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Exploring the lush green world of urban India's home gardeners

Gardening in the post-pandemic world is inclusive and cool, with everyone from doctors to college-goers adding some green to their homes

Puneet Gupta’s balcony garden in Chennai—he benefitted from being part of an online community.
Puneet Gupta’s balcony garden in Chennai—he benefitted from being part of an online community. (Puneet Gupta)

Every evening after she returns from work, Jiyaajit Singh, 23, sits down to indulge in her favourite ritual: talking to her plants about her day. “Holding them and talking to them lifts my mood instantly,” says the Mumbai-based nutritionist and painless period coach. Singh admits to feeling surprised by this strong connection she feels towards her plants, considering she started gardening, along with her father, Taranjit Singh, 50, only in 2020.

“My father decided to grow some chillies because the ones we were getting from the market during lockdown weren’t spicy enough,” she says. Four years on, that whimsical decision has flowered into a mini garden of over 40 plants. “We started by growing plants on one window sill of our apartment in Bandra. Today, all four window sills are covered with plants, including bougainvillaea in four colours,” says Jiyaajit.

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Like the Singhs, Sania Padival, 30, began gardening sometime in 2020, inspired by an almost-wild, plants growing-everywhere terrace garden at a friend’s place. “The entire space was covered with plants. I saw a Surf Excel bottle that had been cut and used as a hanging planter. There was Chinese cabbage and romaine lettuce growing. I got back home with tons of cuttings,” she recalls. Today, the Bengaluru-based events consultant has no inhibitions in calling herself a “crazy plant lady”. There are succulents, cacti—including a 7ft-tall one—orchids, even an avocado plant growing in almost every corner of her 2 BHK flat. “I have friends asking me why I live like a horticulturist,” she laughs. Caring for the garden is a routine she practises every morning. “I check on my plants daily as I sip my coffee,” she says.

The history of gardening dates back to 2000 BC, when aesthetically pleasing gardens were built in ancient Egypt. Over the ages, the activity has constantly changed form and sprouted new trends. In the 21st century, soaring real estate prices, lack of urban planning, and shrinking acreage of apartments have moved our gardens inside. If you are living in a concrete jungle, it helps to add some green into your living room, bedroom and maybe even a corner of your writing table.

While urban gardening—growing a garden in an urban setting—has had people pottering around in their balconies and terraces for quite a few years, the pandemic gave it a major push. From a hobby associated with homemakers and retirees, gardening suddenly became inclusive and cool. The term “plant parent” today is displayed like a proud badge on Instagram/X bios. The fact that it is a sustainable hobby adds to its lure among the environmentally-conscious Gen Z.

In their 2021 Garden Media Trend Report, the Garden Media Group, an American marketing and PR company in the lawn and garden industry, termed this development “the great reset”. Their most recent report on gardening trends for 2024, with the theme of “eco-optimism”, further underlines how integral plants have become to our personal spaces. The report predicts small space and container gardening (growing plants in pots or planters) to be a popular trend this year as they are easy to maintain in space-starved homes.  

“Millennials and post-millennials have taken to indoor gardening like never before,” says Sriram Aravamudan. The Bengalurean was a co-founder of the erstwhile urban gardening company, My Sunny Balcony. Set up in 2009, the company specialised in designing gardens for urban spaces. It may have seemed like an idea ahead of its time, but Aravamudan recalls receiving a diverse range of orders from clients. “While some of them wanted a garden to grow vegetables, a majority just wanted to add lush greenery to their homes,” he says.

Who is an urban gardener?

In her 2021 book, The Next-Generation Gardener, Madison Moulton describes 21st century gardeners vividly. “They are the renters with little space to garden; the tech masters surrounded by screens; the workaholics with no free time; the environmental activists with an interest in health and wellness. They are also curious, hungry to learn, and passionate about plants,” she writes.  

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There are two distinct types of urban gardeners today, says Aravamudan. “There’s one who wants to grow plants for the sake of wellness and aesthetic purposes. The other is a small-space vegetable gardener who derives great delight from growing a few tomatoes, a handful of ladies’ fingers or leafy vegetables,” he says. Whether it’s caring for one scraggly money plant or tending to a diverse patch on your terrace, urban gardening today is really about making space for a spot of nature in your comfort zone. 

Sriram Aravamudan’s terrace garden in Bengaluru.
Sriram Aravamudan’s terrace garden in Bengaluru. (Sriram Aravamudan)

The Initial Hurdle
With information and resources readily available, urban gardening is not a difficult hobby to pursue. But it has a few starting problems—the main one being plants dying on you. The reasons can range from too much or too little sunlight, over-watering, under-watering or infestations of mealy bugs. Based on conversations with a diverse set of plant lovers, there’s one thing that comes across: An urban gardener is a person who hasn’t given up on his hobby despite these setbacks and failures.

“I have been growing plants for four years now and I continue to kill them,” says Padival. “I have brutally murdered this plant called String of Pearls five times by over-watering it. And yet, last year, I bought it for the sixth time.” The sixth time proved lucky. “You have got to understand each plant’s behavioural patterns, their individual sunlight and water needs, to rear them successfully,” says Padival.

Hari Krishna, 39, an Agile coach and manager from Bengaluru, could have given up when almost all the 12 flowering plants he’d bought in 2016 to start a small garden in his apartment, died. “I am surprised that I didn’t,” he says, standing in his spacious home garden that’s lush with tulsi (holy basil), lotuses, water lilies, roses, hibiscuses and lemongrass. Adding pet dogs—a beagle and an indie—to the mix made things even more adventurous. “It meant that I had to learn about plants that could be toxic to dogs,” he says, recalling the time his beagle took a big bite off a cactus.

On the topic of budget, most of the gardeners term their hobby “inexpensive”. You can start by buying plants that cost less than Rs.100 in a nursery. If you manage to get cuttings from a generous neighbour or friend, even better they say. Initial enthusiasm, however, can have you splurge on exotic flowering plants and accessories like ceramic pots. “I have a monthly budget but I tend to go overboard and end up spending a few 1,000 rupees every months,” says Padival.

The Learning Phase
Gardening, plant parents will tell you, is a constant learning experience irrespective of how long you have been practising it. There is, of course, the old-fashioned trial and error method. But in the age of social media, you also have online communities serving as sources for information and comradeship.

Dr Roopa Joshi, 55, an ophthalmologist in Dharwad, Karnataka, has been growing plants since childhood. Her main source of information during pre-internet days were books and magazines. While she continues to subscribe to Kannada agricultural magazines and periodicals, Joshi says that social media has made her life easy by introducing her to gardening communities.

“There are so many plant-focused communities on Facebook. I am part of Plants Swap India, a group with around 18,400 members from all over India. We exchange plants growing in excess among ourselves,” she says. “Plant swap” entails getting together, in person or online, and exchanging full plants, clippings, seeds or gardening accessories, with members.

Like Joshi, Puneet Gupta, 44, benefitted from being part of an online community. In 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, Gupta, co-founder and CFO of fintech company Kaleidofin in Chennai, found himself with a lot of spare time. Gardening seemed like a good activity to dabble in, and so he joined a WhatsApp group in his apartment society that was solely dedicated to it. The members were well-informed, and shared plant clippings and a starter kit. This ensured that growing plants in his 5x11ft long balcony was a relatively smooth experience. “I didn’t lose too many plants,” says Gupta, whose weekends now are dedicated to tending to his prolific snake plants, money plants, succulents and evergreen shrubs. “It’s a hobby that helps me switch off from constantly thinking about work.”

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Getting Experimental
Maybe it’s the joy of seeing something you have put your efforts in grow right in front of you. Or it might be the unexpectedness of natural processes like pollination and propagation multiplying your favourite plant into more saplings. But what’s interesting to note is how most home gardeners reach a point where they turn from novices to brave experimenters.

Take Joshi. With decades of gardening practice under her belt, she’s now added a couple of carnivorous plants, the Pitcher Plant and Drosera, to her heaving garden. “I got them from a friend who is an Isro scientist. I am learning how to take care of them,” she says.

A common response when you ask a plant lover if they are obsessed about their plants is a laughing “yes”. “My babies” is a common term of endearment. Padival talks to her plants and, among other quirky habits, she also gives names to plants that hurt her. “I’d brought back a cactus stem from Kumta (a beach town in Karnataka). I named it Pokerhontas because it stabbed me in my hand,” she laughs. Joshi jokes about her children’s refrain that she cares more for her plants than them. Believable when you learn of her daily post-clinic routine of tending to her garden well past midnight. “You can call me an ‘ophthalmic farmer’,” she says.

Gardening tips for beginners
1. Start small with only one or two potted plants.
2. Sunlight is the major food for all plants, so check if your house has areas with good sunlight streaming in.
3. Instead of going to the nursery and blindly picking plants up, do basic research on the plants you intend to buy. Learn about their sunlight, water, and fertiliser requirements.
4. Be mindful of the care the plant needs when seasons change.
5. If you have pets, take care to buy plants that are non-toxic.
6. Beware of mealy bugs that appear as white patches on leaves and stems. Wipe them away with the help of rubbing alcohol. Neem oil spray is a good preventative solution.
7. Gardening is not an expensive hobby but it’s wise to maintain a monthly budget.

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