CHENNAI: Subashree Vijay’s love for gardening started at an early age, where she would nurture a large garden in her hometown, Madurai. When she moved to Chennai a few years ago, into an apartment, she had to find a way to keep in touch with her passion for gardening. “I would grow a few plants on the balcony, but I was never completely satisfied,” she admits. When she finally moved to an independent house ten years ago, she was finally able to let her love for gardening grow as abundantly as her plants. In her large home in Alwarthirunagar, where plants and structures merge as one, she grows everything from vegetables, flowers, fruits and her fondest of all, herbs.
“I started with planting flowering climbers on the edges of the compound and directing it towards the terrace - forming a natural shade net around the house. Then we planted trees all around, which provided ample shade for the plants,” she says. The physics graduate attended a one-day training in terrace gardening at Coimbatore Agricultural University, and is also currently pursuing a PhD in Bio Physics.
Across her terrace garden, shaded well, you can find bitter gourd, ladies finger, varieties of brinjal, ridge gourd, cowpeas, seven-eight varieties of chillies, lemon, banana, papaya, guava, avocado and mulberry, to name a few. She also grows around 13 varieties of spinach — manathakkali keerai, sakkaravathi keerai, thandu keerai, siru keerai, etc. “We now eat only all these pesticide-free vegetables and fruits grown in my own home. We harvest spinach at least three times a week, the yield is good,” she says. She sources native seeds from seed festivals and sellers. “These have good germination rates and give better yield for longer periods as compared to hybrid varieties,” she says.
Having once worked with a Siddha doctor, she has a fondness for herbal plants in particular. Wherever she travels, she finds herbal seeds and plants to take back home, and has now accumulated around 250 varieties of herbal plants in her nursery. “My most recent acquisition is a plant called Vaijayanti in Sanskrit. The seeds of the plant are used to make jebamalai, and naturally have a hole to weave a thread in,” she says. She has nethrapoondu (for eye-related illnesses), a herb which is used traditionally to set broken bones, along with many more forgotten herbs. “I also inform people about the simple remedies one can make with these herbs,” she says.
With the onset of summer, she advises that gardeners not plant a new plant, especially the exotic varieties. “It’s best to grow varieties like ladies finger, brinjal, tomatoes, and all the spinach varieties.” The high temperatures during summer, she says, is conducive enough only to maintain existing plants; growing new ones may not turn out well. “We advise beginners to wait until July to start new plants.”What does this maintenance during summer comprise? “Pruning plants regularly, putting up shade nets over the plants, sprinkling liquid fertilisers every ten days and, of course, watering the plants every day. We also sprinkle panchakaviyam on the plants,” she says.
Panchakaviyam is a mixture of cow’s urine, buttermilk, ghee and milk fermented over 21 days. If this is not available, one can even use diluted sour buttermilk. “Sprinkling this on the leaves prevents browning, and is a growth stimulant. Just like how we humans need cool refreshments during summers, so do plants,” she says. She also says it’s better to water plants in the evenings as water retention is longer.Taking good care of plants, she says, will also mean they will take care of us in return. “Having a terrace garden naturally cools down the house. Having climbers such as ridge gourd and snake gourd will also block sunlight further,” she says, pointing to her balcony, where a sea of green vines cascade from the roof, effectively shading the interiors of the home.
Subashree also conducts classes on the nuances of terrace gardening. “I advise beginners to begin in a phased manner - start with six plants, and then double it every few months. A full-fledged garden of 500 sq.ft will cost around `10,000- `15,000,” she says, in addition to fertilisers, which can be replaced with home-made compost too.
(For purchasing seeds, plants or learning gardening, you can call her at 96771 01627)