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Homestead gardens for food security

In Kerala, the Green City initiative by the state government is catching up. Urban households are practicing “terrace gardening” helping them meet the family nutrition needs by growing fruits and vegetables.

On my recent visit to Kochi, I looked out of my hotel window and saw that adjoining the hotel boundary was a modest house with a yard, the way traditional houses in villages have and small towns used to have till the real estate mania began to destroy the ecology and beauty of such spaces.

My neighbours in the middle of Kochi city were obviously a traditional family with sound values. Their yard had one jackfruit tree in the corner, near the boundary wall, two breadfruit trees (breadfruits are similar to jackfruits although the trees look very different), three areca nut palms with pepper vines climbing up their trunks, two coconut palms, one guava tree, one drumstick tree, two hibiscus bushes, the flowers of which are used to make chutney, a couple of yam bushes and about 10 dwarf banana plants. There was chilli and tomato planted in the space between the trees and one or two other plants I could not identify. The total area of the yard would have been about 300 square yards.

I was thrilled to see this working model of what was a sophisticated homestead garden which obviously gave the family food (including condiments and spices) and incomes (areca nut, surplus banana) throughout the year. Breadfruit is a prolific bearer and yields fruits over several months. It is eaten as a vegetable in much the same way as jackfruit but also as a staple like yam. Tubers continue to be a staple in Kerala cuisine and one can spot tempos (no hand carts here, this is Kerala!) parked in the city selling a variety of tubers.

Such gardens, they may be of differing complexities, are one of the key strategies for household food security as well as nutritional enhancement. Some or the other food comes to the household all year round to supplement the standard rice-based diets that come either from the farmer’s field or from the market.

The composition of a homestead garden will obviously vary from location to location, depending on what grows in the area and what the food preferences of the local people are. In many parts of north India, for instance, such a homestead garden could contain drumstick, the pods and leaves of which are highly nutritious and available all year round, bananas, papaya, lemon, sweet potato and other tubers, pumpkins, which are rich in Vitamin A, some legumes like cowpea, beans and mung, perhaps a mulberry tree and one of jackfruit. Availability of space and food preferences will determine what is planted in the garden but whatever is in it will enrich the family’s food basket and improve its nutritional intake. The great advantage of homestead gardens is that the food comes directly to the woman of the house since it is she who would normally tend such gardens. This food is likely to be used optimally in her kitchen to the benefit of the entire family.

Another excellent initiative promoted by the horticulture department of the state government in Kerala is the Terrace Garden programme, locally known as the Harita Nagari (Green City) programme. In this programme, largely undertaken by housewives, the government encourages cultivation of vegetables in pots using terraces, verandahs and other spaces available in flats and housing in densely populated urban centres where there are no yards or spaces around the dwelling area. The horticulture department provides (and does this without making you run around 20 times) seed, fertiliser, pots and even implements to start the terrace or verandah garden. This is backed up by information and knowhow on how to get the best results from such potted gardens.

The result of this initiative, which is wildly popular, is a steady supply of some or the other vegetable for the cooking pot year round. The vegetables are clean, often organic and easily available on demand. The lady of the house cooks whatever happens to be available in her pots that day. The nutrition of the family is ensured as is its dietary diversity. When there is a surplus, the housewife can sell this to outlets established by the horticulture department. During festivals, like Onam when there is a big demand for vegetables, a not insignificant supply of vegetables is contributed from within the city by such terrace gardens. Everyone is a winner, the supply of fresh vegetables in the city is augmented and the housewife makes a little profit.

This interesting enterprise can be replicated across the country in dense urban and semi-urban centres. Not every state is blessed with Kerala’s balmy weather which is supportive of easy cultivation year round but state specific packages can be worked to accommodate local weather conditions.

This is an edited version of the original article, “Homestead gardens for food security”, published in the Asian Age, April 2012.

Suman Sahai
Convenor, Gene Campaign
J-235/A, Lane W-15C, Sainik Farms, New Delhi-110 062, India
Email: suman@genecampaign.org