Grow food, not lawns
CHENNAI: It was about four years back that Kavitha Ramakrishnan stopped watering her lawn after noticing the amount of water it was taking up. Today, her rooftop garden grows pumpkins, ladies finger, basil, yams and a host of other seasonal vegetables. And she waters the plants only once every two days, even in peak summer. The key? Permaculture — a system of agricultural principles based on imitating patterns observed in natural ecosystems.
A permaculture garden aims to create a habitat and not just a garden, which would sustain itself as an ecosystem; each element in the garden plays a role. The term was coined in 1978 by Australian researcher Bill Mollison and the system is now practiced in many places across the world. In Chennai, one such group propagating permaculture is ‘The Magic Bean’, co-founded by three women Kavitha Ramakrishnan, Priya Gopalan and Archana Meiyappan. The group conducts workshops on permaculture for children and adults, with the idea of reviving the traditional Indian agriculture systems that always used these principles.
“Nature has its own ways of growing and sustaining. For example, forests grow on their own helped by the layer of leaves on the forest ground. This is imitated in permaculture by ‘mulching’, where we place a layer of leaves on the soil,” says Kavitha. These gardens may not look very pretty, but have a way of changing your lifestyle, say the founders. While permaculture today has certificate courses abroad, most of the learning can also happen from the Internet, books, and observation. “It is not a ‘new’ way, it is about understanding and applying traditional ways,” says Archana.
“Whatever we take from nature, we have to give it back. Kitchen waste from vegetables is biodegradable and is supposed to go back to the soil. Instead where does it go? Pallikaranai Marsh, which is supposed to be a habitat for migratory birds,” rues Kavitha. In permaculture, all the kitchen waste from their homes — corn cobs, vegetable peels, leaves, twigs or sugarcane pulp — goes into making compost, along with items like panchakavyam (prepared from cow dung and cow urine). Natural pesticides like neem, turmeric and chilli powder are used.
“Indians have a fascination for manicured lawns because of the British influence, not realising this doesn’t suit our climate. Maybe it works in Ooty, but not in Chennai,” stresses Archana, who also switched over from a lawn and ended up saving more than 60% water every day. Pointing to her garden and rattling off the names of the produce—tomatoes, chillies, turmeric, lemongrass, spinach, mangoes and much more—she says “The joy of eating your home grown vegetables is something else!” She also recycles all her kitchen waste, and uses all leftover wedding flowers from the nearby AVM Rajeshwari Kalyana Mantapam for compost.
The knack, they say, is to improve the soil first, after which maintenance becomes minimal. “We are not greater than nature, we just assist the process and things grow on their own. It doesn’t require that much effort,” says Kavitha.
The thumb rule should be that the farmer should be able to first feed himself, she explains. This way, there is already diversity in cultivation based on his needs. He then sells the excess, and this way he is not entirely dependant on market prices and the soil also improves because of different kinds of cultivation.
“In permaculture too, we use crop rotation, complementary plants. Diversity is important,” says Kavitha. In the urban scenario, these principles can be applied in a balcony garden, what they call ‘permaculture in a pot’.
It may take a while to get used to manure or to touch cowdung or mud. “We have found that school children first found it ‘yucky’, but soon got used to the smell of panchakavyam and splashing around in the mud. We tend to tell kids not to go out in the sun or play with mud, not realising that these things are actually good,” she says.
Kavitha experiments with different conditions for pots, while also cultivating her garden which she waters using a well in the house. “Sometimes we get unexpected results. Last year, we got around 10 kg of yam,” she says.
She also uses ‘seed saving’, where the harvested seed is catalogued and placed in her seed box to be used for planting the next season. Nothing is wasted, and when Archana had to cut a tree that was dead, they used a method called ‘double digging’ and buried the cut logs in order to make the soil healthy.
“Permaculture teaches you to live simply, when you see compost you realise what happens to all living beings in the end, and it is very humbling!” says Archana. Adds Kavitha,
“You can start with any size, even with one pot. If you want to do something good, try composting. It is tangible, you can see the results, and once you start the cycle it is actually very addictive!”