Growing fresh, healthy vegetables, fruit and herbs in an urban environment, even if you don’t have an actual garden, is a fantastic and enjoyable undertaking. In this, all of the family can be actively involved and furthermore, prior experience is not a necessary ingredient! (Part-I).
In this, the first article in a series of six, I intend to explain the absolute basics of how to go about growing your own food in whatever limited space you have available. I will detail how to do this without the use of the harmful chemicals and pesticides generally sprayed/applied by commercial growers and with which the ‘fresh’ produce we buy is often contaminated.
Increasingly high levels of air pollution in built up localities is not an indication that the produce you grow will be harmful to eat unless, that is, your home is immediately adjacent to a busy road intersection/traffic lights where hundreds of vehicles a day rev up their engines for hours on end thus emitting noxious, lead containing fumes. However, even if this is the case, you can neutralize any lead toxicity in the soil by adding large amounts of compost and manure which, as it is ‘clean material’ will rebalance the soil chemistry and assist plants in reducing any lead up take through their root systems.
Alternatively, you can opt not to use existing ground soil at all; this is particularly relative if your home happens to be adjacent to a large industry, a tannery for example, where run-off chemicals could have completely poisoned the ground. You can safeguard soil health by building raised beds, full of bought in soil/compost/manure or by cultivating everything in pots and other suitable containers.
Chemical free gardening, correctly called ‘Organic gardening’ is all about growing plants without any chemical interventions whatsoever and the produce is safe and healthy to eat. The produce is often higher in vitamin content as greens such as spinach immediately begin losing vitamins the very second they are harvested and, at home, they can be rushed straight off to the kitchen rather than lying in storage somewhere enroute. The fresher fruit, vegetables and herbs are consumed then the healthier and tastier they are.
Before progressing to growing requirements of numerous food plants though, it is important to understand something about that main ingredient…. soil.
Sandy soil, as found in coastal and arid areas of the country, does not retain enough moisture as water drains straight through it leaching out valuable nutrients on its way. Some, mainly indigenous plant species thrive in sandy soil but not the vegetables, etc. you want to grow. This is not to say that you cannot have a healthy garden in sandy soil. You can. However, before even thinking of planting anything you must add lots and lots of well rotted, preferably organic manure/compost to the soil. Mixing it in thoroughly and watering it down. This will improve both soil fertility and its moisture retaining capabilities. You will need to add more manure/compost to the soil on a regular basis, each time you plant a new crop for example, in order to maintain its health.
Clay soils, as found in much of the Punjab and parts of N.W.F.P., tend to be extremely dense, drain badly in periods of wet and bake as hard as concrete in summer. They do though contain an extremely high level of plant nutrients which will be more easily released by lightening the soil structure with the addition of plenty of manure/organic compost and, if intending growing carrots for instance, with the addition of some river sand not its salty seashore cousin.
River silt, as found in flood plains throughout the country is very fertile indeed but tends to retain too much water at times. Once again lots of manure/compost is the answer to improving them.
Extremely stony soils, those full of large and small chunks of rock, are difficult to dig but if this is all you have then persevere, taking out stones as you go and piling in as much manure/compost as you can.
Making your own compost is something we will tackle later on in the series but,
meanwhile, a quick look at some easily available alternatives.
Manure is really the backbone of any organic garden and, even in urban locations you will be able to find a source somewhere around. Buffalo pens are an obvious answer although the manure may not be totally chemical free due to the types of processed feedstuffs and veterinarian medicines the animals are given. Horse and donkey manure is even better than buffalo manure as it contains far less straw and other tough materials. Goat and sheep manure are both excellent but poultry manure, with its high lime content, is best used in small amounts only.
Fresh, wet manure should not be used as these heats up in the process of rotting down and can badly burn your plants. Manure should be old and fully rotted down into a dark brown, almost odourless mix of quite small, sometimes even powdery pieces. Coir, the outer hairy part of coconuts, helps to lighten up heavy soils such as clay but, as this contains virtually no useful plant food, it needs to be mixed with richer ingredients such as manure.
If you know of a mushroom farm, then their previously used mushroom compost is great stuff and can often be had at little cost.
Sacks of imported peat and ready mixed compost are available in some garden supply stores but tend to be expensive. Peat is not as good for your garden as the seller will undoubtedly stress as it is very light, quickly washes away and contains few nutrients. Ready mixed compost may contain chemicals so, prior to purchasing, please read the label of contents.
If buying soil from nurseries then check that it is new soil, not their previously used stuff emptied out from pots of unsold or diseased plants as the nutrient value will be low; it may contain large quantities of redundant plant roots, broken pieces of pot and could carry fungal/bacterial or insect pests.
Fruit, vegetables and herbs, as previously mentioned, do not need to be grown in an actual garden but can be grown in a wide variety of large and small clay pots, wooden vegetable/fruit crates, drums, buckets, used tins, yoghurt cartons etc. In fact, anything which holds soil and has adequate drainage holes in the base can be used for growing something or other. Old car tires for instance make great plant containers and can be stacked one on top of another, for deep-rooted plants such as potatoes.
Kitchen vegetable storage stands, and the like are another useful item, as are old sinks and bathtubs and I know of a lady in Taiwan who has a commercially viable, highly productive vegetable garden, all in bathtubs, on the roof of her apartment. Hanging baskets of various types can be bought or made at home and even the legs of an old pair of denim jeans, the bottom sewn tightly shut, packed with soil, laid flat on the ground with three-inch long slits cut here and there through which to insert young plants of trailing tomatoes and the like. Then, suspended from a strong support once the plants are thoroughly rooted are wonderful, if unusual, methods of creating vertical growing space.
Raised beds are a viable alternative to pots if you have at least some area of level ground, even if this happens to be at the side of a concrete driveway, in a paved courtyard or on an adequately waterproofed, load bearing, flat roof.
These are very simple to make: basically, you require something to retain soil; this can be bricks, blocks or planks of wood, not cemented together as this would adversely affect drainage. Height/created soil depth need only be four inches for shallow rooted vegetables, strawberries and herbs like lettuce, thyme, mint, coriander etc, six inches for cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, chillies, aubergines, cucumbers, capsicum peppers, stump rooted carrots, turnips and spinach and nine inches for tall growing tomatoes, peas and beans, courgettes, melons, pumpkins, squash, okra, sweet corn etc.
Now that you have an idea, what urban gardening is all about I will leave you to mull the subject over and explain what can be grown where next time around. Until then, examine every square inch of possible growing space you have and please give the matter some serious thought.
Writer: Zahrah Nasir