Back in March I had the privilege of designing and constructing a garden for Tejus Home with the help of one of their staff, Michael, and my volunteers Abi and Courtney. I had arrived in Kochi 8 months pregnant from the north of India where I'd been teaching organic gardening at a small art school for under privileged kids. I’d travelled to Kochi to give birth because it was rumored to be a more relaxed and safe Indian city than its cow-filled counterpart Varansi where I'd spent most of the last 2 years. (I figured as my pregnancy developed I would probably be better off in an easygoing and cleaner place. Plus Varanasi would be heating up to 48+ Celsius in the weeks following my son's birth which might have added unnecessary stress to those early weeks with a newborn.)
One of the main factors that brought me to Kochi was the existence of a well recommended birth center called Birth Village which was known for natural births and water births, something very uncommon in India. I'd done some traveling during pregnancy and visited 5 birth centers along the way, each of them seemed fine but none had felt perfect. Choosing a place over the internet was risky but I went for it with Birth Village and arrived in Kochi using up my last "fit to travel" doctors notice so there was no turning back.
At my 1st visit at the birth center I learned about their non-profit partnership with Tejus Home to help the pregnant teens there experience a natural birth, and receive birth education, pre-natal and post-partum care. Having just researched the world of birth myself I knew how important it was that these services were being offered in India, especially to girls who were at the beginning of their own womanhood. Cesarean rates have skyrocketed all over the world, especially in Asia and all too often Cesareans are chosen for doctor’s convenience (doctors simply don’t have time to attend 24+ labors.) Birth Village is on a mission to change that.
I quickly found out that there had been talk at the Girl's home of building a food garden and that they were looking for volunteers to help. I’d spent the last five years constructing gardens for non-profits around the world as part of the on-the-grounds project forwww.worldfoodgarden.org, an online network of food gardeners around the world, so I immediately knew how I would be spending my last months of pregnancy in Kochi. The Girl's Home is a 2 story house with 2 terraces, one shady, one sunny, and a small front and backyard. While there isn't enough space to grow a huge food garden, with a little innovation the space could be used to grow a decent number of crops. One of the girls, Gayatree, had already started planting in the front yard- peppers, tomatoes, a red plant they referred to as spinach, and bananas. I was thrilled to be a part of a community during my pregnancy, where I could watch and learn from girls half my age who already had babies, and offer something in exchange. Food gardening is a great skill to have for anyone to sustain themselves so the idea was that, with enough experience, Gayetree and the others would actually be able to produce their own food from the garden, and possibly more to sell.
I really hadn't any experience with babies at all so being at the girls home was great exposure for me! Here are the two cuties that inhabited the Girls home when I first arrived:
Building the Roof-top Garden
We decided to construct some sub-irrigated garden planters on the sunny terrace. Sub-irrigated planters are containers that hold water inside the container, below the soil. Michael helped us acquire 10 discarded refrigerators from the junkyard next door to use as the planter structures.
Sub-irrigated gardens are especially good for rooftops because a)the protect the roof from the damage of constant contact with wet soil, and b) the water below the soil keeps the soil cooler than it would normally be on a blazing hot roof in the summertime.
First we lined the sunny terrace with the refrigerators, each laying on what used to be its back, with the doors removed:
Then the plan was to line the insides of each fridge with a waterproof tarp but we had to do a lot of scraping and hammering to get all the little sharp plastic edges out of the inside so that they wouldn’t tear through the liner. Here is Abi standing next to the waterproof liner as we measured it at the shop:
And again, Abi working to hammer out the sharp edges inside the fridge and cover them with tape. It was H-O-T and really sunny so we did like the locals in the north often do and covered our skin from the sun:
This is one of the tubs after hammering off the protruding pieces we coverd the sharp edges with tape:
In sub-irrigation, the water sits in the bottom 4 inches of the container and the soaks its way up into the soil above. This is good because there is no evaporation of water by the sun since the plant isn’t watered from the top. Usually water is saved this way. But in the case of over-watering, the water would need to drain out at the four inch mark so as to not fill the container all the way to the top. So a drain hole should always be created in a sub-irrigated planter.
Here is Michael drilling drainholes into each of the refrigerators, at 4 inches from the bottom:
After the drain-holes were drilled and the sharp edges were covered we lined the planters with the waterproof tarp and added small plastic outlets (lower right) to keep the drain-holes intact:
Because the water sits below the soil in a sub-irrigated planter, there needs to be some sort of structure to prevent the soil and water from just becoming mud at the bottom of the planter. For this we cut 4 inch PVC pipes to fit the length of the planter. Abi holding the PVC pipe still for Michael to cut:
Two PVCs laid down into the bottom of each planter:
Next we needed something to protect the PVC pipes from filling up with soil so we chose a thin mold-proof nylon fabric barrier which happened to be bright pink and we had to wash it multiple times to make sure the dyes wouldn’t run into the water. Here is volunteer Courtney lining the planters with the bright pink soil barrier cloth:
Next we cut the end off of old 2 liter water bottles and used them as the fill-pipe for the water. We simply needed to screw the mouth of the water bottle into the pre-drilled hole on the PVC pipe and add enough soil to hold the bottles in place:
By this point I only had time to complete one planter to be the prototype before I was off having my own baby! I ended up following the Indian tradition of not leaving the home for a few weeks post-partum so I could spend all my time with my newborn. I returned to find that Michael had finished off the project with the help of a beautiful Swiss family who were also volunteering at Tejus home at the time. Michael was able to acquire a perfect mix of composted cow manure, worm compost and coco-peat to fill the planters. Then he and Gayatree planted them with a variety of summer veggies and built a trellis with ropes and sticks for the veggies to climb. Here is Gayatree holding my 6 week old son Trekker in the new Tejus home garden:
Over-watering plants is a greater danger than allowing the roots to grow stronger in the search for water in the soil. Master gardeners know some helpful techniques that will reduce the risk of over-watering while providing sufficient water and nutrients for every plant in the garden. Each technique should be customized based on the soil type and response of the plants.
1. Use a toothpick to check the soil &ndash Dry soil will refuse to stick to a toothpick that is inserted close to a plant. Water should be offered when the inserted toothpick comes out of the soil without any soil particles stuck on the wood. A toothpick test should be conducted each day to determine if watering is necessary.
2. Create milk jug trickling waterers &ndash Vegetable plants require significant water supplies throughout the hottest weeks of summer. Tomatoes, squash, melons and rosebushes should have a continues root-level water supply. A milk jug with small holes should be buried close to the roots of each plant. In the spring, a jug should be buried up to the spout. A filled jug will retain its shape while refilling the plant hole with soil. At least once each week, the jug should be filled.
3. Give a fern a cup of tea &ndash Ferns will thrive when a used tea bag is placed at the bottom of the planting hole. Excess water is stored in the bag as a reservoir for the fern. Roots will find additional nitrogen from the tea bag. A weak ammonia solution is helpful for ferns. Mix one tablespoon of household ammonia with one quart of water. This is another healthy source of nitrogen.
4. Feed Borax to sensitive plants &ndash Twice during the spring months, mix a solution of one tablespoon of Borax mixed with one gallon of water. Douse the leaves of azaleas, hollies, ferns, yews, hostas and herbs, such as chives and thyme. Leaves and soil should be soaked with the solution. These plants will withstand the intense sun rays that are common in the summer.
5. Recycle cooking water &ndash Plants in the landscaping in Toronto will appreciate the nutrient-rich water that is used to cook vegetables and pasta. After a large stock pot of pasta is cooked, without salt, the water should be cooled and then poured into the garden soil. The hungry plants will absorb nutrients from the food. Salt cannot be present because the plants will die.
Certain foods provide helpful nutrients in the garden.
&bull Eggs &ndash Calcium from the shells will remain in the cooking water. Garden plants require calcium to grow healthy vegetables: potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers and squash.
&bull Spinach &ndash Iron is the primary mineral left in the cooking water when spinach is boiled or steamed. A healthy dose of potassium is also present.
&bull Pasta &ndash Starch in the water causes the soil to release the nutrients held in the particles.
&bull Potatoes &ndash Again, the starch remaining in the water is helpful for the soil composition required for healthy garden plants.
NO SALT &ndash can be present in the cooking water for this step to be effective.
Any combination of these steps can improve the healthy plant life in the garden and flowerbeds. Significant quantities of water will be required to sustain plants that bear vegetables. Consistent sources of water ensure that the vegetables have consistent shape. The master gardener refuses to waste water but applies the right amounts of water at appropriate times throughout the growing season.
Wichi Garden Season 3!
I returned to Varanasi a couple weeks a after a 5 month break. Working with the Wichi Art School is always inspiring, not only because of the constant singing and dancing of happy children but also because now they are implementing a program to clean up different areas of Varanasi on Saturdays. If anyone reading this has visited Varanasi since the invention of plastic bags then they know what a serious undertaking this will be and what a cultural mind shift Wichi School is planting in these childrens minds through this program. (for foriegners- basically there is a real lack of an organized system for dealing with garbage here and so the people are led to throw trash everywhere. The organic stuff composts in place or gets eaten by animals but plastic bags of many colors remain on the ground- everywhere! Occasionally you see a cow chewing on plastic too.)
ANYWAY, this blog is about the garden and how the school has done a great job keeping it up. The kids (with the help of the teachers and Ravi) kept the garden ing for most of the really hot season with various types of local edible urds from seeds that we had ordered from Annadana Seed Savers Network last year. Then last month the kids pulled up the remains of those hot season crops and started season 3 with some spinach (called palak in Hindi),  okra (called ladyfinger or bindi), holy basil (tulsi),  beans, corn, and a papaya tree! I was so pleased to see that they had grown many of the plants from seed in our nursery section of the roof and transplanted them into the garden when the plants had grown to be the right size just as they had learned last year.
Here are some pictures of what they planted this time:
beans and bindi:
a papaya tree in a bag:
(They didn't follow the square foot gardening guidelines for spacing that we had done last year and opted instead for the more traditional row-cropping. This leaves plenty of space in the bed for more plantings.)
Here is the teacher Renu and cook Sheila are stirring the worm compost and showing me the worms. They've doubled in size to the point of spreding them out into two boxes, and it seems like we may soon want to expand to a larger system altogether:
Ravi has also started this new perimeter structure with rope to hold vining plants which have the potential to make this a really neat enclosed by greenery rooftop:
right now there is only this local non-edible bean plant growing on the rope but its a terrific idea for using the space wisely and providing atmosphere and privacy for the school. Also, the landlord was beginning to worry about the weight of the beds on the roof and potential problems from moisture seeping through the plastic liner of the sub-irrigation so focusing the garden around the perimeter of the roof in smaller sub-irrigated boxes would  distribute the weight in a more balanced way towards the load-bearing walls and the box structure bottoms would hold a space between the sub-irrigation liner and the roof.
Here is a pic of the sub-irrigated produce box planters that we planted in early season 2. (I wasnt around to take pictures of how the pants grew throughout the summer):
we will replant these boxes this season and train the plants to climb Ravis ropes to form a vertical food garden enclosure on the roof this season!
Season 3 challenges:
We also have a new challenge this season- the pests have found us! We have aphids, ants, mealybugs, lef miners, and this strange orange beetle that was destroying the bindi leaves.
Here's a pic of the mysterious beetle:
(I've had a difficult time identifying this beatle online... If anyone has any leads please comment on this blog!)
We ended up shaking these guys off into a bucket of water and they did not come back. (hopefully they were not beneficial insects in disquise :O )
(we've started by cleaning these guys by hand with water. but tomorrow we're ing on a field trip to visit the eco farm across the river and the organizer there said he'd share their concoction of cow-urine based organic pesticide.
mealy bugs, aphids and ants:
Raja cleaning aphids and mealy bugs by hand
(we dont have many of these so we can just get rid of the leaves where they are present for now. If it becomes an issue in the future Ive heard a neem spray will do the trick)
apparently aphids excrete some sort of sweet honeydew substance when they eat the plant leaf and ants LOVE that substance so ants end up farming aphids! They are said to actually milk the aphids by stroking them with their antennae AND to store their eggs over winter in ant farms and plant them in the plants each year. They also fight off aphid predators! Woah. They clearly have something ing on in the pic above.
Tomorrow we are taking a school fieldtrip to the eco-farm across the river where the organizer there told me he would give us some of their rich cow-urine based organic pesticides to try out at Wichi garden.
Season 3 Summary
Wichi School is doing a terrific job at keeping the garden program ing with or without the help of WorldFoodGarden.org!
- New challenges: pests and roof load.
- Opportunities: learn about local organic pesticides and remedies. take the garden more vertical, moving weight towards load bearing walls.
And here are a few bonus pics from the other day.  We started some seeds I brought back from the US from Seeds of Change- Brandywine tomatos, scarlet nantes carrots, garlic chives, mari ld, feverfew and for the start of our medicinal garden and cold and flu season- korean licorice mint a great tonic to relieve colds.
kids admiring the tulsi plants:
kids giving me an impromptu dance performance:
David and I found out about Holly Hirshberg and The Dinner Garden at Texas Public Radio's Urban Homesteading Views and Brews event on July 19, 2012. Now on Saturday, July 21, I'm exploring the website her non-profit maintains. The tools it offers gardeners may be just the thing I need to get myself organized in order to execute the plans I have in my head.
A LOT has happened in the last couple months at Wichi School. SO I'll recap the moments through some pictures!
First the kids learned about soil and how to prick out the seedlings below from these cut water-bottle-seed-trays and to transplant them into the individual cups pictured left:
Here's Ravi Tripathi, one of the founder's of Wichi School, explaining in Hindi about how the consistency of the soil in the cup should be not too wet, not to dry, and with plenty of air:
Here's Wichi School's 1st tomato transplant!
We built a makeshift mini-greenhouse for the nursery by hanging plastic sheeting and shadecloth over a pieces of bamboo in tent-fashion. It took about 5 minutes and works like a charm:
...where the kids water the seedlings here each day:
In the meantime a few great volunteers have come through to help build three 4x10 foot garden beds each with a sub-irrigation system. Here is the process we took for each bed:
Pictured below are a couple of the wonderful and talented garden building volunteers Michael Lanuzielo, an innovative gardener and talented cartoonist from Canada, and Patrick, a German adventurer and journalist, covering the 1st bed's brick/wood/ screen sub-irrigation system with nylon fabric (to keep soil from falling through screen.)
The sub-irrigation system of bed 1 was a od experiment but this system doesnt work quite as well for irrigation as the PVC pipe methods in beds 2 and 3 below. This is because after adding the soil,  it's weight pushed the screening down in ways that disallowed for free-flow of water throughout the chamber. But regardless, it definately still grows food!
Here Patrick, Michael, film-maker Irena Taskovski and friend are laying down the 1st layer of soil - worm castings. We chose worm castings for the 1st layer becasue of its high wicking capacity:
Adding a mixture of wormcastings, composted cow manure and soil below. The light stuff is actually a clay soil which I mistook for sandy soil when I bought it OOPs, anyway, the plants still grow very well and it was a fun bed to build:
Here the bed is gridded in the Square Foot Gardening fashion so it will be easy to teach the kids about proper plant spacing. Notice the 3 waterbottles sticking up in the center of the bed. These are fill tubes leading to the irrigation below. We needed 3 fill tubes (unlike beds 2 and 3 below which only require 1 filltube)
Inspired by some of the systems here on Urban Green, I decided that a solid water chamber below the soil might work out better than the brick/screen method we used in bed 1. The plan for beds 2 and 3 was to use five 10 ft PVC pipes with holes drilled all over for water and air to flow through:
Below are the pics of the process:
How to make a sub-irrigated, square-foot-garden raised bed:
1) wooden structure that Albie built for the raised bed. We used a cheap plastic mat on the bottom to protect the water-proof liner from tearing on the concrete roof:
2) add water-proof plastic liner:
3) place 5 PVC pipes, equaly spaced, with holes every 10 or so inches on all sides of pipes:
There is a little space at end of pipes where water and air can also move:
4) add Drain Hole placed about 4 1/2 inches from bottom to keep the sub water from rising too high (the bed is about 11 1/2 inches tall, this ratio of water level to soil leve seems to work great for wicking).
another pic of the drain-hole. note- the water leve will remain lower than the height of the drainhole but the soil will continue to wick moisture up to the plant roots
5) add a water-bottle fill-tube- cut the bottom end off the bottle and stick  the spout directly into a hole in the PVC pipe:
6) Tuck a light synthetic fabric around the pvc pipes to keep the soil from ing through the holes in the pipes but to still allow for air and water-flow. We chose nylon because synthetic fabrics are less likely to mold:
7) add a soil with a nice wicking capacity. Here's Patrick laying down 1st layer of high-wicking worm-compost:
Here's the full bed with the 1 inflow tube for water. Water moves very well under the bed and wicks into the soil keeping a nice even moisture just below the surface at all times:
8) create a Square Foot grid with string and small nails or staples. Here's the fully-gridded bed, ready for shade cloth and planting:
For bed 3 we were out of scrap lumber (wood is quite expensive in India) so we built the bed out of bambo, and based it off some planters I'd seen at Earth University.
Here is the lovely volunteer Manuela Chozas Cancel, a bright and tough woman business owner from Spain, sawing connector pieces  for the bamboo structure:
Here is Pablo Omar, one of the founders of Wichi School, fixing the waterproof liner:
Patrick is laying down the nylon fabric:
Pablo, Patrick and reknowned Swedish fusion artist, Kristian Holvila, adding the worm castings:
Beds 1, 2, and 3 all filled:
While beds 2 and 3 were being built the kids transplanted their spinach and tomato plants into Bed 1 following the Square Foot Gardening method of 9 spinaches per square foot and 1 tomato per square foot:
And then the kids transplanted some tomatoes, peppers, brinjal (eggplant), and lettuce in Bed 2...
...and learned a little about companion flowers to control pests.
This little seedling named Ashish is planting little Mari ld seedlings to attract beneficial insects to the garden:
And the kids have had quite a few Palak (Hindi name for Spinach) harvests and palak-based lunches at school this spring. The palak has just started bolting so soon we will be collecting seeds!
Each kid getting some hands on harvesting experiance!
Schneha taking her harvest to the kitchen:
Wichi School cooks preparing the spinach for Palak Paneer lunch:
And now, the tomatoes are flowering and ready to begin their season and we have begun preparing for the Wichi School summer garden! Here are the kids planting the organic cucumber seeds from the Navdanya seedbank:
Stay tuned for the vertical additions to the garden this summer!!!