CHENNAI: Gardening, as a hobby, is a slippery slope. One moment, you are nursing an easy-to-care-for succulent and the second, you are addressing an entire mini-forest by assigned names. But when you live in a metropolitan city of nearly five million people — and just as many buildings to accommodate them — there is little space for this plant paradise. This, however, has not stopped Chennaiites from making the most of the limited spaces available to them, even if it is confined to 150 sq ft of tiny balconies, as in the case of Jaishree Sambandan.
Introduced to gardening as a child by her grandmother, the Thiruvanmiyur resident was used to the comforts of an independent home. But, as she grew older and the houses grew narrower, time became a hurdle for her. It was only earlier this year, when her family was affected by Covid that she got back to business; this time with small balconies as a canvas. Modern problems required modern solutions for her growing collection of monsteras, aglaonemas, and ferns. “I try to club different types of plants in each corner because each variety requires a distinct level of water and humidity. This arrangement makes them easier to handle and look more full. For example, I have about 8-10 varieties of ferns in one corner since they need less sunlight in comparison to the others,” says Jaishree.
To create more space on the ground, she has invested in railing planters — available in various lengths — that conveniently hook on to the balcony rails and allow her to store diverse pots or soil for complementary plants. The same can be hooked away from the balcony or terrace, as well, she adds. Furthermore, hanging pots let her store turtle vines overhead and a wooden planter attached to the wall extends them across the edge. By making use of vertical spaces and off-the-ground infrastructure, Jaishree managed to enlarge the area for other uses.
These tips may be ideal for growing vines, herbs and other foliage plants, but the same cannot be applied by vegetable growers such as organic gardener Anju Agarwal, who has her system suited to her plants’ spatial needs. Growing up in a large bungalow in Mumbai, Anju too was accustomed to large front yards and backyards. But her shift to Chennai after marriage, shrunk her garden size to a 1,500 sq ft terrace. Eventually, she had to find a way to introduce new plants to the already gravid gourds, cauliflowers, cabbages, muskmelons, beetroots, beans, carrots, mint and more that line her garden. One of which was utilising grow bags. “In a four-by-eight-sized grow bag, you can plant several companion plants and eliminate the need to occupy the space multiple pots would,” she explains. You can even do so in a rice sack, she adds.
But, if that is not sturdy enough for you, you might want to try a fridge box, as suggested by Tirupur’s Priya Rajanarayanan, “It’s called the five-layer system; intercropping. You can do this even with saris, car tyres and other creative storage without spending money. First, you grow a tree (like Moringa), then, a creeper that can climb over it, followed by mid-sized plants like brinjal or tomato, a ground-level plant (say, coriander, chillies or mint) and finally, a root vegetable (beetroot, radish, turmeric),” she shares.
Since each of these types has a different root structure and growth, it prevents them from fighting for nutrients, and allows live mulching that decreases erosion and controls the temperature of soil, and reduces runoff water. To better utilise the area and create a gradient of sunlight on soil, she recommends a kottara pandal — mimicking a tent without a tarpaulin — onto which the creepers can slither. Then, you can arrange the plants needing less sunlight in the dancing shadow and the rest in the remaining space.
An advocate of preserving heirloom seeds, Priya learned the tricks of the trade from a trash can! Her understanding of utilising waste and the importance of native vegetables contributes to her knowledge of maximising space. “At one time, I sow only 30 varieties of, say, brinjal and only one plant of every type to maintain an assortment. The remaining 70 or so is identified with dates and stored in the fridge,” adds the voice behind YouTube channel Seed Island, which offers details on gardening and seeds.
From deserts to the terrace
But it is the desert-oriented plants that are taking the high ground, literally. Low maintenance and easy-to-arrange, desert-oriented plants and succulents can be stacked on a rack for minimal area consumption, says gardener Sai Krishnan, who grows over 100 varieties of cacti, bonsais, succulents, and euphorbias on his 2,000 sq ft terrace. “You have to make sure they have indirect sunlight. You can construct a makeshift shed with bamboo sticks and shadow nets or invest in polycarbonate sheets for the same. You can use the vertical space to your advantage as the plants do not grow too tall,” notes Sai. In fact, the pups (new plants) emerge out of the roots of the plants, taking up horizontal space, he mentions, adding that a good pot with a decent diameter is necessary. And don’t worry about overcrowding; they like the humidity!
A shed has been a blessing for Abitha S as well, whose terrace garden is divided into sections of sunlight and shade to accommodate the heat-loving flowering plants and the contrasting crotons. Whether it is foliage, vegetables, desert-oriented plants or flowers, sunlight seems to be the omnipresent factor to consider. According to Abitha, the best outcome for your terrace garden is only possible by understanding the placement of sunlight throughout the day. “I have jasmine, hibiscus, bougainvillea, rose, bluebell, and more. When it comes to flowers, it’s important to place them according to the sunlight they need and not move them. Ensure that you have enough space in your pot to keep the plant healthy for the next five years. This will maximise the output since plants don’t like to be moved,” she notes.
As gardening gains popularity and plants make their way into homes — whether for functional or aesthetic purposes — we must find a way to share our space with nature, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be clever about it.