CHENNAI: Ask anyone in Anna Nagar B Sector, Chennai, for the Garden Queen and all hands instantly point toward Saroja Thiyagarajan’s house. The fragrance of jasmine and adenium fills the air. We’re welcomed by a lotus pond at the entrance. Tall branches bearing jungle geranium (idly poo), one of her first flowering shrubs, envelopes the facade of the building. The grills of her veranda are decked up with mixer jars and mugs re-purposed as planters.
What started as tiny potted plants at her previous house in ICF Colony developed into a green space after she moved into her present house. It took 15 years for Saroja to develop her garden, which now bears over 500 plants. “I was born in Keezh Velur near Nagapattinam. I come from a family of landlords. We owned acres of land. Right from grains, oil, ghee, to vegetables — all the produce would come to our doorstep. That was the case even after I moved to Chennai in 1957 after my marriage. Gardening and the love for agriculture runs in my genes. I still have the raw banana tree that my mother planted in our garden when she was 80,” said Saroja while flipping through photos of an album dedicated to her milestones in gardening.
Her husband encouraged her to pursue gardening full-time following his retirement. Every month, a certain amount was allotted for plants. Saroja is currently the sought-after person for any queries regarding gardening in the locality. Members in the community gather at her place once a year for a garden party, where she’d take them around the green space.
“Kids and sometimes even teachers from nearby schools come home to pluck hibiscus flowers for their Botany classes. I take anybody who comes to my house to see the garden. I know most of the prominent people in the horticulture field. I’m also a member of a group called Organic Terrace Gardening,” said the octogenarian, who keeps herself updated through YouTube videos. Her saplings are sourced from nurseries across the city and from those that are sold on bullock carts around her locality by local vendors. She uses vegetable waste, organic manure and vermicompost for the plants.
Saroja has greens, vegetables, crotons, bonsai and adenium in her garden. She always keeps a tab on them through CCTV cameras. In 2015, the Tamil Nadu Horticulture Department awarded her for her service in gardening. She also received the Lakshmi Organic Award at Anna University in 2019 for the best garden in Tamil Nadu. “My children have settled down in different corners of India and following my husband’s demise, I haven’t left this house. I’m living for the plants,” she said.