The why and how of your own urban garden

By Preethi Sukumaran

Just like there’s a billion dollar business idea and a New York Times bestseller in each of us, so too lurks a farmer in each of us – with the urge to grow beautiful living things.

Scientists with clever sounding PhD thesis topics have tried to explain this urge to grow new life in different ways: they use displacement theory to explain our emotional need to stay grounded as we keep moving from our roots as a reason to nurture new life and connect with the soil.

Our prehistoric ancestors did forest gardening where they tried to improve their jungle environment by cultivating useful vines and trees, while eliminating gradually undesirable trees.

As civilisations grew, gardens were created purely for aesthetic reasons. Egyptian tomb paintings around 1500 BC depict ornamental horticulture and landscape design. Our school history books talk about the Hanging gardens of Babylon, considered so beautiful that they were called a wonder of the world.

I went to a different kind of gardening workshop recently. The practitioners of these kinds of gardens have very limited space, use extreme ingenuity, and apart from providing spots of greenery for everyone to enjoy, practice sustainability of a very immediate nature – they bring down their food miles to zero, eating what they grow.

Welcome to urban city farms!

If this is your introduction to city farms, 2 important concepts need to be understood before we proceed further: food miles and food security.

What are food miles and why I should care about how long my food travels before it reaches me?

Food miles is a term coined in the early 90s by Professor Tim Lang at the Sustainable Agriculture Food and Environment Alliance (SAFE). Food Miles is a factor used to assess the environmental impact of food, that measures the distance food is transported from the place of production until it reaches you.

So simply put, the Food miles measures how far your apple has travelled to reach you. For example:

  1. Since 1970, 60% of U.K’s apple orchards have been lost, and U.K now imports half a million tonnes of apples every year, half from outside the E.U, even though the climate in U.K is ideally suited to growing apples

I must confess Food Miles is a simplistic concept that should be used directionally. For example, there is a lot of debate on the quality of food miles vs. looking at just the number of miles a food has travelled to reach you. For example, Britain consumes tomatoes from both Spain and Mexico. If you look at just the number of miles each tomato travels, it may seem better to adopt the Spanish tomato.

However the Spanish tomato is grown in heated glass houses that consume electricity. So if you consider both miles travelled and production conditions, the Mexican tomato is a better bet for the U.K.

Having said that, food miles is an interesting indicator to look at how far our sourcing net is growing and its unintended consequences.

When I was growing up, I never tasted or even saw a blueberry. I wondered how it would taste, as I was regaled with descriptions of blueberries in the books I read. Today imported blueberries and Chinese apples are available in supermarkets throughout the year in Chennai. They travel insane distances, are plucked un-ripe, stored in a blast chiller and ripened quickly with chemicals to reach me living thousands of miles away in Chennai.

High food miles, directionally have 3 important implications on us:

  1. Potentially harmful access to out of season foods
  2. Higher environment costs (as these foods need to be processed, stored and prepared for our consumption)
  3. Loss of local farmland as we come to depend on a more central system of obtaining produce(which we will discuss next) and other foods leading to large monoculture farms which have a direct effect on the soil and its fertility

What is Food Security?

Food security refers to the availability of food and our access to food. A household is considered food secure when no member lives in fear of hunger and starvation.

Although the global per capita food production has been increasing steadily from the 1960s, 2007 – 2008 saw a food crisis triggered by high food prices around the world. Studies show that the gradual change of diet among newly developed nations like India and China is one of the important factors leading to the food price crisis. The high demand for processed and value added foods ( think burgers, fries, meat) has led to a huge amount of grain being used for feed lots. 

For example a kilogram of beef requires seven kilograms of feed grain!

The diversion of food grain into bio fuels like ethanol is another large cause of the food price crisis. The single largest use of ethanol is as a motor fuel and fuel additive. Brazil has the largest national fuel ethanol industry; gasoline sold in Brazil contains 25% ethanol.The U.S which is the next largest ethanol fuel industry makes its ethanol from corn.

Therefore usage in industrial, feed and input intensive value-added foods have contributed to price increases.

This in turn leads to less food being available for human consumption especially among developing and poor people where a family’s budget available to buy food per day is limited.

How does all of this affect me?

Globalisation and centralisation of produce means that you experience the following:

  1. There is less food available for the people who need it the most
  2. You eat tired fruits and vegetables that travel far before they reach you
  3. They are stored or artificially processed taking away their nutrition
  4. They support a centralised agriculture system which means large monoculture farms -> which means a higher amount of pesticides and fertilizers -> more toxic food + less fertile soil
  5. You eat fruits and vegetables out of season as they are increasingly grown in areas unsuitable to their natural cycle, and out of season.
  6. Your fruits and vegetables become more expensive as they travel long distances, need energy intensive resources to store them and need to be processed and cleansed so that they can look better when they reach you.

But I buy vegetables from my local vegetable cart / supermarket / organic food store- isn’t that local?

You would be surprised. Curry leaves (used extensively in Chennai) comes from our neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh– no vegetable vendor sells curry leaves that are grown in and around Chennai where I live. This is despite the fact the karuveppilai (curry leaf) trees abound and are seen in many homes. The aroma of the Andhra curry leaf, and perhaps the lack of attention paid to home grown curry leaves has pushed the local curry leaf out of the window.

Hing (again another staple of south Indian food) comes all the way from Afghanistan.

This is in a large part influenced by availability of farm land and our ever expanding palette.

In Chennai, as would be the case in most large cities, as the city expands, agricultural land has been swallowed by residential high rises, offices and factories. As industrialisation grows, the distance between us and our food increases.

Despite the best efforts of many good organic food stores to source produce locally, a complete range of fruits and vegetables that we take for granted, is simply not available around the places we live. Most of it has to travel atleast overnight before it reaches us.

So do I have to grow everything I eat? Isn’t that difficult / impractical to do? And where’s the space?

No you don’t have to grow everything you eat; atleast not right now. But what I am suggesting is that you start growing some of what you eat.

The advantages to growing some part of your food are numerous. You have access to fresh, organically grown greens, herbs or spices pretty much from your balcony – no need to make a trip and waste fuel, or eat wilted veggies which have travelled in a bus.

You get to re-connect with the soil – a therapy recommended to urban dwellers – a patch of green, is said to lighten the blackest mood!

You get to re-connect with your food in a very special way. Not long ago, most food (for me) came out of a packet. Then as I made several life changes, I looked forward to vegetable bazaar days when I would marvel over beautiful red tomatoes and earthy potatoes and carrots with their leaves intact. Fresh produce straight from the soil, is full of nutritional goodness and is emotionally satisfying to eat, in a way processed food can never be.

OK, I’m in. How do I start?

Here is our downloadable guide which takes you through some baby steps to get you started on your own urban garden. A lot of the information here comes from the urban gardening workshop I attended courtesy my favourite organic store, reStore.

Happy Gardening! – Please download, try and share.

The Krya Sustainable Urban Living guide: Baby steps to growing your own food


About the Guest Writer:

Preethi Sukumaran

Preethi is the CEO and Co-Founder of Krya Consumer Products. Preethi is most happy working at new product development and loves diving into her library, scouting out high quality ingredients, reading up on the latest research, and spending hours at her lab creating newer sustainable goodies.

Krya, is an India based sustainable consumer products, e-commerce company.  Krya creates environment friendly plant-based alternatives to everyday consumer products. Krya is a vegan organisation as are its founders. Find Krya on Facebook. Preethi & her husband Srinivas write a blog on sustainable urban living here.


Further links you may be interested in: 

1.  EWTT: Soapberries: The Eco-friendly cleaning solution



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Posted by on Aug 2 2012. Filed under Food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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