Eden on the roof, full of greens

HANDS-ON FARMERS: Picking vegetables from terrace gardens for the day’s meal.— Photos: By Special Arrangement  

In October, when Kerala Agricultural University published a report revealing dangerous levels of pesticide residues in vegetables sold through city markets, residents in the capital went into a tizzy. With the grim images of endosulfan victims still fresh in public memory, the hazards of pesticide contamination became the subject of discussion again.

But 35,000 families who were part of a novel project launched by the State Horticulture Mission-Kerala (SHM-K) heaved a sigh of relief instead. These households are equipped to meet at least part of their daily requirement of vegetables fresh from their own rooftops, without having to depend on the market.

The promotion of the rooftop gardens was taken up by the SHM-K in 2011 under the Vegetable Initiative for Urban Clusters (VIUC), a project launched by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and funded by the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

“The primary objective of the project is to enhance the production of pesticide-free vegetables through organic methods,” K. Prathapan, Director, SHM-K, says. “Terrace gardens are the natural choice in an urban environment where space is at a premium.”

The beneficiaries were selected through residents’ associations. Each household was provided with 25 grow bags and potting mixture. More than 15 lakh high-yielding seedlings of tomato, chilli, amaranthus, cluster beans, brinjal, cabbage and cauliflower were supplied to the families. Organic manure and biocontrol agents for pest management were provided.

The beneficiaries were issued a comprehensive handbook in Malayalam outlining the methods for organic cultivation of vegetables. The SHM-K organised a series of training programmes with the help of the Agriculture Department, the Vegetable and Fruit Promotion Council, Keralam, and the residents’ associations. Farmers’ groups were roped in to produce seeds and three seed-vending machines were set up at strategic locations.

“Most of the families generate 500 g to one kg of each vegetable every two days, enough to meet the domestic requirement. The excess produce is given away free or sold to the neighbourhood. A few households have worked out a barter arrangement with vegetable and fish vendors or local traders,” Bindu Muraleedharan, Technical Officer, SHM-K, says.

Private initiatives to promote rooftop gardening have also borne fruit in the capital city. Terrace farming is eco-friendly, it can contribute to self-sufficiency in vegetables and also make significant savings in the family budget, say V.B. Padmanabhan and his wife, O.K. Swadija, both Professors at the College of Agriculture, Vellayani.

To popularise rooftop farming, the couple offers free training for residents’ associations using slideshows and through lectures.

A handful of apartment buildings in the city have taken to terrace farming. They have gone one step further by integrating rooftop cultivation of vegetables with waste management. Kitchen waste is collected from the apartments and converted into organic manure that is used for farming.

The SHM-K is planning to bring more apartment buildings into the initiative.

As many as 2,000 farmers’ groups in the suburbs are part of the VIUC. “The Kerala State Horticultural Products Development Corporation has a buy-back arrangement with these clusters. About 3,000 kg of vegetables are procured daily from the farmers and sold through Horticorp’s retail outlets,” Dr. Prathapan says.