Taking up the challenge of growing berries, kaffir limes and grapes in our city, these adventurers give you good reason to follow suit.
There’s always been a game of one-upmanship between Bengaluru and Chennai. While we’ve met their parries of pubs and nightlife with references to culture, beaches and Auroville, one community has always had to play second fiddle—the home gardeners. While their neighbours harvested strawberries and apples, these green thumbs had to look on in silent envy. That got us questioning: can we really not grow anything ‘exotic’ here? “Of course we can—all we need is some patience and gardening sense,” says Francois Laederich. The hotelier and proud owner of an avocado orchard in Pondicherry stresses that good seeds, good judgement and perseverance are key. For stumbling blocks—like Chennai not being conducive to strawberry cultivation—there are solutions. “Under controlled temperatures and controlled soil-less conditions—say in coir pith, for example—cultivation can be done,” says N Mani, joint director of horticulture, adding that fruits like dragon fruit can find success here. Shaan Lalwani, of Vriksha Nursery in Mumbai, who ships avocados and mangosteen saplings to the city, says, “Chennaiites seem to love a challenge and want to grow cold-loving plants.” Here’s looking at some indomitable gardeners.
and the power of perseverance
Civil engineer Jaswant Singh has never backed down from a challenge. When his friends insisted that Chennai’s climate is not conducive for growing exotic fruits, he wanted to prove them wrong. Currently, his garden in Anna Nagar boasts over 30 varieties of fruits, including blackberries, star fruit, oranges, chickoo, umbrella fruit, lemons and more. “I collect the seeds from different places,from nurseries, on my travel. A lot of them are from Bangalore,” he says. A gardener for 35 years, Singh’s quite the expert. According to him, sunlight is very important. “The climate in Chennai is not too bad. You just have to keep watering the plants,” says the 52-year-old who took classes at the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University. Always keen on sharing his knowledge and encouraging more people to turn urban farmers, he says, “A lot of agriculture students and teachers visit my garden and I am approached for tips on building roof top gardens on corporation buildings.”
and being self-sufficient
Malathi AM may run a women’s detective agency in town, but she is more popularly known as the lady with ‘the plants on her Scooty’. “I pick up plants from everywhere,” laughs the 46-year-old, explaining how she picked up a grape vine nine years ago from a roadside nursery in the city. “A neighbour told me I would never be able to grow it, let alone get it to fruit, so I took it as a challenge,” she says. Malathi erected a pandal for shade and planted the sapling along with some ridge gourd (they have similar leaves) for added protection. “I trimmed the gourd leaves occasionally, to give the grapes more room. I used the water I washed my vegetables and rice in, to water it. I also fertilised it every 15 days with droppings I swept up from my lovebirds’ cage (you can also use chicken droppings) as it is rich in nitrogen. A year later, the vine bore fruits,” she reminisces. Last year, she harvested 10 kilos of purple grapes at her home in Medavakkam.
Malathi, who also owns a farm 5 km away—where she grows bananas, gooseberries, guavas, chickoos and the like—recently started an organic store nearby. “I want to convert the 1,000 sq ft terrace into a garden and grow more grapes there, along with greens and vegetables, and sell them at my store,” she admits. The avid gardener—she remembers working in the gardens with her mother at the age of three—is now writing a book, with an entire chapter dedicated to growing grapes. “It will have detailed information on how to plant, save seeds, fertilise, compost, etc, along with lots of pictures. I plan to publish it early this year in Tamil and English,” she signs off.
Calamondin oranges …
and learning to dream big
Strawberries come from the supermarket. This remark by a friend’s son troubled Priya Gopalen so much that she planted a kitchen garden on her terrace in Adyar—to show him where his food came from. Today, the 43-year-old is one of the co-founders of Magic Bean, which promotes urban organic gardens. “I don’t give up easily when it comes to plants. I now grow many of the vegetables I grew when I lived in Toronto—like arugula, zucchini and bok choy,” says the computer science graduate with an MBA and a master’s in public policy. “My mother and I also grow calamondin oranges at our beach house on ECR. They grow quite easily from seed. Now I have over 10 trees that are over 10 feet tall. The oranges, which fruit year-round, are tart—somewhere between a lemon and an orange—and are fabulous as a juice,” she adds. Gopalen, who runs a gardening programme at Kids Central and conducts workshops around the city, says calomondins can be grown in pots, too. “What a plant needs is space for the roots to grow. And roots won’t go too deep if it gets fed properly.” She explains they are hardy trees, but will take three years to fruit. “It just needs room to grow and well-drained soil. I focus on my soil—80 per cent permaculture and 20 per cent compost—and I mulch them well,” she says, adding that she sows plants that require colder climes between October and March. “I tried strawberries, but they didn’t grow well. I am never disheartened though. I’ve put the seeds in hibernation in the fridge and will try again this season,” she smiles.
French seeds, kaffir limes…
and the art of waiting
We know them as the owners of Mango Hill, the three-star resort near Pondicherry, and of La Plancha, the restaurant that serves scrumptious burgers and platters. But what we learnt only recently is that Francois and Debarati Laederich grow their own avocados and kaffir limes. “The avocados available in the market are very expensive and a little hard. So we thought we’d give growing them a shot and brought seeds from France. Though it took a few years (six to be exact), we got fruits last year,” says Laederich, adding that they used the first crop themselves, but plan to use this year’s in their restaurants—for salads and dips.
Debarati explains their travels in Thailand inspired them to bring back the kaffir saplings. “We loved the various Thai soups they flavour with it. So we imported and planted the tree. And along with the other limes and lemons we grow, we make juices, jams, iced teas and cocktails with it,” she smiles. According to the couple, besides watering the plant well, especially while the trees were growing, and keeping them free of locusts, they just ensured the avocado trees had plenty of room to grow. “If you are planting it in a pot, make sure you re-pot when they grow big. Do the same for the limes, too,” Laederich says, adding that the season for fruits is between July and October. The duo, who also grow pomelos, besides their own vegetables and salad greens, now want to master the art of growing musk melons.
Passion fruit season…
and being thankful
What began as something to keep her occupied after she retired as general manager (HR) of Ashok Leyland in 2012, has now become a passion for Usha Soman. In fact, she is adventurous enough to experiment with plants that are uncommon in the city. “I am growing yellow passion fruit now. The vine has grown beautifully and I’m just waiting for it to flower. It is said to take over a year to fruit,” says the 62-year-old, who ensures she waters it at 6 am (wet soil during the day can attract pests) and fertilises it with panchkavya and vermicompost. “Last year, I had grown strawberries. While the plant had thrived, I unfortunately cut off several runners before it fruited. This year, I won’t make the same mistake,” she says, advicing that you must give it plenty of shade (cover it with a net) and also group other plants around it so that you can create a cool enviroment.
Next up for the Velachery resident is grapes.
Surya Praphulla Kumar and Mrinalini Sundar