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As a working professional in Bengaluru, I often have to cook in my tiny kitchen. And whenever I pluck the basil leaves for a bowl of hearty tomato soup or mint for a refreshing salsa from my kitchen garden, I send a prayer of thanks to my mother—the one with the green thumb in our family.
Whenever I dig into a salad, my mind often goes to all the times I have exclaimed – “The salad looks so fresh!” My mother’s reply would also be a smirk quietly reinforcing her pleasure at her expertise in the garden. The cucumbers, bell peppers, baby spinach and tomatoes, even the parsley garnish on top, are all always sourced from her kitchen garden.
My mother, Ganga Nath, is a feisty woman who has been battling clinical depression for a long time now. Terrace gardening is one of the many creative hobbies she embarked on as a therapeutic measure.
Every time we would see a shadow cross her brow, she would instantly go to her garden and scrounged around for whatever she needed. The next thing we knew, our home would be filled with aromas of Pui Chochhori (Basale Leaf curry) or Chingri Machher Paturi (spicy shrimp steamed in bottle gourd leaves) – with all the green components sourced fresh from her garden at our Kolkata home.
Trying to follow in her footsteps, I find solace in the balcony garden I have nurtured. For this mother-daughter duo, gardening holds a place of inexplicable worth in our hearts, nourished by memories and nostalgia.
Gardening Goes a Long Way in Our Lives
Hailing from the small town of Krishnagar in West Bengal, with lush greenery to feast your eyes on, my mother has always had a penchant for growing her plants.
So even while we were residing in a small rented apartment during my childhood, she would repurpose old sweetmeat pots and milk cartons into makeshift planters for seasonal flowers and kitchen herbs.
She continued with the habit as soon as we shifted to a new house in Kolkata around a decade ago. The plot was already strewn with tall betel nut and coconut trees, with banana groves from a neighbouring stretch peering over our boundary walls. She soon expanded her field of expertise beyond the makeshift planters into a thriving garden with flowers, fruits and vegetables.
The Legendary Mallika Mangoes and Jumbo Laukis
Back at home, none of my summer lunches ever wrapped up without a heavenly Aamer Chutney – the crown ingredient of which are the semi-ripe Mallika mangoes from the trees in our backyard.
Though a Himsagar mango tree already grew in the plot, Ma supplemented it with a sapling of the Mallika variant. On a hot summer evening, I was relishing a fresh mango when Ma asked me to save the seed. Six years later, it now stands overlooking our three-storeyed villa, gifting fragrant fruits every season. It would not be an exaggeration to say that every summer, our neighbours and relatives eagerly wait for my mother’s hampers of these delicious beauties.
Amazingly enough, sometimes the hampers would make space for pumpkins, or at times lauki (bottle gourd) or sometimes even papayas. I distinctly remember one specific year when Ma had casually thrown six lauki seeds in our backyard. All the six seeds germinated in no time and climbed up to our terrace. The soil, enriched with her homemade paddy husk compost, proved to be a haven for the plants.
In two months, they produced nearly 200 large bottle gourds. To help her plants flourish unhampered, Ma also wove an intricate macha (climbing net) across our terrace. The following year, something similar happened with disco pumpkins that made the sweetest and creamiest pies, without any added sugar. Another year, it was the turn of seeded orange papayas – which attracted flocks of sunbirds and woodpeckers. Sometimes, there were hilarious mix-ups as well, like that one time when Ma grew some rare wild gourd, mistaking the seeds for cucumber.
The Exotic Herbs and Resplendent Winter Blooms
I hardly recall a time when the coriander and curry leaves in our food came from the market because Ma’s garden always has those in abundance. Just like lemon and lime. Our twin Kaffir Lime plants are cherished in the entire neighbourhood. Ma has probably lost count of the number of times someone asked her for a cutting of the same. Furthermore, ours is the only home in the locality with a Pandan tree – an indispensable aromatic addition in Sri Lankan cuisine. A few of these leaves are a secret to that empyrean fragrance in my mother’s Navaratan Curry or Pulao.
As for the harsh Kolkata winters, Ma’s garden blooms with chrysanthemums, dahlias, petunias, calendulas, marigolds, daisies, gerberas, gladiolus – you name it. Towards the end of fall, as the festive vibes slowly start to fade, my mother will start scouring the local nurseries for whole seeds and saplings. Once planted, she will keep on adding organic manure to those from time to time, aside from watering in a strict schedule. In a while, our terrace will light up with a glorious bloom.
On the side, Ma’s winter unique kitchen garden will flourish silently. Potatoes, carrots, french beans, capsicum, tomatoes, cabbage, broad beans, turnip, spinach and other plants would thrive in all their garden-fresh glory. Our winter meals are more or less sorted most of the time, except for the grains.
Meanwhile, Ma keeps on filling her compost pit with all the wet waste from the household, stirring the mass quite often to speed up the decomposition process. Her natural paddy husk compost, which I mentioned before, exudes the most obnoxious smell at times, but undoubtedly gives rise to the most healthy plants. She has been practising composting for nearly 12 years now, and can efficiently conduct a masterclass on the concept.
Gardening – A Therapeutic Gateway
I had only been interested in the fruits of Ma’s labour in the terrace and backyard until I was diagnosed with depression as well. After a prolonged and dark episode of cocooning myself in my room for months, I emerged with a trowel in hand, determined to channel my negative energy into a positively green outcome.
Alongside kitchen herbs, I developed the habit of picking up ferns, pothos, bougainvillaea and even unknown plants from fallow lands on the roadside and replanting them at home. I would recycle plastic packets and glass jars into planters and decorate my window sills with them. When I moved to Bengaluru and zeroed in on a flat with a balcony, I was already visualising how to turn it into an urban garden.
With priceless tips from my mother over countless video chats, I slowly started creating my slice of heaven – a quaint little balcony garden, wholly sustainable and organic, of course. Till date, I have not added a smidge of chemicals to my roses, begonia, pigeonwings, Alstonia, areca palm and others, along with plenty of succulents. My kitchen herbs like Malabar spinach, basil, chilli, tomatoes etc. have also been growing with organic compost and occasional spraying of homemade insecticides.
Now, as I call up my mother every time a leaf shrivels or another branch yellows, I miss the garden at home, which is still burgeoning with my mother’s magic touch. I cannot wait to return to my mother’s terrace garden, someday soon.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)