Preeti Patil from Mumbai is lobbying for “skyscraper architects to redesign buildings, especially rooftops, to increase green spaces”. Her plea stems from nearly 20 years of commitment to her passion. Almost two decades ago, Preeti, the chief catering manager at MbPT (Mumbai Port Trust), unknowingly started a lifestyle trend for the Mumbaikars — terrace and balcony gardening.
Back then, balcony gardeners restricted themselves to growing potted plants like roses, jasmine, mint, coriander or the cactus. But one might say the concept of utilising the rooftops of their buildings to grow vegetables and fruits was popularised by some of the early pioneers like Preeti.
Reminiscing about the beginning in 2001, Preeti says, “At the MbPT cafeteria, every day we prepare meals and snacks for thousands of port trust personnel. So imagine the amount of vegetable and fruit waste and uneaten food waste that ends up in landfills.’’ The huge mounds of kitchen waste triggered Preeti’s interest in finding ways to utilise it.
Luckily for her, the beginning of this century was also around the time when the internet boom came in. There was increased tourist travel, which included both international and domestic travel, that got people discussing happenings elsewhere. A growing awareness of organic farming using farm waste, like fallen leaves, twigs, cow dung, food waste, was also on the rise.
It was here that Preeti found a retired economist Dr R T Doshi, who had marketed NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium) and other manure and had switched over to organic farming on his small land in Kamshet located between Mumbai and Pune. From his experience on his own farm, he had started conducting small workshops for Mumbaikars and Punekars to teach them the benefits of balcony gardening using their daily kitchen waste.
Preeti attended one of his workshops and realised that she luckily had an unutilised space of 3000 sq. ft — the roof of the MbPt canteen.
The dockyards at MbPT is a highly restricted area on the shores of Mumbai’s coastal area of the Arabian Sea. The port is used to transport bulk cargo and throughout the day many ships are dock and leave the port. There are hundreds of cranes, cargo lifting machines, heavyweight trailer trucks transporting the cargo and accompanying constant din. In such a hot, noisy and dusty locality, Preeti Patil dreamt of making a green oasis. Within five years, with help from her team in the cafeteria and after getting due permissions from the MbPT officials, she finally fulfilled her dream.
“We started with only four saplings — two each of guava and chikoo,’’ recalls Preeti.
To build a green oasis on the roof
Within no time, the terrace top boasted of 116 other plant kingdom varieties ranging from coconut, pineapple, custard apple, papaya, banana, mango, gooseberry, okra, tomato, broccoli, tamarind, etc. and leafy vegetables like spinach, amaranthus, mint, coriander, basil, ginger, among others. All this was grown using the converted cafeteria’s kitchen waste into very rich manure. She admits that though the produce on the rooftop didn’t meet the demand for cooking daily for more than 4,000 dock workers but what it did was make good use of the vast kitchen waste.
After learning from Dr Doshi, she started researching on the works of late Deepak Suchde, founder of Natueco farming, who taught the usage of Amrut Mitti is the best natural fertiliser using biomass like dry leaves, kitchen waste mixed water with cow dung and cow urine, natural jaggery, etc.
Preeti’s MbPT garden bloomed with help from Deepak—who had learnt these techniques from Prof Shripad Dhabolkar—and her own experimentation in the garden. Citing an example she narrates how when she didn’t have natural land to grow, she used plastic laundry drums, half-sawn large drums and brick rings to fill them up with soil and the Amrut Mitti before planting the saplings.
She brushes aside people’s fear of roots breaking through the rooftops of buildings saying, “Roots don’t break into the floor unless they need to anchor. If they get good external support, like a wall or a strong pole, the feeder roots nourishing the plants need just 9 inches of soil. Also, plants growing on the terraces need to be pruned so it won’t become difficult to pluck fruits.”
To control the wind and torrential rainfall of Mumbai, Preeti also set up small miniature greenhouses of plastic sheet tents. On tall buildings, she urges builders to design thicker rooftops and install windbreakers. “Luckily for us in India, there is abundant sunlight and rooftops can get clean rainwater,” she says.
Community farming in the city
Preeti feels that terrace gardening will unite people in the housing society as it needs involvement by all households. When residents realise that by growing their own veggies on their premises and are assured of chemical-free food, they will enjoy the process. Along with a few friends, Preeti started the Urban Leaves initiative, where she popularised community farming in housing societies and their rooftops. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic and lockdown, their efforts have been paused.
But the lockdown hasn’t stopped people in different places calling up Preeti for her expertise on Amrut Mitti or how to start terrace gardens. Preeti explains that preparation of Amrut Mitti takes time while “people are used to buying ready-made mixes, either sold or given free in malls as compost, which isn’t of good quality and hence may not get the results they expect from their terrace or balcony gardening”.
The global food waste estimated by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN on average amounts to almost 100 kgs per person per year. As per their estimates, the food waste causes a global economic and environmental loss of about $2.6 trillion a year which causes nearly 8 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now imagine the impact of the untapped useful resource at hand if every individual starts following what Preeti and others after her are so vociferously practising.
Edited by Yoshita Rao