Home Gardens and Urban Farming

Food is responsible for nourishing every single part of our body and mind, and is thus one of the most vital elements of our life.  Yet for most of us, our lifestyle is such that we rarely ponder the actual source of our food – in other words, where our food originates: in nature. With most foods readily available in a processed, manicured  and packaged form, the word ‘food’ has been misconstrued to mean just an item to be picked up from shelves in stores and supermarkets. Food has become to be perceived merely as a factor of sensual pleasure and entertainment, rather than as the foundation of health for our body and mind.

Recently, however, as more of us recognize how food has taken control of our lives, this perception is changing. As we gain awareness of how we are physically, emotionally and environmentally affected by our food choices, the importance of knowing our sources of food seems to be gaining momentum. The growing interest in organic products clearly shows that many of us are keen on knowing what goes into our food even from its origins. As well, buying food that is locally grown from a farmer’s market or local grocer is a great way to minimize one’s environmental impact while ensuring freshness. But growing our own food takes it to the next level.

Growing our own food is a great tool to gain control over our own life – both physically and mentally. In India, Urban Home Gardening is a very popular activity. We easily admit that urban gardening has tangible benefits (physical, mental, economic) for the individuals that practice it, but what we often fail to recognize is its importance for the entire community whether that be social or environmental.  A recent study in the city of Pune concluded that “conserving and building home gardens can contribute to urban sustainability and should therefore be considered in the planning, design and management of urban spaces.”

With the rapid growth of towns and cities and urban populations around the world comes an equal growth of demand on food supply and a great stress on the already-depleted urban landscape. Growing Greener Cities­ – a programme of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) – aims to provide decent work and income and food security for the urban poor – often rural people seeking a better life – by integrating horticultural projects within the city limits or in surrounding areas which provide food for their families or to earn income from sales. On top of this, the organization indicates that growing greener cities is absolutely imperative for overall environmental and individual health, for it repairs our ecological foundations, reduces temperatures and strengthens a city’s resilience to climate change.

These lofty and important projects are surely to be encouraged. But we do not need the FAO or any other structure to do our small share in making our cities greener, and growing our own food at the same time. Creating a kitchen garden does both of that.

Fortunately for us, growing our own food isn’t rocket science. Most of us have planted seeds and watched them sprout when we were children. Creating our own garden isn’t really that much different. A kitchen garden doesn’t have to be complicated or labour intensive. It is very simple and it may take a little time, but things like tomatoes, chillies, spinach and herbs (like tulsi, mint, coriander and curry leaves) – basic kitchen crops – are very forgiving. And most of these vegetables and herbs can be grown in minimum space…in fact, a variety of herbs and certain vegetables can even be grown indoors, for those of us who don’t have a balcony or access to a terrace. The most successful kitchen gardens are the ones where you embark on a project that is achievable for you. If you are limited by space or time, a few pots of herbs or potted fruit trees may be more practical. If you have a larger outdoor space, like a balcony or terrace or even a small plot or yard, and the time and inclination, you will be able to increase the variety and quantity of production, often growing enough vegetables and garnishes daily to supplement and greatly improve meals. What’s more, your garden can be watered with the wastewater from dishwashing and bathing, and the soil can be fertilized with compost made from kitchen waste, thereby installing a virtuous ecological cycle…otherwise known as sustainability!

As for the use of cow dung and/or urine in your garden, not only is there no need whatsoever to use these inputs, they can actually cause harm to your soil and to your plants (not to mention to those who eat what you produce – you and your family!) for three main reasons: 1) dung and urine are easily contaminated; 2) the fodder that the cows eat may very well have been sprayed with toxic chemicals, meaning that resulting dung contains poisonous residues; and 3) the cows were likely given antibiotics, growth hormones or other chemicals, and thus their dung is laced with those harmful substances. The truth is that cow dung has very poor traceability and it’s nearly impossible to get truthful information about what the animals that produced the dung have been fed or what medication they may have been given. By mixing these animal fertilizers into our fertile soil, we are taking an unnecessary risk…especially since we can grow a thriving garden without using them at all!

Growing our own food has an untold number of benefits. For a start, kitchen gardening is a great way for people to connect to nature, even if that “nature” is a humble planter with just some herbs. Contact with the natural world has underutilised and valuable health benefits that are important to our overall well being. A look around the urban landscape shows how many of us are insulated from the natural environment: apartment living, concrete roads, shopping malls, car travel along congested motorways…Yet the negative effects this urban lifestyle is having on our health could certainly be reduced by simply spending time outdoors working with plants. Many people feel calmer or more relaxed around plants – in fact studies have shown that gardening significantly reduces our levels of stress hormones. Given that stress is known to worsen pre-existing health conditions, spending time with plants is certainly beneficial, if only to improve our own physical health.

As well, research has shown that gardening is linked to improved general mental and emotional health. Horticulture therapy, the therapeutic benefits of garden environments, has been documented since ancient times. The hands-on, practical activities required to grow plants is now widely used within a broad range of rehabilitative, vocational and community settings, such as  aged-care homes, prisons, schools and disability development programs.

Aside from its therapeutic role, gardening tends to provide a sense of belonging, shared responsibility and social fulfillment. Children in particular reap benefits that go beyond “just having fun,” though which child doesn’t have fun by getting their hands dirty?! With muddy hands they observe, learn and engage with nature and the environment. Eating food plucked straight from the garden encourages positive attitudes towards healthy eating and exercise – important lessons in a world of increasing obesity levels and sedentary lifestyles. In India, it is estimated that today between 6-8% of school children are obese. By learning to grow their own food, children have not just an increased appreciation of the natural cycle of vegetables and the growing process, they are more inclined to eat these nutritious foods because they have grown them themselves.

And while we’re at it,  why not also integrate gardens in schools? School gardens can instill a love of nature in children in urban areas, and inspire them to be less sedentary, to forego constant stimulation by technology and to play outdoors more often. This leads to less stress, more creativity and greater sociability – all positive qualities that our children seem to possess less and less of in the current high-paced, competitive atmosphere in our cities. There are only benefits in making growing food part and parcel of school curricula.

Urban gardening and farming are mishmashes of techniques and approaches to growing and raising food in densely populated urban centers. Because of the very nature of cities, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather a plethora of solutions and practices that are undertaken by individuals, communities, cooperatives and businesses alike. For example, a restaurant may decide to grow their own herbs in an indoor garden; a city may decide to encourage “green buildings” by promoting vertical farming; a neighborhood may apply for permits to take over unused public land for a community garden; a family may plant a container garden on a patio or an apartment container garden when they have little or no garden space; and individual may set up a terrace farm on his rooftop–all are examples of urban gardening. Instead of the long-standing practice of trucking food into cities, city dwellers are taking matters into their own hands to produce local and sustainable food.

And then there is guerilla gardening. A more subversive form of urban gardening, guerilla gardening is a way of adding plants to public spaces that don’t technically belong to the gardener and where one doesn’t have permission, such as on a vacant lot, beside a highway, on derelict, abandoned public spaces, or in the case of Mantu Hait, a Kolkata-based lawyer, along a one-kilometre stretch of land that had become a barren dump yard, and thanks to his unshakable actions is now a green corridor harbouring about 25,000 trees, countless pollinators, and a variety of birds and small mammals.

Guerilla gardening as we know it today began in New York City in 1973 when a group of neighbours, disturbed by the ugliness of an abandoned lot, decided to plant it, thereby transforming it into a place of beauty and community gathering. Since the group didn’t have permission to plant, they aptly dubbed themselves the “Green Guerillas” and went on to beautify various areas of the city that had become rundown, neglected or abandoned. And though this type of planting is illegal, as long as vandalism does not take place, most city councils tend to sanctify the practice instead of prosecuting it. Throughout the world, the movement of guerilla gardening has taken root in urban settings and is responsible for creating spaces like edible gardens (in Los Angeles), and encouraging others to seed-bomb forests near Mumbai, to help offset rampant deforestation.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The soul of India lives in its villages.” Since the 1950’s, urbanization in India has been growing steadily as the rural population declines. Our overcrowded cities today house approximately one third of our total population, but a recent United Nations report suggests that India’s urban population will take over the rural population by the end of 2050. This means that our already overextended cities will need to accommodate more and more people, each one needing food, water, shelter and electricity. With this growing population, the amount of waste, transport, air pollution and (let us not forget) stress will also increase: all this has a negative effect on the environment, the economy and human health. 

As we can see, in this setting the benefits of urban gardening are manifold. Urban gardens can provide a local source of food and allow rural migrants to earn a living doing what many have traditionally done in their villages: farming. Gardening can bring communities and families together, create leisure and recreational spaces for city dwellers and educate urban children about the origins of food. Urban gardens add green spaces to cities and mitigate rainwater runoff. They help filter air and water as well as diminish the urban heat island effect. Flourishing green spaces in our cities are so numerous and present so many environmental, economic, physical and mental health benefits that their development must become a focus on a municipal, regional, state and national level. The question is not if but when they will actively and aggressively be developed, for the success of the greening of India certainly lies in the greening of our cities.

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