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Whiff of Life

Illustration by: Nisheel Shetty

The Beginning

Show Uma pictures of flowers in your garden, and she will ask, “why don’t you grow food?”. I love flowers and chose not to say anything. Uma had an ornamental garden in her balcony in Mumbai. An elderly gentleman who was visiting said, “‘So much time, effort, investment and nobody’s food’. This struck home and Uma started growing food. Uma into a discovery of an appreciation for soil and life around us; an understanding and realisation of the ecosystem of nature where one organism is the food of another. She started a food garden where “pests” became helpful organisms and nutrition originated from the soil. The year was 2011.

Atlanta Beckons

In 2015, Uma moved to Atlanta, to a climate conducive to plants.The temperature is warmer and the gardens, called yards, are larger. “When you watch anything grow, especially when you grow a garden you see how life depends on each other, how every part is important and providing for nature in some way”. Uma has volunteered and inspired many others to cultivate their own gardens. Uma grows vegetables and a few variants of pulses throughout the year. Almost all her kitchen requirements are sourced from her garden except rice, sugar, oil among a few things. 

Learning Growing

She uses amrut mitti which is a traditional Indian way to cultivate soil. The soil is very fertile in Atlanta which helped her cultivate vegetables. An ideal environment would entail the soil being dark and cold and the plants getting adequate light and heat. Uma appreciates the role of organisms like earthworms, insects, birds and other worms that break down the organic matter in soil and multiply in favourable conditions.

Uma is an avid reader and combs through extensive material and resources, she believes in learning by observation. She maintains that she learnt most of what she knows  from people she spoke to and online resources. She learnt about soil types, temperatures, what grows when, what is temperate for what plants and how much we should appreciate our farmers because they learn this by practice, everyday, it’s a huge skill. Organic farming is still emerging in India. She respects the farmers as they are not formally trained but still perform best practices and methods of cultivation, learning by observation.

Teaching Sustainable Living

Uma floods her friends phones with long notes on her garden, notes on soil, pests, produce, what has changed, and what she has observed. Attributes like temperature, sunlight, soil, warmth that leads to optimum growth of plants. Sharing the joy of growing ones own food that “nourishes our health, make our food tasty, and enhance overall immunity. I even have great upper body strength from all the hauling I do working in people’s gardens”.

Leaving surplus produce for neighbours to pick, is how Uma began. She has successfully encouraged her community to start cultivating their own garden and vegetables. Today she trains people to recycle and compost and not generate trash. There are several aspects to gardening like mulching, the relationship between air and water, composting, rain-water harvesting and Uma feels the need to start documenting. A natural writer and teacher, Uma can do well by documenting her learnings over the past decade.

Transcending Materialism

Uma admits the process and journey to becoming a gardener, to be the biggest transformation of her life. “One can not be a gardener and an atheist”, says Uma. She has come to immensely appreciate the divinity, the oneness of life and the intelligence of nature’s design. Devotion is an emotion she has learnt because of gardening. It has changed the way she thinks, the way she works and the way she lives life. Working in a garden has become almost spiritual – an act of devotion.

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