A saviour in disguise – urban gardening

By Jithendri Gomes

With the increasing population size and urbanisation, land available for cultivation is progressively diminishing around the urban areas in Sri Lanka. But like any other thing, this is no excuse. Yes, we lack space, but there are multiple options like vertical gardening, bud plants in pots, etc. to have your own greens even if you live in an apartment.

With the world’s population increasing rapidly, there is a fast-growing concern for the lack of resources and food. This is when the need for agriculture is felt most. So now is the time to put in some thought and effort in growing your own food and move towards self-sustaining.

Even if you are unable to grow enough to feed your family every day, start small with the easy. Soon you will find new ways to keep expanding.

There are simple things that you can do with your existing gardens:

. Vertical gardens make use of limited space. This works well with shallow root plants like greens. So if you have a bare wall outside, this is a good way to use the space. Unlike other methods, it will take some additional effort to put up the pots or beds on the wall.

. Gotukola is a great ground cover and is one of the healthiest greens you can find.

. Instead of ornamental plants, throw in a spinach plant or a head of lettuce. Some of us do like our flowers and ferns, but in a time where we are fast-running out of space, maybe it is time to reconsider.

. Instead of ferns for a hedge, consider berries…or something else with a yield.

. Collecting your roof drainage water or just collecting it in a barrel is also a good use of water that goes to waste. The water used in your kitchen sink is also something you can use. Especially during a time like now, where we are running short of water as a country and experiencing water cuts.

Jayantha Wijesingha

We spoke to Jayantha Wijesingha, an avid environmentalist from the Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka, about his thoughts on this matter.

“As far as I know, there are no programmes or initiatives taken by any national bodies to promote the idea of urban gardening or urban agriculture or urban forestation. Rather, it is mostly individuals who have taken up the cause and made an example of their own practices. It is absolutely vital that the Government, along with the local authorities, work together with urban planning and promote this idea. There is a massive need for great focus to be directed towards this idea. In fact, it is also one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), goal number 11 to be precise: Sustainable Cities and Communities, which proves that it is also in line with international parties and their interests.

Unfortunately, it continues to be overlooked.

“On the other hand, it must also be highlighted that the Urban Development Authority (UDA) Act regulates it to a certain extent, which emphasises that within a certain property, only 60% of the land’s extent can be used as buildable land while the rest of the 40% must be used as green cover, rainwater drainage, etc. This prevents unnecessary cutting down of trees as owners have to take permission to do so. You have to get permission from the municipal council of your area if you were to cut down a large tree and the urban council encourages these measures as well. Even with all these procedures in place, property developers find their way into establishing buildings breaking all of these laws. It is disheartening to see them getting their way, especially in an age where we find many talented architects who will draw plans creatively, keeping Sustainable Goals in mind and saving the already existing greens. These architects even make sure that condominiums and apartments have space to have a garden plot.”

Why should we make an effort?

Wijesingha also listed out some of the advantages of urban gardening and agriculture:

. Provides with the nutrition you need – the majority of our meals consist of vegetables, fruits, and greens. So, why not put in some effort to grow your own? There are many plants that grow and yield easily. For example, papaya, avocado, chillies, tomatoes, spinach, nelli, and curry leaves. A fruit like Nelli will have all the vitamin C you need!

. Stops you from consuming poisonous substances – most of the vegetables and fruits we consume now are heavily dosed with toxics. Especially fruits like apples that are imported are said to be transported for six months to reach the consumer and for a fruit to last that long, it definitely must have strong preservatives and chemicals injected. Organic fruits and vegetables are usually always more expensive than the normal ones we buy, making it unaffordable to some of us.

. Helps you to eat healthy – many of us put a lot of effort into eating healthy; it is a good trend that has spread fast. Watching what you eat and trying to eat healthy is all in vain if you are feeding yourself with poison. Growing your own food certainly prevents that from happening to a great extent.

. Helps preserve urban wildlife – growing plants and flowers that animals and insects can feed on certainly helps and in turn, you too will benefit from it. For example, small bats, lizards, and fireflies eat mosquitoes at night. So, having a garden that hosts them will solve the mosquito problem to a great extent. You don’t have to take drastic measures for you and your family to take precautions against mosquitoes.

. Helps with pollination – when there is urban forestry or green cover, it attracts bees, various insects, and birds that help with pollination, thus increasing your harvest. Birds also help with distributing seeds that in turn grow trees elsewhere. It also attracts butterflies that have their own ecosystem – one that also needs to be preserved.

. Improves soil – having plants and trees help with improving the nutrient content of soil. This in turn improves its decomposing capabilities, something that is lacking in urban areas. It gives an environment for microorganisms to survive. It also improves the water retention capabilities of soil.

. Reduces temperature levels – having greenery and trees around you will cool your environment and reduce direct sunlight. You know the difference the moment you enter a road with big shady trees. In an era where the energy demand is very high, having a cooler surrounding will contribute towards less use of power, especially with air conditioning. Trees also help with retaining the moisture in the air.

. The beautiful landscape – any sort of green cover has a very positive visual impact and beautifies our surroundings.

“Where I live, we have a seven-perch land with our house on it and I have a small garden. I have planted everything from guava, nelli, and curry leaves to pandana leaves and long beans. You don’t need a lot of space to grow and have a garden. Each person growing five species of trees in their garden is a good way to start. And it will contribute immensely to preserve our ecosystem,” said Wijesingha.

It is a practice all of us can attempt wherever we live. Start small with the easier plants so that you won’t get discouraged. We found that there are multiple tutorials found online that will help you as well. Without waiting for the authorities to do all the work, we can start by one person at a time. As with anything, the greener the better!

Stories from gardeners

We spoke to a few organisations and people who are making an effort to grow whatever they can and maintain a garden.

Gayani Dissanayake Gamage from ECO-V, who is in charge of their urban garden as their President Kanchana Weerakoon was out of the country, said: “We have a 20-perch land in Borelasgamuwa where we have divided the property into two portions. One grows medicinal plants and is a forest garden, while the other has fruits and vegetables along with a butterfly garden. We encourage everyone to volunteer; we take you through the processes of gardening, what each plant needs, what fertiliser to use, how to make your own, etc. We take you through the whole process. We can also help anyone with starting their own by offering our guidance and plants if necessary.”

ECO-V is a non-profit organization established in 2001. For almost 18 years, they have worked on research and community based activities that contribute towards preserving the environment. They are very friendly and always willing to lend a hand to those who are truly interested. You can contact them at their office in Boralesgamuwa or call them for advice.

Medhini Igoor from Us On Earth spoke to us about their high-yielding garden as well. “It was actually my husband who started this project because of his love for the idea of ‘growing your own food’. We were lucky enough to have a plot of land already in the suburbs of Colombo.

We started it with the help of a gardener one year ago and we are already yielding enough to feed our family and more. The idea grew into something more because of the excess produce we enjoyed and we started to sell around two months ago. We even managed to grow vegetables like cabbage, carrots, and kale – plants that are popularly known only to grow in the upcountry regions.”

To know more about their story, follow their page on Facebook: Us on Earth.

Sharmaine Chandrasekara

Sharmaine Chandrasekara is an enthusiastic gardener who will always lend a hand to anyone who is interested in learning how to maintain a garden and even need help with getting plants. “I will do anything if it encourages another to plant a tree. I have a six by eight-foot plot behind my house in Pannipitiya and I grow everything – from tomatoes and spinach to gotukola and celery – in pots or in empty rice bags.

On the ground, I have plants like curry leaves and papaw and on the fence, a passion fruit plant. And this is to feed my family. Recently, we bought the adjoining property and I have begun to grow many more vegetables and fruits. I plant mostly from the seeds found in fruits or vegetables I purchased and to get rarer plants like strawberries (and yes, they grow in Colombo!), I go to Diyatha Gardens. I also make some compost at home, but also buy some fertiliser from shops.”