A workshop on organic gardening at Bhoomi College leads to revelations and discoveries in the garden space.

Gardening is said to be a lot about regular effort, some physical exertion and, of course, beauty. But a day’s workshop on organic gardening with Bhoomi College’s Rajesh Thakkar is enough to dispel commonly held myths and beliefs about the hobby. Drawing his ideas of gardening from the philosophies of natural farming and organic gardening, the workshop came as relief to the textbook gardening enthusiast and as an easy first step in the right direction for beginners.

For many it would seem as if gardening is an activity that one has to constantly keep at with watering, re-potting, trimming and pruning, composting, and not to mention weeding. Rajesh advocates the Zen approach of letting things be and nature taking its own course. Pictures from his own terrace garden, in the form of proof, amaze and impress: plants of corn, cauliflower, capsicum growing out of single pots that haven’t been changed in nearly eight years and infections that haven’t been dealt with pesticides or even organic sprays. Taking inspiration from the forest, Rajesh’s garden teems with wild plants or weeds, insects, bugs and birds, among other organic forms that make the eco-system in his garden complete.

A few hours into the workshop and the idea of organic gardening begins to take shape in our minds – balance and diversity. In the forest, the absence of humans constantly curing or cleaning, makes it a thriving eco-system. The same idea needs to be extended to our gardens, terraces and farms to create ‘forests in pots’ as Rajesh calls it.

“The fundamental problem is that we feel the need to overdo. Our fears and anxieties force us to react and come in the way of natural processes taking their own course,” says Rajesh, in whose garden an attack by aphids was ignored for nearly three weeks until the ladybugs arrived and the crop was safe once more. So, do we call this ‘Do nothing gardening’? “Of course not, we still need to do some things,” he says.

The creation of an eco-system in your garden starts with the quality of soil. Sand, silt and clay are the three inorganic components of soil and are crucial to determining the health of your kitchen garden. The absence of any one could be detrimental and they must exist in the right proportions. Clumpy soil could mean too much clay, in which case sand needs to be added to the pot. Biomass comprising minerals, fungi, bacteria, worms and leaves needs to be included in the form of compost. Soil with a good amount of biomass is moist, has a distinct smell and is rich in colour.

Mulching, however, is the single-most important way to recover and sustain soil. “Any biomass put on the soil and covers it is called mulch,” says Rajesh. Mulching prevents evaporation, protects the soil from water, wind and sun. Microbes receive the right temperature to thrive and mulching prevents the growth of wild plants. A simple and beneficial practice, organic mulch can comprise of leaves, grass clippings, bark chips etc.

As the lesson progresses we unlearn a number of things and pick up on the ways of natural gardening like not touching the soil! “The more you touch the soil, the less healthy it is going to be. Just make sure it is always covered with mulch,” he says. Still grappling with the idea of not touching soil while gardening, we are told to not water plants but ensure there is always moisture in the soil. Rajesh explains, “Over watering prevents the roots from breathing. But, always ensure the soil is moist. You can do this by sticking your finger one to one-and-half inch into the soil. If it is dry, the plant needs moisture.”

An integral part of organic gardening is also, of course, composting. Pit composting is the easiest way to compost in your backyard. “Dig a pit, put in your kitchen waste and seal the pit with a mud plaster so that it breathes,” says Rajesh. Today, to accelerate the process of composting, special organic mixtures are available that reduce composting time from weeks to a few days. Also, organisations such as Daily Dump sell kitchen waste composters such as the kambha that can be made a part of your garden. And, if you have the will you can also grow your own manure. Sunn hemp, a plant of the legume family, can be easily grown in pots and is a popular source of green manure. Usually planted at the end of the rainy season, the plant is ready for use when its flowers blossom. The leaves and flowers of the plant can be trimmed and used as manure in your kitchen garden or farm.

Organic gardening is perhaps the best way to grow your own food. The thing to remember, however, is start small, go low cost and keep it simple. You can easily grow a variety of greens, herbs, tomatoes, chillies and fruits in your kitchen garden. The takeaway though is to keep calm and not “garden”.