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When life gives you a lockdown, grow lemons

Try your hand at kitchen or community gardens, or use windowsills for the unparalleled joy of using fresh produce

Aparajita Sengupta with newly-harvested onions
Aparajita Sengupta with newly-harvested onions (Photo courtesy: Aparajita Sengupta)

Aparajita Sengupta is done braiding her newly-harvested onions. She has hung them up in her kitchen and has also completed sorting the seeds of the vegetables she harvested earlier this year on her family farm in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. A global pandemic may have disrupted food supply in the country but it has not turned Sengupta’s life topsy-turvy in the kitchen. Reason: The family practically grows everything it cooks.

So lockdown meals use fresh produce for salads and pies, herbed dips, Bengali aloor dum with baby potatoes and garlic leaves, mulberry ice cream, the season’s best sapotas and banana milkshakes.

Fresh produce from Sengupta’s farm in Birbhum
Fresh produce from Sengupta’s farm in Birbhum (Photo courtesy: Aparajita Sengupta)

Nine years ago, Sengupta and her husband Debal Mazumder quit their lives (Debal was working, Aparajita was doing her PhD) in the US and returned to India to grow food. The permaculture designers believe community gardens are the need of the hour. Their story is a case in point, especially at a time when urban farming is a growing trend.

Chef Shagun Mehra harvested sapotas at her Goa home
Chef Shagun Mehra harvested sapotas at her Goa home (Photo courtesy: Shagun Mehra)

Growing food in quarantine

As quarantine cooking takes over the internet, growing edible plants may be the next big thing. Urban gardeners are not only using the lockdown to grow a quick herb for a pasta but are also showing off bigger harvests on Instagram.

Goa-based chef Shagun Mehra recently posted pictures of climbing a sapota tree to pluck the fruit. “We are locked in without any fresh fruits or vegetables for days now. So the experience is indeed fulfilling," she says. Mehra is hopeful that her small vegetable patch will yield radish, dill, fenugreek, okra, bitter gourd, lemons, some microgreens for salads and enough bananas and guavas.

Mumbai-based Diipti Jhangiani has also been sharing photographs of her kitchen garden, and why it makes for the perfect therapy in times of isolation. The content marketing professional has been instrumental in setting up a community garden in her residential society in Bandra. Ever since the lockdown, the neighbours have come together to share the bounty—a variety of gourds, spinach and herbs, papaya, tomatoes, carrots, okra, colocasia, ginger and turmeric. “The importance of this drives home more than ever before as there are little or no leafy greens available in the market," says the founder of the agriculture startup Edible Gardens.

Getting started

Regrowing vegetables from the pantry is probably the best way to start this process at the moment. Once life gets back to normal, choose non-hybrid seeds available online, at nurseries or plant markets. Jhangiani suggests growing bitter gourd, cucumber, turmeric, pumpkin and capsicum, and even beans like rajma (kidney beans) and chawli (black-eyed beans) this season. “Right now you can simply dry the seeds in the sun for a day and sow them in the soil. Beans require germination though," she says. Herbs like tulsi (holy basil), garden cress, coriander, ajwain (carom seeds), methi (fenugreek), mustard, fennel, dill and mint can also be harvested in 10 days with the help of seeds and cuttings.

She says it is important to make sure the plants get at least 3-4 hours of sunlight. “Edible plants need regular care. Once the lockdown is over, water them before going to work and then spend an hour or so over the weekend to feed, prune and connect with them," says Jhangiani. For Mumbai-specific information, she suggests referring to @mumbaibalconygardener on Instagram. If you don’t have planters, repurpose those takeaway boxes, milk bags or cartons. Incidentally, Jhangiani grew mulberry in a 20-litre paint bucket.

Bengaluru-based Abhilasha Bahl has been growing edible plants from seeds and cuttings of vegetables bought from farmers’ markets. “Leafy vegetables like amaranthus, Malabar spinach and kalmi (water spinach) can be grown by retaining the stalks in a glass of water and transferring them to containers once the roots develop. Keep trimming them so they give you multiple harvests," she says. The e-commerce professional finds the group Organic Terrace Gardening on Facebook useful for sharing stories and tips on urban farming.

Bahl is planning to harvest ajwain leaves to make pakodas and lemongrass for iced teas this week.

Composting at home

Years ago, a small exercise in waste segregation led Jhangiani to try composting at home. She set up a compost bin and discovered how easy it was to make home-made soil. In fact, modern-day farmers like Sengupta suggest eliminating soil completely. “The best option is to use a combination of pure compost and coco peat as it provides aeration to plants," she says, adding that the lockdown is a good time to set up apartment-scale composting units. Make your own compost with kitchen waste such as fruit and vegetable peels (except citrusy ones) and egg shells, dried leaves, plain brown paper or cardboard (brown). It’s crucial to arrange your green and brown waste in layers in well-aerated containers. “If you start with a 10-litre bucket now, you can have your first batch of fresh compost in about three weeks," says Jhangiani who finds @wormrani’s posts on Instagram informative for everything related to composting.

Experts say urban gardening is not rocket science but the best way to learn is by trial and error. According to Sengupta, some of the common mistakes people tend to make are using small containers without enough holes, opting for only soil, planting in the wrong season, over-watering, and not studying the process enough. She recommends “Humans Who Grow Food on Facebook" to connect with home gardeners and farmers from across the world.

Target the empty windowsill. The joy of harvesting the first batch of tomatoes or smelling fresh mint between your fingers is unparalleled.

Rituparna Roy is a Mumbai-based writer.

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