My grandmother’s rooftop garden was the stuff of legend in our neighbourhood.
Early every morning, before the rest of the family stirred, she would be up on our terrace, pottering in the garden, pruning her plants, carefully adding used tea leaves as fertiliser. During the monsoon, gladioli leaves poked out of the soil like sword blades, and in winter there were rows of chrysanthemums. She coaxed juicy lemons out of a lemon tree in a pot. My father inherited her passion. He would come back from official trips with an assortment of bulbs—gladioli, lilies, amaryllis. One of his last outings was the annual trip to the Horticultural Society garden show in Kolkata.
I inherited their love for plants but not their green thumbs. When I first got a little house with a backyard while living in San Francisco, I created a herb garden worthy of a Simon & Garfunkel song: parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. I planted cucumbers and tomatoes and asparagus. I subscribed to Sunset, a home style, cooking and gardening magazine focusing on the American West. Some days it was enough to just stand at the kitchen window and look out at my garden glowing a golden green in the afternoon sun.
Alas, the garden didn’t always live up to the Sunset magazine fantasy. The neighbour’s young son was hired to weed it. He carefully pulled out my flowers and left all the weeds intact. Snails and slugs attacked the tomatoes. Soon, only the little markers with the plant names I had stuck in the ground remained, sticking forlornly out of the soil like tombstones marking the short lives of my basil and thyme and sage. But a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven (or garden) for?
Back in India, at one point I became obsessed with growing vegetables from leftovers. The remains of a bunch of lemongrass from the market became a flourishing thicket. I soaked carrot tops in little containers of water and marvelled at the feathery green fronds that emerged. The pièce de résistance was the avocado. I watched YouTube videos and suspended the avocado seed on an upside-down toothpick tripod in a glass of water for weeks, hoping against hope it would sprout. To my delight, it did, and soon we had an avocado tree with glossy leaves. Over a few years it grew tall and sturdy and even survived Cyclone Amphan in 2020. But it stubbornly refused to yield even a flower, let alone an avocado. Someone told me I needed a second avocado tree for pollination but I no longer had the patience to go through the entire rigmarole again. We contemplated chopping down the tree to make room for more “productive” plants.
In the pandemic, I rediscovered gardening. Stuck at the family home during the lockdown in early 2020 and trying to avoid doomscrolling about covid-19, I researched gardening instead. I learnt about soil types, ordered seeds and seedling trays, potting soil and germination mixes. Soon I had new “tombstone” markers for plants that didn’t make it. The capsicums and zucchini never even deigned to sprout. The carrots and radishes produced luxuriant foliage but only disappointment beneath the soil. The tomatoes and eggplants, however, were so prolific that I started running out of garden space and had to give the plants away.
Returning to my own flat in Kolkata after months of lockdown, I discovered the potatoes and garlic in the refrigerator had gnarly shoots growing out of them. In great excitement, I planted all of them. They grew happily, bursting with leafy promise. I breathlessly googled “How to tell when there are potatoes under the soil?” But at the end of the season I had only managed to grow one tiny potato and the world’s smallest carrot. My sister cooked them and ceremoniously divided them into six minuscule pieces so that everyone in the family could have a taste of the less than bountiful harvest.
It was a humbling experience. The gushing emails from the gardening sites had filled my head with visions of home gardens bursting with glossy produce. As the world went into lockdown, I imagined the garden at my family home flowering and fruiting, a very personal farm-to-table experiment whose freshness would literally burst out of my Instagram feed. The reality did not measure up. As a wise friend said during the agitation against the government’s farm laws, every pundit opining on what farmers should or should not do needed to try and grow one good-sized potato in their home garden first.
But despite the stingy harvest, the garden was a life-saver. It was a luxury to even have one at a time when so many people were cooped up in little rooms and tiny apartments, barely able to step out for fresh air. Growing my own micro greens felt like a micro miracle. At a time when every day brought news of death and devastation, the first tentative little green cotyledon leaves of a tomato plant felt fragile but exhilarating. “Simply planting a seed with intention, or touching soil, can be transformative. Go ahead and get a little dirty,” writes Suze Yalof Schwartz, author of Unplug: A Simple Guide To Meditation For Busy Skeptics And Modern Soul Seekers. Schwartz is right. Instead of obsessing about death, it was an opportunity to fuss about life. Trying to grow Brussels sprouts in warm Kolkata felt extravagantly optimistic but I have always been irrationally optimistic about gardens and my gardening skills.
As a child I remember going on vacation with a little gardening set complete with packets of tomato seeds. I planted the seeds, still inside the packet, in the garden of the house we were staying in. When we were ready to leave, I was heartbroken that there were no tomatoes to be plucked. In a culture of instant gratification, it felt like an act of terrible betrayal. But at the same time it was an act of such blithe optimism.
The garden does teach you, however, to be patient, for there are ultimately no low-hanging fruits to be had. Like many gardeners seduced by glossy magazines, I had imagined that gardens would sort of take care of themselves, with minimal effort from me beyond a watering can. They didn’t. Roses grew leggy. The cilantro bolted to seed. The basil flowered and stopped producing leaves. Unpruned suckers proliferated on the tomato vine under my un-watchful eye. Two days of inattention left the soil cracked and the plants gasping. The eggplants in the back were stunted from too little sun, the herbs in front wilted from too much. I hoped the garden would develop a wild beauty, the kind I read about in Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of his Corfu villas. Instead, it just became a petri dish for mosquitoes, some areas ugly with bald patches, and others overrun by crabgrass. Eventually, we had a gardener come in to restore order. He took regular pleasure in coming to the door and presenting us with a harvest of eggplants—from plants he had planted (big) and from ones I had (spindly).
Yet the garden still gives me far more than I can give it. During the pandemic, there was reassurance in watching the dusty babblers squabbling among the branches while a black and white woodpecker knocked noisily on the moringa tree whose trunk was covered with furry caterpillars. We discovered carelessly thrown seeds in the empty yard next door had turned into fat bitter gourds hanging on our side, while a starfruit tree had grown quietly in a corner unbeknownst to us.
It’s only now that I understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” And sometimes, like all heavenly things, it springs a miracle. A few days ago, my sister sent an excited WhatsApp message. In it was a picture of some kind of flower, nothing spectacular, like a spray of yellowish mango blossoms. The avocado tree had suddenly and unexpectedly come defiantly to bloom.
There’s no avocado yet but in these bleak times, I am happy for even the smallest whiff of a miracle. It feels like a little nod from my grandmother.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.