It could be called the “Great Conservative Ritual”. I’m not sure if growing vegetables is a conservative sacrament, but it does take varying amounts of labour. The fun in growing winter vegetables, however, is that you can grow several varieties with little fuss. And, as high-rise gardeners are discovering, these don’t even need much space.
Prepare the soil ahead of planting. Turn it around so that there are no lumps and the air circulates. Feed in some good, old-world, dry dung manure and rake in a few spoons of bone meal. If you fear the soil may clump later, add some sand and leaf mould. Most vegetables bask in sunlight, so decide on the sunniest spots before planting. The trick would be to use every inch of available space. For an unusual growing season, transfer some of your flower garden planning skills to vegetables this year. For height, most flower growers would trust the sweet pea. When you consider winter vegetables, the obvious choice may seem the green pea, since it is related. But we could also go beyond the obvious.
This winter, consider growing flat beans. The seeds are available at most nurseries. I picked up five seeds for the season at the Udyan Mela of the All India Kitchen Garden Association (AIKGA) in New Delhi. Since I’ve grown flat beans before, let me lobby for this robust grower. It would give you foliage, pale but pretty flowers, and, of course, edible beans. It is a climber so get a trellis in place before you plant. Even well-fixed open weave matting would give it the help it needs to go rambling. Or just make a criss-cross of sturdy string.
Green fingers: A basket of parsley, basil, lemon balm and chives.
As Bella Gupta, treasurer of AIKGA, points out, hanging baskets are great for herbs. Try planting chives and celery, mint and coriander in them and hang them at different or alternating heights to fit more baskets. They’ll look pretty, use optimal space and give you wonderful home-grown organic herbs. Fashion a canopy scaffolding of cane or reed over a tub, and you can host tomato and peas.
What’s winter without greens? Palak or spinach is a hearty winter grower. Alternate a tray of spinach with lettuce for interesting colour and texture variations and, of course, nutrition. Try cabbages and cauliflower, broccoli and garlic: They’re all happy to grow in container gardens. Bella even has allspice, turmeric, banana, ginger, the hottest chilli or “bhut jhalokia” (a type of chilli pepper), lemon grass and the Chinese cabbage or bok choi.
Of course, if you’re growing vegetables on your balcony, chances are that the quantities will not sustain you. As someone said: “In order to live off a garden, you practically have to live in it.” But the joy of that one home-grown tomato can truly bring on the salad days this winter.
One of the joys of home-grown vegetables and herbs is that you can ensure they are chemical-free. Plants need nitrogen for better foliage and stems, potassium for brighter flowers and phosphorus for better root and fruit growth. These three macronutrients can be obtained from dry leaves and grass.
Collect leaves that fall off, dry for a couple of days to counter extra acidity to the soil and feed into the soil or use as mulch over the top soil. This also protects the plants from the winter problem of ground frost and keeps weeds at bay. If someone mows a lawn near you, ask for a bagful of grass clippings. Dry these for a couple of days and feed into the soil as a natural fertilizer. Or you can use it over the soil as mulch. Just one word of caution: Frost can be nasty to several vegetables, so keep in mind that you may need a light mesh fabric shade, available at nurseries, that will stave off the frost but not too much of the sun.