Leelavathy Gopikrishnan proves that it is possible to grow one’s own food, even in an urban setting

“When it is our seeds, our manure and our soil, you know it can be fully trusted,” says Leelavathy Gopikrishnan, homemaker and organic gardener.

With over 185 vegetables, herbs and trees (both fruit and ornamental), Leelavathy grows enough at her house in Thaneer Pandhal, to keep her family of four self-sufficient. While living off organic farms is becoming commonplace in today’s chemical-sick world, Leelavathy is among the few to do so from within the confines of a city home.

Her love story with plants began at her former apartment in Krishnaswamy Nagar, the insides and balcony of which she packed with potted vegetables and herbs. Even a seven-year-old, 10-foot-tall Maghizhampoo marram, flourishing by the gatepost in her present home, began its journey in a tiny sack there. Back then, however, Leelavathy used chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Two years ago, she turned organic. “Even chillies are sprayed with endosulfan. Nothing is safe to eat anymore. So, it makes sense to grow our own food, pesticide-free,” she says. She taught herself the ropes of organic farming and began her garden with advice from the Coimbatore District Herbal and Tree Growers Association.

Today in the 4000 square feet around her house and in sacks on her balcony, Leelavathy grows brinjal, snake gourd, cucumber, tomato, avaraikai, murunga kai, and kovakkai, among other vegetables. “Our cucumbers are really sweet and even come with varied corrugated patterns inside,” says Sangamithra, Leelavathy’s daughter. “For our day’s meals, we pluck fresh produce from the garden in the morning. There’s always enough for each day. We get about 100 to 150 gm of kovakkai every day; so, sometimes, we give it away to our neighbours!” says Leelavathy. kovakais

The family also grows its own fruits such as mango, guava, sapota, pomegranate and banana. “We buy only cereals and root vegetables such as carrot, potato and beetroot since those are tough to grow,” says Leelavathy. Even heir curry leaves, lemongrass, rosemary, betel leaves and spinach are homegrown.

Leelavathy also cultivates medicinal plants. A mixture of thooduvalai, adathodhai, karunochi, tulasi, karpooravalli is the staple remedy for common cold. With these and other plants like vetiver for medicinal oils, sundakkai for anaemia and sakkarai kolli for diabetes, the Gopikrishnans double up as local pharmacists.

The key elements behind their organic garden are the natural manure and pesticide they use. “I bought a kilogram of earthworms and scattered them into the soil around our house over a year ago. They fed on the garden waste and created vermicompost,” she says digging up a palmful of soil, alive with earthworms. She also has two large compost pits in her compound into which all the garden and kitchen waste is dumped. “It will take over a year for the pits to become fully functional. For now, the vermicompost is sufficient,” she says. Instead of soil, Leelavathy uses a mix of vermicompost and coir pith as a base for her plants. For manure, there is neem cake and EM (effective microorganisms) solution. Leelavathy also has a homemade remedy for pests. “I pour a mixture of errukkai, nochi, vembu, tobacco and custard apple or papaya leaves once every couple of months,” she says.

At a time when ‘organic’ is the buzzword for heightened market prices, Leelavathy hasn’t yet converted her venture into a money-making one. “It takes a long time to get the Organic Farming Association of India’s accreditation. Plus, our enterprise is still in its early stages,” she says. The family is, however, working on a four-acre organic orchard in Pollachi. “I’ve named all the trees after various family members. That way, my children will continue growing organic food and no one else will ever be tempted to cut them down,” she laughs.