Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Grow Your Own Rooftop Tomatoes: A Guide for the Novice

Now that my tomato plant is withering and very near its end, the time seems ripe for a post on tomatoes. I started growing tomatoes with the hope of picking a couple of fresh tomatoes and at the very most, a dozen. But after my potted plant yielded nearly 50 tomatoes, I think I may have some valuable tips to share.
Freshly Harvested Tomatoes
So here’s a little "Guide for the First-time Tomato Grower", who doesn’t have the luxury of a patch of land.

Tomatoes are fairly easy to grow but they need plenty of sunshine, water, nutrients and TLC. You need to keep a hawk eye for pests and diseases too. If you’re more of a weekend gardener, not diligent about watering your plants, then growing tomatoes in containers may not quite work out for you. For the Rooftop Tomatoes project, you have to jump into it with both feet.

Soil Preparation: Tomatoes need plenty of nutrition from the soil. I can’t emphasize enough, how important this is. Providing rich fertile soil should be top  priority. I was lucky to get rich garden soil from a nursery; the soil was loaded with earthworms and goat manure. On top of that, I used plenty of homemade compost every time I wanted to boost the soil’s fertility. Make sure you plant is in as large a pot as you can acquire. Remember, more soil means more nutrition. I used a 16 inch cement pot but I know a larger one would have worked better.

When to Sow: I am no expert on this, but here are some commonsense suggestions. Since tomatoes need abundant sunshine and water, avoid not only the winter and the rains, but also the peak of harsh summer during its life cycle, which is about 4 months. For more authoritative information on when and how to grow tomatoes visit the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University website. I planted my seeds in January and couldn’t have asked for a better harvest.

What to Sow: If like me, you live in Chennai or a city like it, you have little choice. You can only choose from the hybrid, the local naati or the cherry tomato varieties. Just dip into your grocery bag and get your seeds from a ripe tomato. I chose the hybrid one as it is the most versatile, but if you can pick up cherry tomatoes, do try them. They’re the best bet for a pot with limited resources. With a smaller fruit to make, it’s easier on the plant.

How to Sow: Start your seeds indoors. Scoop out a little tomato pulp with seeds. Soak the seeds in some water for a couple of hours. In the meanwhile, fill up 4 - 6 paper cups with good garden soil. Poke two holes in each cup and place a seed in each of the holes, lightly covering them with soil. Water them every day. Within a week, you will find tomato seedlings sprouting in all the cups. When your seedlings are about 4 inches tall, pick the healthiest one and transplant it carefully into a well prepared pot with good drainage. An easy way to transplant the seedling without disturbing its roots, is to tear out the paper cup as you plant the seeding along with the soil into a little depression in the pot. Please plant one plant per pot. (That’s a clever tongue twister I just made up!) Don’t ever be tempted to grow more than one tomato plant in a single pot. If you do, you’ll have lots of green foliage but no red tomatoes. Steel yourself and leave the remaining seedlings to die, if you can’t find them pots. Once transplanted, move your plant outdoors into a sunny spot where it can receive at least 7-8 hours of direct sunshine.
Tomato Seeds Soaking in Water
Staking: Once planted, stake the plant straight away. Without a stake, a tomato plant will bend over once it begins fruiting. The reason, why I recommend that you stake it right away is that very soon the roots will branch out all through the pot and you will be sure to damage them when you stake the plant later. I used a thick, foot long cane stick that was lying around. A stake can be metal, wooden, or even PVC.  To stake, push in your stake 1-2 inches away from the main stem. Once the plant needs support, loosely tie the main stem to the stake with a shoelace or a soft thick cord that will not cut into the stem over time.

Tomato Stake (Click to Enlarge)
Watering:  If you can’t water every day, your plant will probably fail. You have to religiously water every single day and on hot days, twice a day. If you’ve missed watering and your plant has suffered, you really can’t compensate by watering it later. And just as you shouldn’t underwater, don’t overwater. Excess water may drain out, but along with it, precious nutrients will be lost.  Your tomatoes may also turn out to be more watery. Judge how damp your soil is by poking and feeling it before you water your plant.

Pruning: Again, don’t let your heart rule your head.  Prevent your plant from spreading out by nipping the suckers. Suckers are shoots that rise between two preexisting main stems (leaders). If your plant is allowed to branch out extensively, it will be frittering away its energy in producing more foliage and less fruit. The plant’s energy must be conserved for producing maximum fruit. In fact after 2-3 months of rapid growth, when I noticed my plant was shooting up, I nipped off the main stem at its tip, as I knew the pot just couldn’t provide for a larger plant.
Pruning the Suckers (Click to Enlarge)
Mulching: A layer of mulch on your soil is highly recommended. With mulch, not only will the soil retain its moisture better, weeds will be deterred too. Mulch can be dry leaves, twigs, grass or even shredded newspaper. 

Fertilize: When you notice that your plant is rapidly growing or flowering, add a little compost to the soil. As a general rule, you could add a little compost (rich in egg shells), every 2-3 weeks.

Diseases and Other Concerns:

Pests: Look out for insects and other unwanted bugs on your plant, especially the under surface of the leaves. Manually remove any harmful looking bugs. But leave the spiders, lady birds and wasps alone. These are the good bugs to have around.

Leaf Curl: Very often the leaves of a tomato plant may curl. This is usually a sign of plant stress. In spite of it, you may still get healthy tomatoes. If you can remove the cause of the stress, the leaf curl will disappear. However, if the plant gets further stressed, it could succumb and die. So when you see leaf curl, try and ascertain the cause. And if you can’t, just keep your fingers crossed. I got a bountiful harvest despite leaf curl.
Leaf Curl: A Sign of Plant Stress
Blossom End Rot: A few of my tomatoes began rotting at the bottom end. After a little googling, I learnt that there are many possible causes to this blossom end rot (BER): incorrect watering, calcium deficiency or some other nutrient inadequacy. I gathered that my plant may be calcium deficient. To fix it would mean to add some calcium in the soil that will immediately be available to it. Calcium from egg shells wouldn’t work as it would take a long time to reach the plant. Now when I began gardening, I had decided to go the organic route. Here, I was confronted with the issue of fixing my BER with a chemical or remaining organic and harvesting rotten tomatoes. With pangs of guilt, I chose the former, all the while consoling myself that a single calcium tablet, containing just 500 mg of calcium carbonate isn’t as evil as the regular chemical farming that we know of. So I went ahead and powdered a calcium tablet (Magnical) that I had with me, dissolved it in water and poured it into my pot. It seemed to have worked as there were no more tomatoes with BER thereafter.
Blossom End Rot: In an Unripe Tomato
Blossom End Rot: In a Ripe One
Ripening Tomatoes: Tomatoes appeared on my plant within 45 days of planting. It can take longer. Once a tomato is ready, it will colour from green to yellow to red, in a matter of a few days.  Red ripe tomatoes on a green vine – a sight to feast on – will attract everyone, including predators like squirrels and crows. A few of my tomatoes were targeted by human predators. So if you find your tomatoes being stolen or damaged, you can pick them before they fully ripen. They may be plucked the moment they turn a slight yellow and ripened indoors, preferably near a sunny windowsill. They will ripen a tad slower, but the taste is indistinguishable from the vine ripened ones. Never refrigerate your tomatoes – green or red. They lose their flavor in the fridge.
Tomato Blossoms
Tomatoes Ripening on the Vine
Green Tomatoes: At the end of the season, you will be left with a few green tomatoes. That’s natural and don’t despair. There are plenty of recipes calling for green tomatoes. You could also try plucking the green tomatoes and leaving it to ripen. Some of my green tomatoes that showed no sign of ripening on the plant, actually ripened after they were plucked.
End of Season: Green Tomatoes and Brown Leaves
Bottom Line: A tomato seed will germinate with ease, but for the seedling to grow into a fine fruit bearing plant in a pot, a little care is needed. Yet, when you are blessed with red ripe tomatoes on your vine, it seems worth all the effort. A  fully laden tomato plant will make many heads turn. Those who rarely notice a spectacular plant or flower, will still stop to stare at the red tomatoes. Finally, the intense flavor of a homegrown red ripe tomato is the sweetest reward.
Laden with Fruit

Various Hues: Tomatoes in Various Stages

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

A Meal to Remember

Yesterday's dinner was rather special. It was the first time that I  had cooked with so many ingredients freshly harvested from the garden. The star attraction of the meal was a delectable Palak Paneer.

Below are pictures of my garden’s contribution to the palak paneer.
Fresh, Crisp Spinach
Homegrown Tomatoes: Bursting with Flavor, they’re Hard to Beat
Aromatic Coriander Seeds: Way Better than the Shop-bought Ones
I devised a no-frills recipe that many might find bland. Yet it seems to me, the best way to taste both palak and paneer (cottage cheese). When the ingredients are the finest, you don’t need to mask or alter their taste with too many condiments. 

Here’s my Absolutely Basic Palak Paneer Recipe for the Minimalist.
  1. Fresh Homemade Paneer cubed – approx. 750 gms. (I made paneer from  1 ½ litres  of milk, curdled with the juice of one large lemon and a tbsp of cider vinegar. Shop-bought paneer will not be as soft and spongy.)
  2. Spinach – a big bunch or 3 small bunches
  3. Onion - 1
  4. Tomatoes – 5-6
  5. Turmeric (Haldi) – ¼ tsp
  6. Coriander seeds (Dhania seeds) – 2 tsp
  7. Cumin seeds (Jeera) – 1 tsp
  8. Salt to taste and oil for frying
If you wish, you could complicate the recipe by using one or more of the following, as per taste: butter/ghee, green chillies, garam masala powder, cloves, bay leaf, pepper and cinnamon.
  1. Chop the onion and sauté in a little oil.
  2. Chop tomatoes. Add them to the onions and sauté them as well.
  3. Separately, toast the coriander and cumin seeds gently. Dry grind them to a coarse powder and add it to the sautéed tomatoes and onion. Add the turmeric too. (I add the spices in at this stage as they get cooked, without getting burnt.)
  4. Add in the shredded spinach. Fresh spinach will release very little water, so you can add the paneer almost immediately thereafter. (Most people would fry the paneer cubes, but I did away with this step.) Cook till the spinach is wilted.
  5. Add salt to taste.
And lo, your palak paneer is ready.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Birds From My Window

When I first quit my job, it seemed rather lonely at home.  I began missing the coffee breaks and the inane status update meetings. The forced loneliness made me look for excitement in places that I had never looked before. Just outside my bedroom window, there was an entire community that I had ignored -- a community of mostly colourful and gregarious birds. Today, I find it hard to believe that I had closed my eyes to all of them for so many years. This post is dedicated to my new-found feathered friends.

I spotted this little hawk, the first time on the coconut palm across my bedroom window. It can easily be mistaken for the brainfever bird, but check out its powerful talons and beak  with a pair of binoculars and you will be left with no doubts. It is the Shikra, hunter par excellence. The shikra is the strong silent type. Seldom will you find it fluttering and fidgeting like most birds. Very often, I find it perched majestically on a tree top, scanning the ground from above.  And occasionally, when a cheeky crow tries to get close and even brushes past, it remains unruffled, often choosing to ignore the transgressor. Though roughly the size of a pigeon, it’s demeanor is that of an eagle. Long live the Shikra!
The Keen-eyed Shikra
The crows alerted me to this one. When I rushed to the balcony on hearing a cacophony by the crows, I saw a flash of gold in the air. Further investigation revealed the beautiful Lesser Golden-Backed Woodpecker. It has such splendid colours -- a golden back and a flaming orange-red crest. Whenever the crows are aroused, I always look out. There is usually some avian drama that I cannot afford to miss. On this occasion, the black birds didn’t approve of the intrusion by the woodpecker. I never saw it again.
Lesser Golden-backed Woodpecker on a Coconut Stump
Who can miss hearing the noisy calls of a Koel at dawn and dusk. I've heard them umpteen times. Appearance-wise, they resemble crows, or so I thought. In truth, only the male koel is black and can be confused with the crow. The elusive female is very different -- much lighter, brownish and heavily spotted. But both have light coloured beaks and attractive ruby-red eyes.
Ruby- eyed Male Koel
The Koel's Wings Spread Out
Its Hard to Spot the Female Koel
The first time I spotted this bird, I thought I had discovered a new species! It seemed such an exotic bird with its warm colours, rather long tail and distinct musical call. It’s actually a rather common bird and a member of the crow family. This is the Rufous Treepie. I’ve even spotted a Grey Treepie, a little further away from home.
The Crow’s Cousin – Rofous Treepie

Another Treepie
The White-breasted Kingfisher can be often observed near water bodies and in fields. Most of us can spot a kingfisher or two on our day-time train journeys. But I am now beginning to find these glamorous birds sitting at home, from my balcony. Dressed in blue, the kingfisher  is  one of the most eye catching birds in the neighbourhood. There are two of them posing, in the picture below.
A Pair of Kingfishers
This picture is of two Pigeon Nestlings (Squabs) and an egg, taken at my cousin’s home. Here the little hairless ones look like ugly ducklings. But I am sure they've grown up to be fine birds.
Pigeon Nestlings
Grown-up pigeons are shameless exhibitionists; they love to coo and court in public, mindless of everything around them. There are many pigeons that socialize on the terrace opposite my balcony. The drama they indulge in can inspire a successful TV soap. The male, all puffed up, will literally run towards a female, occasionally bowing to her. In typical filmi style, initially, the female will ignore the male and walk away. Eventually though, she is bowled over by the male’s persistence. And as part of the happy ending, the two become a couple, billing and cooing to each other. Ranjit Lal's “When Banshee Kissed Bimbo and Other Stories”  has a delightful story about pigeons that I would recommend to readers both young and old.
All of us know what an intelligent bird the Crow is. But not everyone knows how affectionate it can be. When my son was about a year old, there was a house crow that would visit him in the balcony every day. It would call out to my son in a special tender voice. Not wishing to encourage the bird, I never offered it any food. Yet, the ritual continued for many months. Then, during the nesting season, our crow’s parental instincts grew even stronger and it would make more than a dozen daily visits. My son got a little tired of this constant show of corvid affection and gradually stopped responding to it. Eventually, both bird and baby moved on and the meetings completely ceased. However, I’ve been left with a permanent soft corner for them.
My Son's Crow
The Magpie Robin, Babbler, Egret, Drongo, Pied Crested Cuckoo, Red Vented Bulbul, Owl, Tailorbird, Swift, Pond Heron, Mynah and Parakeet are the other birds that have made it to my sightings list. Given that my apartment is near a main road and surrounded by concrete, I think it’s an impressive one. Nonetheless, I am always on the lookout for any newcomers.

Note: Apologize for the image quality of some of the pictures. With my basic point-and-shoot camera, focusing on distant birds is hard.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Greening the Roof

It’s lucky that I live in an apartment building with many gardening enthusiasts as neighbours.  It was indeed a neighbour’s exotic herb garden that drew me to the roof in the beginning. My own garden has now advanced from the balcony to the roof. Flowering and fruiting plants usually need full sunshine, for several hours a day. And though my balcony gets adequate sunshine, the roof is still where most plants can thrive. 

Here’s a list of what I started out with, to create my roof garden:
  • A dozen  pots
  • A composter for compost on demand
  • A spade and an old table fork for the more delicate operations
  • A watering can
  • Neem cake powder 
But the most essential ingredients for a successful garden are:
  • Good garden soil
  • Sunshine (in abundant supply here in Chennai) and
  • Water
I could add “Expertise” and “Tender Loving Care (TLC)” to this list. I don’t have the former but I hope to make it up with plenty of the latter.

A Section of the Roof Garden
A home garden doesn’t need a large budget. Even the famous White House organic vegetable garden, Michelle Obama recently revealed, cost about $200.  Apparently, the produce from this garden has already exceeded 2 tons. Of course, I doubt she included labour charges and experts' fees in the costs.

Returning to my garden; since the first seed germinated in January, I have tasted  many luscious tomatoes, several batches of spinach, ladies fingers, fenugreek (methi),   fresh coriander (dhania) and mint (pudina)  from my garden. I am still waiting to harvest ginger, garlic, chillies, potatoes and coriander seeds. I find visiting my garden in the morning, one of the best ways to start the day. More often than not there is a surprise in store – a tomato that’s turned unusually large, a brown ladybird or a stunning lady's finger flower. More on all those in future posts.