Did you know that the Earth is running out of fertile soil?
According to a report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years. In addition to erosion, its quality is also affected by other aspects of agriculture such as the use of harmful pesticides.
In urban areas, more and more people are growing their food using different methods to ease the burden on the planet. But those methods are not exactly sustainable. Most readymade potting mixes consist of soil that is usually red soil, or river sand. This fertile soil is usually taken from agricultural fields, and sometimes illegally from river beds.
But there is a way around for urban gardeners — a soilless potting mix.
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SS Radhakrishnan, a 72-year-old Chennai-based home gardener, has been making a soil substitute for his plants for the past 11 years. He says this potting mix is lighter compared to regular soil, and it is ideal for urban gardeners who are growing plants on their terrace or balcony.
These are the things you will need to make the soil substitute:
Neem cake powder
Lime chuna powder
How to make it:
Step 1: Moisten the cocopeat brick using water. Once it has soaked, it will double in size, and will be easy to break apart.
“Cocopeat is the main component of this mixture — 5 kgs of it can absorb 20 litres of water! One can soak it in water or biogas liquid slurry, which provides extra nutrients to the cocopeat,” says Radhakrishnan.
The quantity that has to be used depends on the plant you are growing, but 50% of the potting mix has to be cocopeat.
Step 2: Add vermicompost to the cocopeat.
“Vermicompost is organic material, generally food waste and other organic waste that is broken down by worms. It enhances air circulation near the roots and helps the plants to grow better. It can be replaced with cow dung or kitchen compost waste,” says Radhakrishnan.
20% of the soilless potting mix has to be vermicompost, or any other kind of organic manure.
Step 3: Add powdered neem cake powder. This is an organic insecticide which will allow roots to grow healthy.
10% of your potting mix has to be an organic insecticide.
Step 4: Add ash and lime chuna. “Calcium is not only essential for human beings, but also plants. If you cannot find chuna, powdered eggshells can be substituted. Ash is rich in potassium and ensures the medium stays loose,” he says.
5% of your potting mix should contain material like ash or perlite to ensure the medium says loose. Radhakrishnan mentions that he procures powdered coke from an iron-wala for his potting mix.
Once the mixture is ready, it can be transferred to a potting medium and saplings can be sowed at a depth of 1 to 2 inches.
Does the Soilless Potting Mix it Work?
On his 800 sq ft terrace garden Radhakrishnan grows several varieties of vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, bottle gourd, lady’s finger, pumpkin, bitter gourd and many more. He also grows a wide variety of herbs such as coriander, mint, and basil.
“Every day, I harvest one kg of four varieties of vegetables. I am always left with excess vegetables which I distribute among my neighbours,” he says.
Radhakrishnan claims the water retention capacity of this soil mix is more than that of a regular potting mix. “The coco peat in it absorbs water and retains them at the roots. Since the loss of water is minimised, plants need to be watered once in two days,” he concludes.
Neela Panchpor, a Pune-based urban gardener, also swears by the soilless potting mix she uses for her terrace garden says, “Instead of vermicompost, I have been using compost which is also an earthworm-producing agent. This ensures that the roots have good air circulation.”
She also adds a layer of dry leaves to the surface of her plant, which increases the water retention capacity.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)