“As a young girl, I was always fascinated by biology. But it wasn’t until I began noticing the care with which my aunts and grandmothers picked out fresh vegetables from their home gardens and fields, and prepared it for meals on the same day, that I discovered how joyful harvesting your own food is,” says Madhavi Guttikonda (43), a gardener who nurtures as many as 500 plants out of her two-storeyed terrace garden in Visakhapatnam.
Not only has Madhavi successfully cultivated a variety of flowers, fruits and vegetables over the past decade, she has also made organic farming a household name in Andhra Pradesh by posting over 300 tutorial videos on ‘Mad Garden’, her Youtube channel with a family of 4,84,000 subscribers, and growing.
“I began gardening soon after I got married, about 25 years ago. We used to live in a rented apartment and I mostly grew flowering species and ornamental plants. It wasn’t seven years ago that my focus shifted to growing what I eat. Now, at least four weekdays’ worth of produce in my kitchen comes from my garden,” Madhavi tells The Better India.
“When I began ‘Mad Gardener’ in 2018, I wasn’t confident in my skillset and the sole purpose was to share my experiences. But as the first Telugu channel in gardening, we were able to reach a huge audience within a month,” she adds. “People left queries all over my social media handles, encouraging me to post as often as possible. Now, I can proudly say that I’ve inspired thousands of people to take up gardening themselves. Some of them may have time and space constraints, but they, too, express that they enjoy watching my videos. They share how their dream house would have a terrace garden like mine.”
While Madhavi has a dedicated section for the flowering trees of roses, hibiscus and chrysanthemums in her garden, she says her speciality is growing seasonal vegetables that have a short harvest cycle, such as capsicum, tomato, cauliflower, chilly, potatoes, cabbage and heirloom varieties of gourds and beans. Fruits such as dragon fruit, papaya, mulberries, sweet lime, cherries, lemon, banana and sugarcane also find a space in her green haven spread over 1,800 square feet.
“I also grow my turmeric, and vegetables like carrots, radish, beetroots and mushrooms that are rarely available in my neighbourhood,” she says, adding that she regularly shares half of her produce with her domestic workers, friends and neighbours.
“I never had an idea about selling my produce to shopkeepers and I don’t think I ever will. It is a different kind of happiness to share your harvest with people you know, and have them compliment their taste and texture. We often replace this kind of sentiment with material loves, but you wouldn’t share the produce you bought with your money with others, would you?” she asks.
‘As Easy As It Looks’
Madhavi says it was her son and her daughter who set up the YouTube channel for her. “During the initial days, they used to help me shoot and edit my videos as well, but I learnt to manage it all by myself over time,” she says.
“New visitors are attracted to my channel because of my terrace garden, but they can’t leave after watching only one video. I often share anecdotes and concepts that I’ve previously covered, so they can always go watch those. I’ve been told I get a little too excited while explaining the techniques,” she laughs. “But the idea I’m trying to propagate is that gardening is just as easy as it looks, and anybody can do it.”
“If I am growing a new vegetable, I won’t research before making the video and claim that I’m already an expert. I talk about my observations, ask people to share their experiences in the comments, and they always do. So there’s always that personal connection,” she adds.
While the bulk of Madhavi’s videos are ‘how-tos’ on organic farming methods for growing different crops, Madavi also shares tips to combat pest control and on using natural fertilisers.
“For the past two years, I have been growing about half of my vegetables over composting bins. For this, I layer leftover vegetable and fruit scraps between soil, dry leaves and twigs until the bin is full to the brim, and then pour the seeds on the top. If done right, this not only nourishes the plant but also helps combat maggots, fruit flies and other harmful insects,” she says. “Occasionally, I use store-bought manure and Epsom salt, but most micronutrients that plants need can be found in compost.”
She adds, “I used to procure the seeds locally, but it has been some time now that I’ve been saving and using the seeds from my own plants, and stopped buying them altogether. Sometimes, my followers also send me seeds of exotic and rare plants so I get a chance to explore their growth and share my experience with them.”
Madhavi only buys rooted vegetables of onion, garlic and ginger from retail outlets regularly as they require more space to be cultivated underground, for at least nine months.
Point out to her that growing fruits such as sugarcane and dragonfruit at home is uncommon, and she laughs. “They’re some of the easiest things to grow out of a container; all you really need is a stem from a matured plant. But I don’t grow them often because they flower only once a year, and you get about twenty fruits per cycle,” she says.
“But I like to spend as much time in my garden as I can, even when I’m not taking care of it. Plants don’t expect anything out of you and can’t express their issues, but I believe they can sense us and this [additional care] may help in increasing their yield,” she says.
“Usually, people talk about how they bring back homegrown vegetables from their rural villages. But at this point, I can harvest about a week’s worth of produce whenever I visit my relatives in Rajahmundry and Vijayawada,” she shares proudly.
‘An honour to stand next to farmers.’
While Madhavi used to post at least four videos every week, her gardening took a backseat when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition last year.
“Then, my father passed away in November 2020, and I didn’t post a video for two weeks. Suddenly, I was flooded with messages on Instagram and in the YouTube comments. People used to address me by my name, said they were worried for me and kept checking in to see if I was going through any problems. Eventually, I opened up about my struggles and everyone was so understanding. It was then I realised that I have such a warm and supportive community,” she shares.
While the revenue generated from a YouTube channel fluctuates based on the number of uploads and the views they garner, income from all the videos on ‘Mad Gardener’ enables Madhavi to earn at least a lakh rupees every month, she says. Her videos have also inspired several children, as young as 10 years old, to take up gardening, as per their parents who wrote to Madhavi.
Last month, she also won an award in the category of terrace gardening by Rythu Nestham, an agricultural magazine that introduces farmers to new methods of organic farming.
“It was such an honour to receive an award from the Vice President of India. But the most exciting part of it for me was standing next to the other farmers in the state. What we grow on terrace gardens or in limited spaces is nothing compared to what they achieve regularly,” notes Madhavi. “That day, I told the founder of Rythu Nestham that I, too, want to experience the farming life. It has become my ambition to buy my own land and cultivate my food on soil. I would then like to share tutorial videos on those techniques, too.”
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)