Finding my way through a kitchen garden

In 2018, going farm-to-table, at home


Text and visuals: Radhika Agarwal

At the onset of this year, I confided in a friend that I felt like I’d lost my sense of purpose. She suggested I make a list of things I like to do, and try doing at least one thing from my list every day. Could I find purpose in the smaller, almost-forgotten things?

As I thought back, I was transported to a time when as a child with chubby fingers, I’d be ideal for poking holes in a bed of soil in my father’s lush garden. At the turn of the season, we would prepare the potting soil together for sowing seeds. I remembered how proud I was with my great hole-poking contribution.

As an adult now, away from the home where I grew up, I took stock of my backyard. “Does it have garden potential?”, I asked myself, as I lined up a few pots, and slowly set to work on my own small kitchen garden.

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I began setting up a small kitchen garden with a few pots of soil and a handful of seeds

From the moment the seeds were sown in March, they became my companions, my family.

I’d jump out of bed to watch them and nurture them. And every day, I had something to look forward to again. At home, we celebrated even a hint of green breaking out from a seedling in the soil.

There was a small problem though: An adult mango tree in our neighbour’s house stretches over into our backyard, because of which we only get little pockets of sunlight from between bunches of leaves and mangoes.

My husband and I would uncomplainingly scuttle into these spots to let our skin soak in its share of Vitamin D— after all, this tree bears enough fruit for our year’s supply of mango pickle. It’s family.

Gradually, we vacated these sun-lit spots for our seedlings.

Here, they grew stronger. For the ones that needed more sun, we often took them out to sunbathe at the neighbourhood park.

As the year went by, in another part of town, my father too had rediscovered his passion for growing food. Together, we worked on formulae to turn our kitchen waste into nourishing feed for our plants.

We regularly visited each other bearing gifts: Bags of homemade compost, dried banana peels (potassium-rich nutrition for plants), powdered egg shells (an excellent source of calcium), and many other precious scraps from the kitchen we would previously dismiss as “waste”.

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Lauki & Tori vines were the first to show up, weaving a green canopy and taking over our home.

By July, lauki and tori vines graced my backyard kitchen garden.

The vines grew quickly and looked for things to hold on to. One string after another, we made jute-rope-webs that they happily wrapped themselves around, as they reached for the sky with the freshness of hope. While we eagerly awaited the arrival of the flowers and the subsequent fruit, we watched the leaves weave a green canopy over our heads.

In August, we also planted arbi and haldi. We didn’t intend on eating them, but thought that their beautiful leaves would be a really nice addition to our outdoor space. We bought fresh bulbs from the sabziwala to plantpicking ones that looked healthy, had lots of nodes, and from which a green shoot was coming out.

They barely got any sun, but thrived anyway.

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The Arbi plant has big, beautiful leaves which look like they've been painted in different shades of green with water colours!

It wasn’t long before all this started making its way onto our plates.

A friend recommended adding fresh haldi leaves to dal cheela (a lentil pancake). I embedded a whole leaf into a circle of cheela batter while it was cooking on a hot pan, and found that a childhood favourite flavor was elevated to a whole new level with the crunch and aroma of the fresh haldi leaf.

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A haldi leaf embedded into dal cheela.

Leafy vegetables and herbs grew relatively quicker and were more forgiving than most other edible plants, cheering us on to keep gardening.

We grew paalak (spinach), laal chaulai (red amaranth leaves), methi (fenugreek), dhaniya (coriander), sarson (mustard), lemongrass, and basil. We tossed freshly-picked greens into crunchy salads, sautéed and stuffed them into omelettes, puréed them into hearty soups, and sauces for just about everything. In November, as the air started to get cooler, our sarson was finally ready for harvest. We craved and ate a lot of saag (a North Indian preparation of chopped greens cooked with spices, eaten with hot rotis). It reminded us of the magic of our mothers’ kitchens. A few months ago, my father and his friends had also started growing vegetables on a small farm just outside the city, and by this time of the year, we were harvesting winter vegetables in abundance. I was particularly excited about the radish, which we ate in the form of mooli paranthas, and pickle.

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Ma with a basketful of winter vegetables from the farm.

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Pickled radish, a delicious condiment to go with winter lunches.

While we’re enjoying our winter crop, the last one for this year, I think back to how edible plants have been wonderful teachers. From just a bed of earth, seeds work magic with my little doses of daily intentionality. I learn something new with every success or failure in the garden, and apply my learnings to the next crop. Some plants catch the fancy of monkeys, peacocks, and pests. Some others protest changes in temperature, or the lack of desired nutrition. But most challenges notwithstanding, some grow quickly; and yet others burst into life just when you’re just about to give up on them.

 

Radhika Agarwal is on a mission to find fun, creative ways to live zero-waste in a big city. She documents her journey here


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