So you’ve decided to go ahead with your urban farm and are now facing growing pains? Hopefully you’ve followed guidelines in How to Grow? and are set for advanced information now!
Plants adore a routine, so water them regularly – at least once a day in the evenings or mornings (twice in summer, and rarely during the monsoons for outdoor farms). Over-watering is the most common reason for plant death. Water your plants until the earth is moist, not flooded. Know that each plant has different water requirements. For example, tomato, gourds and sugarcane need deep watering twice daily, whereas okra hates to have its feet constantly wet, and will get by on a single dose in the morning so the noon heat can dry it out again.
Soil is the most important factor of plant health. Ensure that your earth, manure, compost and/or peatmoss is well-mixed. A healthy balance will ensure nutrients and stability to your plants, and prevent worms. Your soil also needs to be friable – moist and compact when held (not wet and clayey, nor dry and sandy). From time to time, loosen your soil with a hand-pitchfork to break it up and stimulate root growth. Earthworms help tremendously in loosening the soil, so don’t harm the good ones (usually dark red in color) when you go gunning for the bad (white or black in color). Whenever you add manure to your soil, mix it in well, as a concentration of manure tends to invite the bad worms. Keep adding good stuff to your soil like composted raw fruit and veggie waste, tea leaves, coffee grounds, eggshells, raw fish waste and its water (do bury the last items deep though, or you may soon have a stink pit instead of good soil!)
De-weeding is essential during early plant growth. You will be shocked at the ingenuity of weeds that sprout from nowhere to edge out your genuine veggie saplings. Once your saplings survive this battle and mature, their growing foliage will contain weeds automatically. Trim off dried/diseased foliage to help your veggie plants move resources towards new growth. If insects or worms are eating your leaves, trim the affected parts. In the case of full-blown fungus or disease on your plants, uproot them entirely and dispose off your dead (do not recycle in your compost bin). Climbers like gourds need to be given direction to allow room for more foliage (wooden or wire trellises, or window grills are perfect). Weak-stemmed plants like tomatoes need support to keep their fruit off the ground (cages or tripods are perfect). Most beans need help to move along quickly (single poles are perfect). As far as possible, keep foliage off the ground and in full sunlight, to make life difficult for harmful insects and worms.
SMART & PREVENTIVE ORGANIC FARMING
There are no quick solutions in nature that are not also dirty ones – involving the use of chemical pesticides. If you commit to organic farming, life will be more challenging and you will need smart solutions. However the result will be pure, clean, uncontaminated produce that you will be proud to offer your family. Here’s how to do it:
- Seasonal & Biodynamic Growing – While Mumbai’s tropical climate allows year-round veggie production, it helps to respect nature and the natural cycle. So please grow, and eat – seasonally. For example, summers are good for fruit veggies but terrible for root veggies that thrive only in winter. Similarly, leaf veggies will grow year-round but get bitter in taste as temperatures climb in peak summer. For more general insights check out When to Grow? and Growing Bio-Dynamically. For details on each type, please see Plantopedia.
- Mixed Cultivation – Intersperse a variety of plants in the same container so (as my gardening friend Sujatha says) the roots can “speak to each other”. This mixed vegetation creates healthier conditions for microbial growth in the soil, and confuses pests that tend to zero in on particular veggies for destruction.
- Let’s Talk About the Butterflies and Bees – Put up the banners and send out the invites to all bees and butterflies in the neighborhood! Use big, bright, showy flowers like roses, hibiscus and bougainvillea to entice these lovely creatures to come visit your flowering veggie plants, and transport their pollen, to turn flower to fruit!
- Insect Repellent Plants – Add aromatic plants like garlic, turmeric, basil and marigold around your veggie plants to ward off the evil guys. I, for one, am so enraptured with turmeric, that I bathe all my other plants in turmeric wash after harvesting it for its roots.
- Nitrogen Fixation Naturally – In other words, grow beans! Not only will they fix nitrogen neatly into your soil, the bean plants will also give you plenty to munch on while they do that. Remember to cut off the bean plant at stem when it dies, don’t uproot it entirely – so the nitrogen fixing nodules remain in the soil.
- Crop Rotation – This works wonderfully on ground zero, but can also be pulled off in containers. Remember that it is unrealistic to expect nature to keep giving you veggies of the same size, season after season, without you adding something to the soil. So, chuck in some manure and/or compost at the start of every season and try to follow this ideal crop rotation schedule for your containers/plots:-
- First Crop: Fruit Veggies (Tomatoes, Gourds, Eggplant etc)
- Second Crop: Leaf Veggies (Spinach, Amaranth, Methi etc)
- Third Crop: Root Veggies (Potatoes, Beetroot, Turmeric, Garlic, Onions etc)
- Fourth Crop: Give the Darn Soil a Break! After that, get back to Fruit, Leaf, Root, Break….
DISEASE & PEST CONTROL
Despite all preventive organic care, some problems will occur given environmental decay, plant epidemics and vector-related issues. In fact, as soon as you start your urban farm, you would be unknowingly inviting an assortment of mites, ants, worms, bees, butterflies, birds and even rodents who will joyously arrive to gatecrash the party. These are folks of varied types, and it is important to differentiate between the harmless and the harmful ones.
Foliage, especially of fruiting veggies and sweet leaf veggies (lettuce, spinach) are often targets of leaf-eating worms, aphids and fungus which feast on/destroy foliage and fruit. I have found that regular use of Neem Oil Foliar spray can deter harmful worms, and aphids, and it can inhibit spread of fungus. In my experience, regular dusting of wood/coconut shell ash on diseased foliage is even more effective in deterring leaf-eating worms, aphids and fungus. And of course, when disease is widespread, or irrevocable as with verticilium blight, the best you can do is uproot and destroy the diseased plant and quarantine the soil for some time. If the foliage is healthy but being feasted on by gluttonous leaf-eaters, try locating the culprit worms and evict them from your farm (or better still, squish them dead if you can).
Soil, especially manure-rich soil, is often home to worms, and it is black and white ones that are generally harmful (not the dark red ones). In the case of worm-ridden soil of the wrong variety, I would isolate the container and leave the soil to air out and dry in hot sunlight for a couple of weeks. Dryness and heat is usually a good remedy to rid the soil of these harmful worms.
Ants are usually not problematic, except when assisting aphids, and can be tolerated in the farm as they also help to transport pollen. Butterflies and bees are the unqualified stalwarts to any farm and need to be encouraged. Most birds are not too problematic and I would worry about reducing their access only to protect saplings and newly planted seed. Oh yes, and if you are growing watermelons, beware of the common crow and its uncommon appetite for ripe watermelons! Rodents can be destructive and you can hang up your boots if rats in your neighborhood discover the delights of your sugarcane, ginger and potatoes. For these goons I have have an aggressive, closed-door, mouse-trap policy. I was recently surprised by the visit of a squirrel, a flock of parrots and a bunch of unruly monkeys on my high-rise (Monkeys in Mumbai – OMG!!!). My solution is to tie netting around growing gourds/fruit or, more simply, just eat my produce before they do!
With all humility, after harvesting your organic produce, please return to the earth what you do not need. Chop up larger branches and compost them along with dried leaves, waste fruit and veggies from your garden. Almost everything besides citrus (limes and oranges kill worms with their acids) will do the trick. And in time, more quickly with the assistance of worms, this will become first-class, nutrient-rich manure that you can add to your soil to make your plants very, very happy 🙂
Need more info on farming in sync with the natural world? Read Growing Bio-Dynamically!
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