It is possible to raise vegetables all through the year even in the middle of the city. All it takes is a terrace and a little bit of effort

If he wants to make tomato chutney for breakfast, Mohandas walks to his terrace garden and handpicks the tomatoes himself. Sakthivel gets his family’s daily dose of greens from his garden; Shankara Baham gets his medicines from the herbal garden on his terrace. Residents of Ashram Avenue in Mugalivakkam, Mohandas and friends have dedicated their free time to “making their terraces green.”

Of the 80 houses in the area, eight have terraces that are covered with luscious vegetable patches. Each of the gardens supports one family — the owners rarely buy vegetables from outside. “The idea is to make ourselves self-sufficient using the limited space available,” explains Sakthivel.

Avid gardener

It was Mohandas who started the trend. An avid gardener, he tried out various means of raising vegetables on his terrace till he discovered the ‘tower garden’ technique on the Internet. “It’s a simple method using which one can raise up to 60 types of vegetables,” explains Mohandas. “One ‘tower’ can support a family year-long. You don’t even need a terrace to raise vegetables using this method. A balcony would suffice. You can save water and time.”

Mohandas grows a variety of vegetables, including tomato, beetroot, okra, radish, five types of brinjal and four types of greens. His terrace is his laboratory where he works on various eco-friendly techniques — he is now building a bio-gas plant that can produce half a kilogram of gas using one kilogram of ground vegetable waste. Once functional, he can cook the vegetables he produces using fuel generated from their waste!

It’s greens galore on Sakthivel’s terrace. “We get more than we need,” he says. Motivated by his neighbour Mohandas, he too started a roof garden. “I spend half-an-hour watering my plants every day,” says Sakthivel. The first thing he does every morning is munch a couple of tulsi and neem leaves from his garden — he believes the practice keeps him healthy and boosts his immunity. Vasu Sundaram has constructed rectangular concrete structures on his terrace to raise vegetables. Direct heat from the sun does affect the growth of plants on a terrace garden. But Sundaram has a way of dealing with the problem — he has spread sugarcane waste on the soil to keep it moist.

Spreading the word

The men have also set up a kosalai (shelter for cows) in the area — Kamadhenu and Mahalakshmi and her calf Gayathri and occupy the enclosure. Cow dung, of course, is excellent manure for the vegetable patches. Sakthivel says that they follow the “unave marundhu” (food is medicine) principle. “Most of what we consume is organic,” he says. They spread the message of eco-friendly lifestyle by inviting experts to talk to the people in the locality. “We want to make our colony greener,” he adds. “We plan to plant around 10,000 saplings in Mugalivakkam after agni natchathiram.”

The green religion is fast catching on in Ashram Avenue. Sakthivel hopes that one day, every house there will grow its own food. “Imagine if the whole of Chennai does this!” he smiles. Says Vasu Sundaram: “You might think we are selfish; that we take so much of effort for our own good. But it is not so. A leaf takes in a good amount of carbon-di-oxide to make its food. We have so many of them in our garden! This is our bit to reduce global warming.” There’s nothing like feasting on what one has raised, he adds. “It gives me the warm feeling you get when you hug your child.”

Here are a few tips to maintain a tower garden:

A ‘tower’ is a 5ft tall cylindrical structure that consists of a jute sack enclosed in a metal mesh

The sack has 18 openings on its surface

It is filled with sugarcane waste, cow dung (25 per-cent each) and soil, and is sealed at the bottom end with plastic bond

It is watered through a plastic pipe with 40 to 60 holes that runs through the sack

One needs 5ft x 5ft of space to maintain a tower