value.”

2. Start small. Take baby steps. Even 2 or 3 pots with tomatoes and chillies is fine for a start. “I did not add all my pots in one day. I got them one by one as I got comfortable and confident.” In the beginning, losing plants can be demotivating and having too many plants can be overwhelming. So, start with common plants such as tomato, chillies, palak, methi, etc. Greens are great because they are easy to grow and we get to eat them within 30 days of planting. With succession planting, we can be guaranteed of greens on our plate almost everyday.

3. Be prepared for failures. “We are dealing with living organisms here.” Gardening is not magic, but we do not have to give up because a few plants die.

4. Pay attention to soil. “Healthy soil leads to healthy plants.” It is worth researching about taking care of your soil and growing media.

5. Read “The One Straw Revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoaka to understand Natural Farming methods. Also, Sir Albert Howard’s book The Soil and Health – A study of Organic Agriculture.  

Ananya Mehta lives with her husband and 8-year old daughter, in a home with a kitchen and terrace garden, near Sarjapur road.

The Kitchen Gardener is a fortnightly series on urban farmers who grow fresh produce in their backyards leading to growing people, community and a more sustainable earth. From journeys of starting to challenges along the way and practical wisdom, the kitchen gardening series helps you kickstart your own food patch wherever you live.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lavanya Keshavamurthy is a freelancer. When she is not wandering and is at base camp in Bengaluru, she spends most of her time in her small, urban garden and wonders at the amount of unlearning to be done in the world we live in. She aspires to be a farmer one day. more

   FOLLOW US

   SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
  Top Stories on TA






  Top Stories in SOCIETY






   Get stories like this in your inbox

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lavanya Keshavamurthy is a freelancer. When she is not wandering and is at base camp in Bengaluru, she spends most of her time in her small, urban garden and wonders at the amount of unlearning to be done in the world we live in. She aspires to be a farmer one day. more

Discuss this article on Facebook

  • Sudha Balachandran

    Hi Ananya! That’s great stuff that you are doing and inspiring fellow ‘urbaners’ to follow in your illustrious footsteps!

    • Ananya Mehta

      Thank you Sudha 🙂 Growing your own food is a very fulfilling hobby and working with soil, and in the garden is often very therapeutic. Very happy to note that you want to start as well! All the best.. and happy gardening! – Ananya