For Seema Sarkar-Manji, who lives on the sixth floor in a Nairobi apartment, the view up above is not just concrete.
Tomatoes, salads, and herbs line up her balcony and it is what she feeds her family.
And what excites her most is that she did not have to buy seeds or seedlings for some of the vegetables that keeps giving.
“One day I just cut a tomato into half and stuck it in the soil not knowing whether it would bear fruits but it did! And I also have an avocado seeding which is starting to grow into a mature plant. Yes in a pot!” she says, her voice filled with excitement.
Seema says everyone should experience the joy of growing plants, whether one has a big garden or a window-sill.
Her love for gardening started at a young age. She picked it from her parents. “I’ve always lived with lots of greenery. My parents loved growing stuff so I have been around plants. When I moved into my own house about three years ago, I thought why not grow some plants? And better still, plants that we could use?,” she says.
Seema immediately began her kitchen garden project.
“My mum has a real green thumb. She can stick what I might assume are rotten seeds into the soil and they will grow! So naturally, she was the one who started me off. She gave me the soils and a couple of pots and was even nice enough to give me some seedlings,” she says.
With time, Seema says she has certainly become more proactive and get plants and soil from different roadside vendors around the city. Seema started her balcony garden with coriander (dhania), followed by rocket leaf seedlings.
“I also bought lettuce seedlings and mint and those did well. Rosemary was a bit of a problem,” she says. She later got ambitious and tried to grow strawberries.
“Like I said different plants need certain conditions. I got one strawberry and that was about it. Unfortunately, in my learning process, I have not done justice to a lot of the plants.”
For a time Seema had a successful run growing the rocket leaves and they were thriving, but as no one was eating them as much, she decided to stop to avoid wastage. Today, she tries to maintain what her family uses more in her balcony garden.
“Currently, I have two pots of coriander which I alternate because once you harvest them you need to regrow them from scratch. I also have some mint. Both of them have grown perfectly. I somehow also managed to grow tomatoes and they have just started to bear fruit! I have done well with them yet I didn’t even use seeds,” she says.
Regarding the tending process, she waters the plants daily and, weeds or prunes one a month.
Gardening in the city not only assures families of healthy living but it helps children become keen on having urban farms even in adulthood. It also keeps children engaged.
“I have two little children and I have tried to get them into this. They help with watering the plants as part of their duties. I think that has been good to instill a bit of self-discipline in them,” she says.
As she improves, Seema says she is still not an expert.
“There are certain plants that do better in specific types of soil, but I use red soil with most of mine. I also realised you have to be careful with manure, but other than that I am not too technically informed. I did learn that manure rich soil tends to be highly acidic which can burn herb roots. I, unfortunately, lost one of my crops because of this,” Seema says.
The other unexpected challenge was having to deal with pests.
“I didn’t think pests could find you hiding out in an apartment by they did. My tomatoes, rocket, and lettuce were infested by aphids,” she says.
In terms of tips, Seema says anyone who wants to grow herbs or vegetables has to practice restraint.
“Don’t interfere with your plants too much. I was once obsessed with researching plant solutions and tips online and as a result, I began interfering too much with my plants. Another tip I picked up on is using boiled tea leaves, banana skins, and eggshells which are great ‘plants foods’ since they balance soil PH,” she says.
Patience is the key.
“Everything has its process, and of course it would take longer to grow something more substantial that you can harvest and use on the kitchen table. Like the tomatoes have taken between six weeks to two months and from what I hear avocadoes can take up to 15 years for a tree to bear fruit but this one took me two and a half to three months to see this growth.”
Responding to what the biggest challenge when undertaking such a project is, Seema says with a laugh, “growing plants in a sixth-floor apartment set up.”
“It can be quite challenging having a green thumb in an urban space. Living on the sixth floor means I don’t have access to the ground or direct access to soil. All my plants, herbs have to be in pots. I worry about the plants getting enough sunlight or water during different seasons. I also had to start paying attention to plants growing too big and roots needing more space,” she says.