In the midst of talk about the threats of global warming, food insecurity, an onslaught of genetically modified crops, farmer suicides, a lack of urban waste management, dwindling green spaces and rising stress levels in our city landscapes, an inspired group of Indians from Mumbai’s urban jungle banded together to lead the walk towards an urban gardening movement. Growing under the name of Urban Leaves, they have begun to tackle all of the aforementioned concerns.
Urban Leaves is one of the community empowerment programs of Vidya Vaardhi Trust which promotes initiatives that are meaningful socially, environmentally and academically, as well as activities which improve the physical, emotional and monetary health of our communities. It reaches out “to the underprivileged, helping them become independent and self-sustaining urban farmers, teachers, and entrepreneurs. It also hopes to spread the message of health through organic practices that are pollution and chemical free. Promoting healthy recycling habits and self-sustaining practices to students and their communities is also part of the agenda” says Preeti Patil, founder of Urban Leaves.
Considering we have just entered the growing season, RESET was keen to shed more light on their flourishing work. We were lucky enough to get an interview with the team, here’s what we learned:
Who is currently working on the Urban Leaves project, when was the team drawn together and why?
Every day, for many years, as [Preeti Patil] oversaw the catering for thousands of employees [at the Mumbai Port Trust, MBPT], she thought about the impact of the waste being generated and trucked away. In 2000, Dr. R.T.Doshi inspired her through his terrace city farm to take the first step [toward] changing the perception from waste into resource. Putting to use the terrace above the kitchen, she began her own experiments finding both answers and many more questions.
One of the most important solutions [and] answers for the 3000 square foot MBPT terrace has been [inspired by] Shri Dipak Suchde and the wisdom of Prof. Sripad A Dabholkar, founder of “Natueco Farming”. Through a combination of “Amrut Mitti” (a nutrient rich soil) and pulverised kitchen waste the garden has produced an abundance of vegetables, fruit trees and herbs. Preeti and the MBPT garden team have kept the cycle of learning going, by contributing both their struggles and successes to the rest of the Prayog Pariwar e-group.
Over the years, as the soil improved and the garden grew, urban farming enthusiasts and others [soon] began to visit. [Preeti] thought about how to involve different segments of society and how to take the learning from this urban farming project and turn it into a movement. In 2009, as soon as Preeti decided to begin, help appeared [and Urban Leaves was born].
A good friend, Sabrina, came up with the name Urban Leaves. Devi who had been involved with the urban food and sustainable agriculture movement in the US moved to Mumbai. Jyothi, an avid home gardener was a ready role model! With their collective vision, diverse talents and pet projects they were ready to launch their very own city farming volunteer group. And Uday, Preeti's long standing friend and Vedanta teacher encouraged and backed them at each step.
Workshops on building Amrut Mitti quickly drew in keen learners. While a handful of these turned into committed volunteers, the need for a community garden where they could work together was felt. Mr Avinash Kubal Dy, Director of Maharashtra Nature Park (MNP) in Mahim, realised the potential worth of such a community farm and immediately offered the group, a space within the park. From then on, the growth has been exponential.
Today, four years later, Urban Leaves continues to collaborate with different individuals and groups and is encouraged by the growth of five new Community urban farming projects in Mumbai.
What kinds of groups and people do you work with?
People from diverse backgrounds and from all strata of the society have joined us on our journey. We have students, businessmen, doctors, surgeons, lawyers, students, IT professionals, housewives, chartered accountants to name a few.
Workshops for school children have been conducted by us. Depending on the interest shown and the feasibility we even conduct workshops for corporate organisations. One of our volunteers Neemita Khandelwal recently coordinated the organisation of a workshop at Tata Consultancy Services campus.
Most of our upcoming projects are situated within the campuses of educational institutions [which] have realised the importance of this green initiative and want to imbibe on the young minds who study there.
We have another upcoming community farm project at a girl’s orphanage at Cotton Green.
[We] work with and welcome people from all walks of life.
Does Urban Leaves have any specific goals it wishes to achieve this year?
We are laying the foundations of five community farms spread across the city this year.
They are a community Rooftop farm at ISKCON Temple – Babulnath; a community Rooftop Farm at Don Bosco High School, Matunga; a community Farm at Bhavan’s Campus, Andheri, and a community Rooftop Farm at Gopal’s Garden School-Borivali. [The fifth] project [is] with an orphanage, for a rooftop farm is also underway at Cotton Green suburb. As the building lacks an adequate water supply which is not enough for the 100 girls residing there, we are first working on a rainwater harvesting system and then work on the rooftop farm.
In all, along with our core project at Maharashtra Nature Park-Mahim, we will be managing six projects this year.
How do you convince someone to pick up the spade, break the soil and sow the seeds?
No one can force anyone else to be a part of this. What you can do is walk the talk and be an example for others. You can transform people only by example. Once they get this yearning from within and see you toiling and joyful, they will join you… This is the best way to motivate others. When people see what can be achieved even in the limited confines of our balconies, small terraces they realize that even they can do so.
What are the best plants to grow this season that are easy to manage for those with little experience?
The sowing and growing calendar is region specific. This season in India we can grow the following, to name a few:
All gourd varieties: bottle gourd, ridge gourd, sponge gourd, bitter gourd [and] little gourd, [as well as] turmeric, ginger, okra, cluster beans, long beans ( chawli) Cow peas, spinach, amaranth, mint, basil and lemongrass.
We’d like to thank Urban Leaves for these excellent insights and the incredible work they are doing. If you want an easy “how to” guide to get started on your own urban gardening project, we recommend checking out our Act Now article on kitchen and community gardening and for some tips and tricks on composting see this.
Author: Kirsten Zeller/ RESET editorial