Delhi-based pastry chef Kishi Arora has a green oasis growing on her terrace that is popular on the internet. With sunflowers, grapevines and exotic plants sourced from the world over, she is weaving a green path of her own.
With over 1,000 plants in her Delhi home, Kishi Arora says that having to pick one that she favours more is unfair because she feels like a mother would when asked to choose between her children. Her garden is her piece of heaven. It is the one place she returns to, as her sheet anchor.
Kishi is a professional pastry chef and an alumnus of the Culinary Institute of America. “I have always grown up with plants in my home given that both my parents enjoyed nurturing plants. Even as a pastry chef in Four Seasons at San Diego I grew my own herbs and vegetables, especially the ones that I missed from back home,” she says to The Better India.
Nurturing A Green Haven
Having spent a few years in San Diego, she returned to Delhi to be with her parents. Kishi returned to living in a rented accommodation with her parents. She says, “We were on the second floor and had access to the terrace.” Being a passionate amateur horticulturist, the large vacant space was an open invitation to get mud on her green thumbs.
“Over some time, I converted it into a green haven of sorts. I started adding various plants, both edible and decorative. On several occasions, my mother would reiterate that we were on rent and if I kept increasing the number of pots on the terrace, the landlord might not take very kindly to us.” However, the terrace turned out to look so pretty and pleasing that no one had any objections to it.
Eventually, Kishi’s own home was constructed and they moved. “I remember telling my parents that now I could grow my vegetables and had decided to use one-fourth of the terrace space to do just that,” she says. The terrace is shaped like a ‘C’ and over the years Kishi has created a complete urban garden on her terrace.
“I grow everything that I can lay my hands on.”
“Given how experimental I am, I have just sown vanilla bean and look forward to seeing how it grows in Delhi weather,” she says. Kishi says that growing her food and nurturing plants has always been something that brings calm to her life.
Kishi’s landlord in San Diego was a horticulturist from whom she learnt a lot.
“I learnt a lot of intricate gardening techniques, which included things like how to graft, from him,” she adds.
“During the lockdown when people were suddenly getting interested in gardening, I felt that they were all very late to the party. I have been growing my vegetables and fruits for over five years now,” she says, laughing.
From ‘Farm’ to Fork!
Since Kishi’s mother, Kanan Bala, runs her home catering business, she says that a lot of the produce they harvest goes into the food she makes. “There was a time when we harvested over 10 kg of tomatoes and I made pasta sauce, bottled them up and sold them all. Within five minutes of posting on my social media handles, all the bottles were sold out and people wrote to me asking for more,” she says. This was also when Kishi realised how much of a demand there was for organic home-grown vegetables, sauces and chutneys.
Seeing the demand, the mother-daughter team added sauces and chutneys to the existing menu. “This also made me even more experimental in things I grow. I have planted broccoli, five types of radishes, different kinds of lettuce, edible flowers, colocasia (arbi), ajwain, cauliflower, cabbage, grapevine, carrot, brinjal, sweet potato, peas, strawberries, banana, capsicum, various kinds of chilli, chives, fig, lemons and all kinds of herbs that include rosemary, sage, basil, thyme and oregano are always growing at home.”
While the terrace garden is occupied with fruits, vegetables and flowering plants, the balconies inside the house also have various plants.
There is a lot of thought that Kishi has put into where and how she places her plants. “Just outside my mother’s room, I have the flowering plants and a magnolia plant so she gets to see those when she’s looking out, while the balcony attached to her room houses all the succulents. While the area behind our house through, which the sewer pipes pass, has also been beautified by me with plants.”
Having lost her father three years ago, Kishi says that the happiness she sees on her mother’s face when she is surrounded by such beautiful plants is precious. “My father also loved and appreciated green patches across the city and in a way doing this makes me feel connected to him,” she adds.
Building A Community of Plant Lovers
Kishi has an entire flora-fauna ecosystem that she has managed to put together on her terrace. She says with pride, “You look around and see just buildings and concrete. Amidst all that, I have my patch of green.” Given the number of plants that the terrace houses, Kishi speaks about how various kinds of birds and butterflies are attracted to the terrace. This in turn brings worms, who help the soil stay healthy and nourished. The entire cycle is so fulfilling to watch, she adds.
In search of rare plants, Kishi says she would travel far and wide. “In my car I always have gloves, khurpi (trowel) and a small box to keep the collected saplings, seeds or even a plant cutting. On several occasions, I have stopped the car by the roadside to get a cutting from a plant. Several people just throw away these plants and I am very happy to pick them all up.”
Leveraging her strong social media presence with over 36,000 followers, Kishi says that she has on several occasions found fellow plant lovers who are more than happy to courier seeds to her. “I had posted about one of the plants that was dying after I got back from Kumbakonam and believe me so many people reached out offering to send me a sapling or seeds. It worked and I am now waiting for better weather in Delhi to be able to sow it.”
Not just receive but Kishi is also magnanimous in giving cuttings and saplings to those who would like it.
“I have a few lemon balm herb pots at home and last year I had someone who reached out asking for it. Within an hour the pot was in her house and her joy was something I cannot describe,” says Kishi. There was no cost involved and Kishi says that the person just had to arrange for the pot to be picked up.
Once the COVID-19 situation eases up Kishi is keen on starting a community wherein people who tend to plants and want to exchange the cuttings or seeds can do so. “Buying the plant or even seeds from a nursery can be expensive. So, I would like to start something where only those who genuinely enjoy growing plants come together. There is no greater joy than seeing your plants thrive,” she says.
London, Arizona, Kumbakonam, Travancore – these are just a few of the places from where Kishi sourced seeds or saplings to plant in her Delhi home. With an in-person plant swap plan in the pipeline, Kishi says that she cannot wait.
In the words of Audrey Hepburn, “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow,” and in growing her green haven, Kishi is doing just that.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)