Three words come to my mind when I think of the rooftop garden in Cairo’s Maadi area–pleasant, exotic, and a visual treat.
The luscious garden, that belongs to Dr Chandrashekhar Biradar, thrives with 50 types of natural fruits, flowers, and vegetables grown through multi-layer farming on his 50 square feet rooftop garden. It’s next to his kitchen.
Some of the plants include tomatoes, cherries, Russian Persimmon, brinjals, peas, bananas, beans, chillies, okra, sweet potatoes, eggplant, cabbage, carrots, broccoli, gourds, cucumbers, spinach, salad greens, herbs, onions, peppers, radish, pumpkins, apples and so on.
The yield is so high that his garden can feed up to five family members. He often ends up giving excess produce to his friends and neighbours.
So, what inspired Dr Biradar, a Space Scientist, who is thousands of miles away from his country, to take up gardening at scale?
“It is a combination of genes, passion, and necessity,” Dr Biradar tells The Better India on a video call, as he pans the phone camera across his beautiful garden.
Hailing from a farmer’s family from Karnataka, Dr Biradar, a PhD in space science and applications, was always fascinated with growing his food sans chemicals or pesticides. He got the opportunity when he moved to the US in the mid-2000s.
“I was appalled to see the high price of green vegetables, that too with limited choices, and certainly no Indian vegetables. The only option was to grow my food. It was almost like my destiny was pushing me towards a new passion. I may have begun my gardening journey out of necessity but pursuing it for over a decade was a conscious choice due to its amazing health benefits,” he shares.
Dr Biradar’s work has taken him to 33 countries; currently, he is settled in Cairo, where he lives with his wife and three children.
While he considers himself fortunate for having the space for his garden, Dr Biradar believes urban dwellers with a space crunch can also replicate his methods.
“All you need is a 2×6 square feet balcony to grow 50 types of veggies. And of course, a drive to grow and consume chemical-free food.”
Multi-Layer Method in Home Garden
Dr Biradar’s garden has pots of 3.5 feet in which he sows up to five plants of different sizes and properties.
Giving an example, he says, “The topmost layer has tall trees like moringa, followed by creepers like cucumber, ridge and bottle gourds. The third layer consists of fruit-bearing plants like tomatoes and eggplants. We covered the ground with leafy vegetables like spinach, fenugreek, lettuce, and arugula. And finally, the last layer has underground plants like radish, ginger, and carrots.”
This type of gardening has multiple benefits like requiring less water and space. Besides, vegetables also taste different.
“Due to root interaction of closely planted veggies, the flavour is different. For example, own lettuce is unique as it is next to basil, tulsi, and jasmine,” he says.
For a beginner, Dr Biradar suggests starting with small pots.
After adding a healthy and natural mix of soil, cocopeat, and compost, he suggests starting with easy-to-grow plants like tomatoes, spinach, fenugreek, eggplant, and chillies.
Observing how the plants behave as per weather, soil, and water conditions is a crucial step before incorporating other plants.
“Too much love kills the plants. So refrain from giving them excessive water. Watering once in three days during summer is enough. Understand the soil pattern and judge how much nutrients your plants require. Accordingly, add organic fertilisers or compost. Make gardening a fun activity, and not work.”
Once you have understood your plants, start expanding the next cycle and add all the layers gradually.
Dr Biradar reminds me of the importance of vertical gardening where there is limited space. In fact, he has used walls on his terrace optimally by planting basil, oregano, rose marry, and garlic on them. He has also used snake plants and other creepers to provide shade to other plants from excess sunlight in the afternoon.
Next, he talks about the symbiotic relationship between plants that are grown in a single pot.
For example, put tomatoes next to basil, which is an insect repellent plant.
Likewise, put legumes that produce nitrogen nodules from the air, next to leafy veggies like lettuce or spinach. The spinach (which needs more nitrogen) and soil, in turn, absorbs the nitrogen fixate from its leaves. This increases the healthy bacteria in the soil while providing rich nutrients to the soil and plants.
It took months of efforts and experiments for Dr Biradar to come to these conclusions.
Watering & Composting Hacks
Another important aspect of gardening is watering. With almost a hundred pots, one might assume his garden to have a high usage of water.
However, Dr Biradar has effortlessly dispelled this notion as he claims to save 90 per cent water through two irrigation methods. While most of us are familiar with drip irrigation, it is the ‘clay pot diffusion irrigation’ method that demands your attention.
For this, he has dug a simple clay pot in the soil to store water.
“Clay pot in good soil has the capability of retaining water for long. Depending on the requirement of the plants, the clay pot wall releases the stored water. This ensures water is adequately provided to each plant,” he explains. As per Dr Biradar, the clay pot uses just one litre of water per week as against the conventional requirement of ten, thus saving 90 per cent water.
Another hack that Dr Biradar abides by is using the “Pipe Composing” method to convert kitchen waste into organic compost. The best part? It requires minimal space and also provides support for the creepers.
He has vertically inserted 6×3 feet long PVC pipe in the pot soil.
Explaining the system, he says, “We add kitchen waste or leftovers to the pipe. The liquid from the waste enters the soil. It is rich with nutrients that enhance the growth cycle of plants.”
Impact & Benefits
Dr Biradar feels proud every time he sees enthusiasm towards gardening.
“My three kids start their day in the garden by harvesting fresh greens, carrots, and cherry tomatoes. This gives them much-needed proteins for the day. Gardening is a fun activity where they also learn about the role of climate change and biodiversity. Besides, healthy and organic food has made them immune to virals,” says Dr Biradar.
Echoing his father, nine-year-old Rohan says, “I love watering plants and having fresh vegetables from our garden.”
The lockdown has given him time to engage in gardening activities. In fact, the trio is carving their own little garden and building nests for birds.
Dr Biradar is also part of a WhatsApp group which has Indians from across the world. By sharing his gardening tips and pictures, the scientist has inspired several friends to pursue a sustainable route.
On a parting note, Dr Biradar reinforces the concept of grow-your-own-food that can eventually help in increasing local biodiversity and reducing carbon footprints.
He concludes, “If every family starts growing even a kilo of food, we can cut down on transportation from thousands of miles every day, thus reducing our carbon footprints. And finally, gardening enhances nature, reduces stress, and improves our overall immunity.”
To know more, get in touch with Dr Biradar at C.Biradar@cgiar.org.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)