My New Year has begun in a new flat - one that is considerably free of electrical fires and deranged landlords! And with Delhi's blissful winter days upon us, I've been itching to grow stuff.
My question was, where? Our only available space is the lovely, spare little rooftop above our flat. Most residential buildings in Indian cities have them. And if you're lucky like us, it's yours alone!
But how do you build beds that will be watertight enough to keep wet earth from seeping through the roof, while still allowing drainage?
How do you build something affordable? How do you transport bags of heavy soil four floors up? And once up there, how will you feed and water it all?
My first 'find' was Rooftop Organics. This is the Harrods of rooftop gardening! It's lightweight, has drainage, built in shade and, get this, is not only self-watering, but has BUILT IN COMPOSTING! Those Bangalore computer geniuses must be getting bored!
In my euphoria, I nearly clicked 'buy'. But a quick check of our bank account reminded me that I'm no longer childless with bucket-loads of disposable income. At nearly $280 for the smallest model, this is an expensive option, though no doubt a good investment if you love gardening and don't want to build something yourself!
Purna Organics does the smaller, simpler version of the Rooftop Organics bed. Their planter boxes measure two feet by one foot. They are made from food grade materials, and feature a bottom filter that helps store water. There is also a built-in overflow, in case plants get over-watered. Three boxes sell for $31, so considerably more affordable! And I like that you can add boxes at your leisure, spreading out the cost; as well as the idea of portability in case you want to move plants around.
Their website features a great little video about high density organic farming, so you can see just how prolific these unassuming little boxes can be. And they sell a range of excellent organic soils, additives, pest control ingredients, not to mention great tools, like a template that tells you how incredibly close you can plant various seeds, a great little elephant shaped watering can for kids and a dibber (stuff only a gardener can love!)
Here's a glimpse of their own rooftop farm (though in less elegant planters). Also, having ordered some stuff from them already, I can tell you the owner, Mallesh, has a very keen sense of customer service, so you're unlikely to be disappointed.
So how did I end up with my bamboo planters pictured at the top of this post?
Serendipity.... I decided to get someone to bring 3' x 3' raised bed liners from the UK, thinking I'd construct a cheap base to hold them. Then, I got a carpenter to build bases out of bamboo, though if I did it again, I'd make the corner posts twice as tall so you don't get whacked in the head every time you stand up! The nice thing about them is, they were cheap to make; bamboo is great for outdoors and is fairly weather resistant. The corner posts will act as supports and a net can be thrown over the top for shade or protection from birds.
In the end, my solution and Mallesh's cost roughly the same per square foot, so his boxes are a good deal if you can't be bothered to build bases (or indeed, order stuff from abroad, which is hardly good for your carbon footprint)!
Also, had I seen this photo from a rooftop farm in Kolkata, I'd have designed my own space with rope in mind!! Not bad, eh! Still plan to borrow this excellent, low-tech idea -- though I hope Delhi's monkeys don't start using it as a jungle gym!
There are loads of other cheap, ingenious Do-It-Yourself rooftop gardening solutions out there, including this one from Global Buckets:
(Requires pretty special drill bits though).
Also check out Global Buckets' ingenious clay pot irrigation system:
And this cheap, DIY alternative to Rooftop Organics, also with IN BUILT COMPOSTING!!:
So now you've got your bed, what do you put in it?? Unless you've got a team of slaves, or a helicopter to do the heavy lifting, the best solution is cocopeat bricks, like the one shown below. It's a dry, compressed brick of coconut husk by-products - totally eco-friendly if you live in India where coconuts are a dime a dozen. They are cheap (less than $2/brick), light enough to carry up several flights of stairs, and once soaked in water, expand five times in volume!
In fact, one planter only needed two bricks total to fill to the brim. But cocopeat has no nutrients in it, so be sure to mix it with home made compost or bagged vermicompost, ideally in a 50/50 solution. The cocopeat holds water incredibly well and has a wonderful, rich texture - let's see if it yields good plants!
So far, I've got several vegetables on the go, including chillis, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, broccoli and rocket. Meanwhile, my other little experiment involves potatoes grown in a burlap sack.
They're easily available from vegetable sellers. This one cost me less than a dollar. And the beauty is, you roll the sides down, plant your chitted potato, and then to 'earth up', you just roll up the sides of the bag as you add more earth!
Similar idea for a strawberry planter (to keep strawberries from sitting on wet soil and rotting). Fill a sack about halfway with cocopeat and vermicompost (this sack is one my vermicompost came in). Cut slits in the sides. Place the plants inside the sack and carefully poke the leaves out of the slits. Cover with earth and plant a strawberry plant on top to make best use of space. Voila!
So plenty of cheap ideas to help you kickstart a garden, even if - like me - you don't actually have one! Finally, here's a link to a fellow Indian urban gardener, and her experiments with mung beans, potatoes and cocopeat! I like her tag line:
"As the garden grows, so does the gardener."