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Celebrating the kitchen garden during the COVID-19 lockdown

Microgreens in progress

Microgreens in progress   | Photo Credit: Pixabay Images

As the country rations their ingredient inventory during the Coronavirus pandemic, we observe a renewed appreciation for kitchen gardens

The day drags on as Arundati Rao ponders what to do to fill the dull time of lockdown. The homebaker in Kondapur, Hyderabad, decides to bake foccacia. As she powers through the recipe, kneading the dough and chopping garlic, she realises she needs some basil. Rather than risking a grocery run, she simply reaches over to her kitchen garden and grabs a few tender leaves.

Many of us know full well that a final sprinkle of green garnishes can make a dish complete. Many people across the country find themselves hunting for such herbs during the ongoing Coronavirus lockdown. Caused by panic-buying and stockpiling, there is a scarcity in the greens which are so crucial to Indian cuisines, despite diligent efforts of supermarkets to keep their shelves stocked. Plus, e-commerce platforms such as BigBasket or Amazon Pantry are facing restrictions with their movements for deliveries.

Arundati Rao shares four types of basil she grows

Arundati Rao shares four types of basil she grows   | Photo Credit: Instagram

That said, the kitchen garden has never been more valuable. Often separate from the ornamental garden, a kitchen garden comprises fruit, vegetables, greens and microgreens, and in India, we often see them on balconies, window sills, terraces or even inside a room. In the case of the lockdown, it boosts your household’s access to fresh food while keeping you at home. Before you run outside to procure seeds and gardening inventory, we share advice and important information from experts in the industry as well as people who have long nurtured their kitchen gardens.

Arundati is no stranger to kitchen gardens. Having had her kitchen garden off and on for about 10 years, she currently has two kinds of beans, sweet potato, lots of herbs, green onion, garlic shoots, three kinds of tomatoes, ridge gourd, bottle gourd, chillies and brinjal. She uses these in her day-to-day cooking and, during the lockdown, she finds herself able to plan her quotidian meals as before.

Ravi Krishnamachary’s kitchen garden includes mosambi, pineapple and pomegranate

Ravi Krishnamachary’s kitchen garden includes mosambi, pineapple and pomegranate   | Photo Credit: Ravi Krishnamachary

In Sainikpuri, Hyderabad, Ravi Krishnamachary is two years into his kitchen garden. He was inspired by Hyderabad’s All India Horticulture expo advocating terrace gardens and, having retired recently, he was in search of a productive hobby. Now he grows colocasia, curry leaves and tomatoes among other things. “We are too affected by the lockdown, food wise, because we eat what we grow. Our routine in that regard has not changed. It really does well for the long run to have a kitchen garden. You become prepared for anything.”

Carrots from Sujatha Ravi’s terrace garden in Besant Nagar, Chennai

Carrots from Sujatha Ravi’s terrace garden in Besant Nagar, Chennai  

Sixty-year-old Sujatha Ravi in Besant Nagar, Chennai, says she is not rushing to the vegetable market for fresh produce; she just has to source it all from her terrace garden which is filled with various keerai, lady’s fingers, pomegranates, papayas, strawberries and more. “I’ve had my kitchen garden for four and half years. After the lockdown is over, I want to start growing microgreens. I completely cook in one-pot-one-shot, a method which doesn’t kill the vegetable. It retains the colour and nutrition, and motivates you to grow more. At the markets, they segregate it with their feet so you have to wash them well. So that is another reason to maintain your own kitchen garden.”

Alladi Mahadevan, the founder of TheOrganicFarm.in, says one does not need to look beyond their home for a gardening kit. For 25 years, Alladi's organisation has advocated urban farming across Tamil Nadu and, he says he is available for remote assistance during lockdown. “The average Indian household has about 83 food items and about 20 of those can be used to procure seeds. Make sure you can access good soil and patience. Plan your calendar and use as much as possible.” Alladi recommends growing greens as a priority, as well as pulses and legumes, as they are packed with nutrients. Also, to speed up germination, one can soak methi seeds overnight and crush coriander seeds before sowing.

At the moment, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook are brimming with kitchen gardening tips and tricks. A set of them, posted to Instagram on March 26, comes from Hyderabad startup HomeCrop which helps people engineer their own kitchen gardens. Co-founder Manvitha Reddy agrees that this is the time for home farming to shine, adding, “In the 1990s, when Cuba was in a lockdown, they had to resort to community farming. They eventually became quite self-sufficient. Similarly here, the skill for such farming methods must be appreciated, even if on a hobby level.”

A case for microgreens

Of course, while the lockdown has restricted their services to some extent, Manvitha says they are offering virtual and remote assistance to customers. “In the lockdown, I think we can focus on microgreens which boost immunity, have high nutritional value and are easy and quick to grow.” Essentially seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs, microgreens are harvested just after the cotyledon leaves have developed. They are deemed as both a superfood and a functional food. Powerhouse microgreens include pea shoots, wheatgrass, radish sprouts and sunflower shoots.

Ravi Krishnamachary’s batch of mint leaves

Ravi Krishnamachary’s batch of mint leaves   | Photo Credit: Ravi Krishnamachary

Arundati adds that, if these are available at home, one should start with fresh well-aerated soil and then mix in coco peat and Vermicompost. “Remember not to over water your pots. A lot of times we kill our plants by over-watering that leads to root rot.” Ravi is also an advocate for coco peat for its water retention properties.

Both Manvitha and Arundati say that one need not even leave their home to get seeds. “Seeds such as those of coriander, mustard and methi are already in your kitchen. You can also repurpose cartons from past deliveries or plastic water bottles in which to grow these,” says Manvitha.

Arundati comments that the versatility and sustainability of these greens are impressive and worth the effort. “Mustard greens can be cooked or eaten in salads, the flavour is similar to Arugula lettuce. Methi is so easy to grow and the small leaves can be harvested in about 7 to 10 days... Crush whole coriander before sowing for fresh coriander leaves from your window sill. Sprouted onions and garlic bulbs can be planted for fresh greens to be cooked or eaten raw or added to omelette or curries. Store-bought mint can be replanted as it loves the hot weather.”

On a happy note

Arundati Rao also grows her own herbs for her culinary classes

Arundati Rao also grows her own herbs for her culinary classes   | Photo Credit: Instagram

There is a notable feel-good factor in this way of life, says Manvita. “People tend to eat more happily when they know what goes into the process. It’s also really therapeutic given these difficult times, it doesn’t just distract but it adds productivity to your day when you tend to feel a little low, being at home.”

Arundati affirms, “It’s therapeutic to snip lemon grass stalks for tea or just a few leaves of basil for your pasta instead of buying a whole packet and not knowing what to do and invariably wasting everything.”

Sujatha says when she digs into the soil and sees the full ecosystem created, she sees plenty of hope for the planet. The idea of gardening is close to the idea of ‘renewal’, she concludes, and about leading out into the light of the new, adding “Do not be intimidated by a kitchen garden, it is more rewarding and brings happiness to the home, especially in this difficult time.”

Many people feel intimidated by the thought of starting a kitchen garden owing to the responsibility and patience required. But Ravi says the satisfaction of knowing the precious produce harvested trumps any hesitation. Arundati adds that it is not that hard, “But there are no promises. It's trial and error and like everything else you learn and become better with practice.” Manvitha concludes that once lockdown is lifted, people will be more proactive about kitchen gardens; in fact, she’s gotten quite a few calls about it in the past couple of weeks.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 6:48:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/celebrating-kitchen-gardens-during-the-coronavirus-lockdown-in-india/article31180030.ece

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