Terrace Gardening: Growing Vegetables in Containers

Growing vegetables under the guidance of Dr. Vishwanath

Terrace gardening is as old as the days of Babylon, but today it has a new meaning in India. Dr. Vishwanath, has pioneered organic terrace gardening in Bangalore by providing training to residents in their own locality and supplying the needed inputs like seeds, manure, plant protection materials, implements, containers etc. People in Bangalore are now growing vegetables in containers and benefiting from organic produce treated with natural pesticides and insecticides.

Container gardening is increasing in this city, and more and more people, thanks to Dr. Vishwanath, are growing vegetables in containers and growing vegetables in raised beds.

We asked Dr. Vishwanath a couple of questions about his work in Bangalore and his encouragement for people to grow organic vegetables on their balconies and rooftops. These were his answers:

1) Dr. Vishwanath, you have been attributed to have pioneered the concept of organic terrace gardening in Bangalore. What exactly is organic terrace gardening and what are the benefits of such cultivation?

Before answering, "What exactly is organic terrace gardening?"(OTG), I have to first clarify a question. "Why terrace gardens?"

Bangalore, it's new name is now Bengaluru, was once called the "Garden City", where every household used to have either an ornamental garden or a kitchen garden. Then it was also called the "Air-conditioned City". But it started losing both names as people started building on the entire area allotted instead of leaving space for gardens.

Then they started cutting trees for roads buildings and so on. The result? An increase in temperature. That’s the price we paid for development. Due to development we started losing agricultural lands, not only in Bengaluru, but also in peri-urban areas which increased food mileage for vegetables to reach Bengaluru. The result? Increased prices.

That's when I thought that we must do something about it. With the pressure building on land and its cost in the urban areas, there is hardly any space to have a garden. So if one wants to grow vegetables domestically the only alternative was the terrace which provides the ideal space. And the open terrace was getting heated up adding to the temperature increase in Bengaluru and also adding to global warming.

So in 1994-95 it was planned, with the help of my staff at KADUR AGRO, that we start growing vegetables on the concrete pathways, which finally led me to conduct workshops. As I was in the organic movement it was termed organic terrace gardening where there is no use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and we use only open-pollinated seeds. The compost and worm-compost is to be done on the terrace itself.

growing tomatoes on a roof top terrace

Now the benefits of organic terrace gardening. When you grow your own vegetables on a terrace it not only gives some space back to agriculture, but it also helps the grower to get chemical-free fresh vegetables. This will not only save money, but also time and energy spent on several trips to the vegetable market on polluted roads. Then it cools the house, it is also good exercise while tending and watering plants. Micro-climates will change as there is an increased production of oxygen and a reduction of carbon dioxide etc. Above all, the biggest gain would be eating healthy, chemical-free vegetables.

a roof-top organic terrace garden in India

2) On average, what would be the set-up costs for such a system for a family of 4 to be sustainable in vegetables all year around? What exactly would you need to start your terrace garden?

The set-up costs of terrace gardening depend on whether you want to start step-by-step or all at once. If you want to start all at once it will plus or minus Rs.20,000/- (just over USD 410.00) which is an investment on pots, growing medium and seeds (one time investment. Where one can harvest at least 4-6 different types of vegetables throughout the year. (But we must consider the other benefits which I have mentioned previously). Once you plan the arrangement of pots, the rest is easy to grow and harvest.

Now we have come out with another alternative that is growing in boxes, using only compost, wormi-compost and coir pith. It reduces the weight. This is sort of square-foot gardening taken to the roof tops.

Coming to the second part of your question...It's the interest of the individual if he believes in the concept of healthy living, then rest is easy. If you believe in a concept you will do anything to achieve it. That's the philosophy. However, the basic need is a good roof which is waterproofed,pots/boxes, growing medium, minimum water, seed material, and little interest.

3) How do the majority of people water their terrace gardens? Do you encourage them to save rain water in barrels from roof tops or do they use water from the mains?

The majority of the people use potable water supplied by the department. However, we highlight the importance of potable water and ask them not to waste potable water and also explain to them the simple methods of rain water harvesting. And the concept is sinking in. The government is also insisting on rain water harvesting to be implemented in all new buildings.

4) In your book, "A handbook of Organic Terrace Gardening" you mention that you can even grow melons on a terrace. I have always known melons to take up quite a lot of space when they are grown. So just how much space do you need to feed a family of 4 from a terrace garden?

growing lemons on a roof-top terrace

A terrace of 25-35 feet will provide enough and more for a family of 4 people. Regarding melons, yes it takes more space in fields, but on terraces we have to train and confine them to one area. If planned properly, one can even grow fruit crops. This is what I call "Macro Bonsai". There is a lady by name of Sowbagya who has grown mangoes, pomegranates, sapotas and guavas on her terrace.

5) What are the limitations to growing vegetables on terraces and balconies?

Coming to limitations, it's really difficult to even think about limitations. That is, if your roof is weak or leaking, one can't use your terrace for terrace gardening or anything. The other major limitation I can think of is if the roof is surrounded by tall buildings and not allowing sun rays to fall on the roof, one can't grow vegetables. But still, one can grow commercial crops like anthuriums, orchids, vanilla as cash crops if its fully shaded or under a shade net.

6) How successful have you been in getting people to change their habits? Are many families in Bangalore adopting this method of growing vegetables?

As I mentioned earlier it's the interest of the individual. Even though the workshops have been conducted since 1994-95, the number of people who adopted terrace gardening was less than 2 or 3 for every 1000 trained. However over the last 1-2 years, abruptly the interest has increased and we see more than 2 for every 20 people trained. Now there are more than 50 terrace gardeners in Bangalore and their breed is increasing.

7) Do you have any special recipes for getting rid of insects using organic sprays?

A good question. Pest management starts from the planning stage itself as it is advised to grow chrysanthemums and marigold to protect them from pests. Organic cultivation itself gives some resistance to pest attack. However there are organic sprays which individuals can formulate and sprayed on to plants to protect them from pest attacks, that is, by using a Neem/tobacco/onion–garlic-chilli concoction.

We thank Dr. Vishwanath very much for taking the time to tell us about this concept. We hope that what you have just read will inspire those of you who live in flats and have terraces to think about terrace gardening and growing vegetables in containers.

There is a National Seminar for Organic Terrace Gardening for those of you who are interested taking place in Bangalore, India in September, 2010. Details can be found here:

National Seminar for Organic Terrace Gardening

You can read more about Dr. Vishwanath in two newspaper articles that were sent to me courtesy of Dr. Vishwanath. The Hindu Newspaper
DNA India Newspaper

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