To set an example of how organic farming can be done easily from home, a retired couple from Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district has set up a mini forest on their rooftop. Madhubalan and his wife, R R Suseela, who both worked with the agriculture department, grow over a 100 plants in a 1,500 square foot area and have trained over 100 families in organic farming in their neighbourhood.
“While working as an agricultural officer, I had the opportunity to visit many houses and fields where farmers carry out cultivation. However, I noticed that only a few of them could take up cultivation near their homes, owing to a lack of space. This made me think of how cultivating on rooftops might be a better bet, because many houses have one, and it may help those who don’t have much land at their disposal,” Madhubalan tells The Better India.
In 2011, Madhubalan discussed this idea with his wife. Over the next few days, the couple came up with a plan, keeping in mind things to ensure before opting for a rooftop garden.
‘A one-time investment’
The 62-year-old says the first and most important step is to waterproof the garden to prevent water from seeping into homes below. For this, he and Suseela opted for a solution which accounts for expansion under physical or thermal movements of the building, without compromising on the durability and protection. Next, they installed a water storage tank in the garden, because carrying a bucket of water to the roof every day was not feasible in the long run. Then, they collected seeds, manure, and grow bags, which they bought from trustworthy organisations and other farmers in their village.
“A roof garden is a one-time investment. We invested Rs 10,000 almost 10 years ago and started with planting 20 crops of fenugreek, coriander, and a few other greens. Now, we have many fresh fruits and vegetables growing here, including tomato, chilli, brinjal, bitter gourd, pumpkin, lady’s finger, banana, guava, and pomegranate. We also grow shoe flowers and roses, and small trees such as drumsticks and neem,” 58- year-old Suseela tells The Better India.
In 2016, Madhubalan retired as Assistant Director of Agriculture, and Suseela retired in 2019 as Joint Director of Agriculture. Even before retirement, the couple spent time taking care of their garden both before they left for work and after they returned home. After they retired, they found even more time to do so and began experimenting with growing plants such as tea, various kinds of herbs, and aloe vera.
Madhubalan says he opted for organic farming because it has a host of benefits. “Not only does it ensure fresh produce, but also benefits the environment in numerous ways, and helps strengthen the health of the soil. I believe the more biodiversity there is on a farm, the more stable it is,” he says.
Suseela and Madhubalan use farmyard manure, vermicompost, neem cake and pungam cakes as manure. They also use coconut coir, which plays a key role in providing an ideal growing environment to the plants. It also helps fast-draining soils hold onto water a little bit longer.
Let’s learn agriculture!
As their mini jungle grew further, it caught the eye of villagers in the Vennampatti housing community in Dharmapuri. A few began visiting the couple’s garden to find out more — Madhubalan and Suseela were more than happy to invite them in. They now give free classes on how to start gardening and provide tips on where to buy grow bags from, and why drip irrigation is better, among other things. Till date, the couple has taught over 100 families in their village how to grow an organic garden on their rooftops.
Ashokan K, a villager from Dharmapuri, says, “I began noticing the plants on Madhubalan’s terrace garden two years ago, and contacted him to ask if I can visit. I was surprised to see hundreds of plants on the rooftop. Inspired, I collected some flower seeds and now, I grow shoe flowers and roses myself. But I had many doubts about how to go around cultivation, and Madhubalan helped me out. He told me about things I should keep in mind, and shared a few tips on how to grow plants at home.”
Madhubalan says some of the produce grown in his garden is kept for himself, and the rest he distributes to neighbours. “While we can earn money by selling the products in the market, we wish to share them with our neighbours and make new friends instead,” he says.
Mohan Das, another villager of the area, says, “I’d received some vegetables from Madhubalan back in 2015. I was impressed by their freshness and taste and visited his garden to know more. He, and his wife, helped me understand how easy it is to cultivate crops on rooftops, and taught me more about organic farming. They gave me tips on how to set up planting containers, prepare the soil, and plant vegetables, as well as how to keep the crops healthy with organic pest control.”
On Madhubalan’s Facebook page, Vivasayam karkalam – விவசாயம் கற்கலாம், (Let’s Learn Agriculture) he posts pictures of his produce and shares their various benefits and tips on how to care for the plants. This led to his followers requesting he start online classes to educate more people on the methods of terrace gardening.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Madhubalan and his wife gave free classes to over 1,000 people. “We feel happy when our students send us pictures and videos of their own rooftop gardens. Some homemakers also make a decent income from selling their produce, and hearing that makes us very proud,” Madhubalan says.
The couple also has a website, which aims to help farmers and newbies learn about more terrace gardening.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)