Among the challenges of terrace farming is the lifting of heavy material like soil to the rooftop. But Thodupuzha-born farmer S K Hari says his “lightweight” potting mixture could be a way to solve the issue.
A former government employee and bookseller, the Kerala resident took up farming full-time in 2015. His product Ecothrive, he says, can be a boon for farmers and gardeners who prefer nurturing their plants in pots or grow bags. “The potting mix is not only lightweight, but also contains several organic components that aid better growth and health of the plant,” Hari tells The Better India.
Working as a bookseller for several years, Hari says that it was in fact the books he read that inspired him to take up agriculture.
He later quit the job due to its tiring nature and subsequent health issues. “I used to spend around 12-15 hours in front of the computer every day and this started affecting my health. To improve my health, I started vegetable farming on my land,” says the 57-year-old.
In 2016, he attended training in natural farming in Bengaluru. “I started farming in Marayoor in Idukki, in and around 10 acres on a friend’s land. I spent around Rs 8 – 10 lakh to set up the farm. It was a successful venture and I was able to sell vegetables for Rs 1 lakh per month. But unfortunately, I was asked to leave the land,” says Hari, adding that he had to sell his own land to pay the debt.
In 2020, he took up the dealership of a potting mixture from a person. He started selling the mixture to people and nurseries in the locality.
“This was how I got to know more about potting mixture and its high demand in the market. The feedback for the product was in fact very positive in the beginning. But eventually, I started receiving complaints from the consumers. Many complained that their plants are dying,” he explains.
“After a few inquiries, I realised that the person who provided the potting mix to me never had a license from the agriculture department. He was selling an unauthorised product. I lost around Rs 1 lakh in this.”
Though there were several setbacks, Hari wasn’t ready to give up yet. He approached the Coir board to help him with formulating a good potting mixture.
“They helped me by sharing the technology for making the perfect potting mixture. Through their training, I learned the technique to compost coco peat, which forms the major component in the potting mixture. I formulated the rest using my own experiences and observations,” he adds.
On why he focussed on making the mix lightweight, he says, “I have personally felt the difficulty of lifting heaving materials like soil and heavy pots or grow bags. For aged people like us, it is often a task to manage weight, especially in terrace gardens. Therefore, I really wanted the mix to be as lightweight as possible.”
A Central Coir Research Institute employee who is part of the extension activities like training in the institute says, “The product is based on coco peat, but the rest of the ingredients and the ratio in which they have been mixed were formulated by Hari. Even I have personally used the mixture and would say that it works really well. I have planted a few vegetables like chillies and okra and they all have come out healthy.”
Rich in nutrients, faster yield
In early 2021, after several attempts through trial and error, Hari was able to come up with a formulation for the right organic lightweight potting mixture.
“Other than cocopeat, the mixture is made of ingredients like cow dung compost, egg shells, neem cake, clamshell powder and so on. It is rich in essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK) that aid proper growth and development in plants. The PH level of the mixture is between 6.5 to 7, which is ideal for plant growth,” he explains.
“Under the geographic and climatic conditions in my region, the plants grow faster than the ones grown in soil with this mix. They also yield faster and more harvests,” he claims, adding that it might change from one place to another depending on external factors like the thickness and salinity of the soil.
Hari also received a license for the mixture from the Kerala agriculture department. The Central Coir Research Institute employee says, “While applying for a license, one needs to attend a course by the agriculture department. Besides, the samples of the product have to be sent to state-approved labs as per the department’s order. They will be tested for certain parameters and the license will be given [accordingly].”
According to Hari, the mixture is perfect for planting garden plants and vegetables and it should be used without mixing it with soil.
“I have found that when mixed with soil, the quality of the mix is compromised. Its best feature is that it is light and therefore lets the roots of the plant thrive well, unlike with soil, which is heavy and thick. The mix also lets the roots get enough air, resulting in better growth,” he says.
Hari has set up a garden on his neighbor’s terrace, growing vegetables like okra, brinjal, and spinach, as well as and flowering plants like marigolds in the same potting mixture.
He suggests filling a quarter of the pot with charcoal leaves and then filling the remaining half with this mixture.
“This would be enough for the initial growth of the plant. Since the mixture is rich in nutrients, there is no need to apply any manure for at least a week or two. Later, you can apply any type of manure or the same potting mixture. If the roots are exposed on the surface, one can sprinkle some mix on it. The plants must be water according to the moisture content in the mixture,” he elaborates.
Josephine Paulinose, an 81-year-old gardening enthusiast from Kalamassery, has been buying the potting mix from Hari for the past several months. “The potting mix is very effective, especially for rooting new plants. As it is light and airy, the roots thrive really well and I had observed it in my anthuriums. It is also rich in all essential nutrients and therefore aids better growth. Besides, it is lightweight, making it perfect for hanging pots,” she says.
Hari says that he and his family are now actively involved in making the mixture. He has also started selling the mixture to nearby nurseries and local shops. “Due to the positive response from my customers, we are now planning to scale up the production,” he says.
For more information and enquiries, you can WhatsApp him at 9400313266.
Edited by Divya Sethu; Photo credits: SK Hari