Big cities and urban lifestyles keep us away from the beauty of lush fields around us. To make us feel closer to nature and help mother earth the concept of Urban Permaculture was started. Urban Permaculture aims to transform cities, by making them greener and more sustainable, by giving residents the option to join a more holistic way of living, even in big cities. It helps to create a continuous cycle where everything is used to its fullest potential, and nothing is wasted.
Watch our amazing workshop on “Urban Permaculture” with our speaker Teja Shilpa on our YouTube Channel.
She is a textile designer by profession and a permaculture designer by passion. She is currently designing and implementing Permaculture principles at Oorna farm, to make it an alternative self-sustaining learning space and farm. And in this workshop, she shared with us how we can bring Permaculture into our urban societies. You can check out her amazing work on her Instagram page “oornafarm“
Shilpa and her tips on permaculture:
“Hello, everyone. Welcome to another workshop by The Affordable Organic Store. Today we have with us, Miss Shilpa Teja. Welcome to our workshop. How are you?” said Zehra.
“I’m good, thank you,” said Shilpa.
“Let me introduce you to our viewers. She’s a textile designer by profession and a permaculture designer by passion. She lives on a farm and is working on implementing permaculture principles on Oorna Farm. She also teaches village women the natural dyeing of clothes, recycling, etc. So, let’s start then,” said Zehra.
“Hello, everyone. Zehra has given a beautiful introduction already. I love growing plants, which made me learn how, what, and when to grow. That’s how I started my journey in Permaculture. So, today we will talk about Permaculture, what it is, and how to implement it in Urban surroundings. Permaculture is just slightly different from agriculture in the sense that here we grow food for ourselves and also build an eco-system where birds can also thrive and even insects. So, a simple definition of it is Permanent agriculture. The concept interested me very much since here we don’t need to go to the farm every day and keep on working. One big factor is that initially, we need to work on farms or soil. Later, it’s done by itself, which makes it self-sustainable in the long run. We follow some ethics or principles here because it is nature-centric. The three-permaculture ethics are earth care, fair share, and people care. Now we have also taken up future care. Let us take up earth care first, how we can do it. Some steps include reducing shopping, so we can reduce plastic waste. Reuse is another must-do these days. We generally do not have the habit of reusing things, which we need to inculcate in the long run. Thirdly, how can you recycle it? Prevent throwing things away so that they do not necessarily end up in a dump yard. After all, these dump yards produce many harmful gases, such as methane which are very harmful to the soil. So how can we recycle vegetable waste? The simplest approach is by composting or just giving it to the plants nearby as hummus. This way, care can be taken in an urban context. Try, thus, to go for natural things instead of plastic, such as cloth bags, while shopping. The lifetime of single-use plastic is very less, while cloth bags can be used for about 40 years. Thus, one cloth bag can be reused for a long term, thus reducing the scale of plastic,” said Shilpa.
“Next comes fair share; that is how you can live fairly in the environment. Presently, we are in a delusion that only humans have the right to live. We are not considering other species as part of nature. For example, what can we do for birds, butterflies, etc.? You can plant sap that can attract birds, bees, butterflies, etc. The urban area is growing these days rapidly, jeopardizing farm areas. This increases the scope of implementing all these things, and we can also help deter climate change. Starting to think about other creatures will make you more sensitive and make you think futuristically. We cannot survive without other creatures like birds, bees, etc. Hence, taking care of them has become the need of the hour. There are so many extinction cases we have seen already. Ten years down the line, many more will share the same destiny if we do not take up some basic steps. For example, plant some native trees which will attract birds, bees, etc., and help build the ecosystem. Also, the ecosystem varies from place to place. The climate, soil, etc., everything is different. My idea of making a change is to build an ecosystem where the other creatures come and live with you. Here again, composting comes up wherein we should give something back to nature from which we are extracting valuable resources. If you can’t go for composting, you can dig a pit,
throw them in and cover it with soil. In very less time, they will get decomposed. This is the fair share that you can do in an urban context,” said Shilpa.
“So, next comes the question of People care. What I do in the course of people care is share knowledge. You cannot just keep it restricted to yourself. If you share it, it will keep getting passed on. This is one aspect. Next is how you can be a part of your local economy, simply by going for foods and stuff grown in your locality. I would also request that you make sure your carbon footprint is as low as possible. Think how your carbon footprint will increase if you are sitting in Hyderabad and consuming apples. It is traveling all the way from Kashmir; imagine how much carbon is given off into nature. Hence, consuming more locally made food is going to be more helpful for the environment,” said Shilpa.
“Please elaborate on this concept of carbon footprint a bit,” said Zehra.
“Sure. It is basically how much carbon is being used for a product to reach a consumer from the manufacturer. For example, when you make a sticker for an apple, even that consumes energy. This is collectively called Carbon footprint. How many people are involved, how much energy are they consuming, and where are they coming from? All these come under carbon footprint,” said Shilpa.
“What if people in the south are willing to consume an apple?” asked Zehra.
“Eating apples is all right. I do not deny it. However, it should not become your staple. When you have jamun, mangoes, or some wild fruits that have become endangered, you save them from extinction. So, you can also think about local people, as well as other people, when you inculcate these habits. Then again, healthy food becomes very important to consume. When you’re consuming, let’s say, broccoli, which isn’t native to us, how can you expect to get more nutrition always? They may be hybrid food even. Anyway, the question remains how you can consume healthy food which is simultaneously close to your house? Many leaves showcase wild growth but are very nutritious and medicinal simultaneously. So how can you include them in your diet? Also, we can see that there is a big movement going on about soil. The increasing requirement to get concerned about soil arises from the increased use of chemicals on it. We need to check how much mineral or water is getting depleted and whether the soil can regenerate itself when you are using so many chemicals on it. So, the question arises, how can you save soil while you’re in the city?” said Shilpa.
“Yeah, that is indeed a question,” said Zehra.
“Yes, and the answer is also pretty simple. If you find any uncovered soil space, cover it with carbon. This carbon involves things like hay or dry grass. So, when we cover it with carbon, it acts as a roof cover for the microbes present in the soil. When the soil is barren, it is very prone to drastic erosion. To prevent that, we should cover the soil with anything, like grass, even waste,” said Shilpa.
“In the Urban regions, there already is very less open and uncovered soil, don’t you think?” asked Zehra.
“In that event, you can take pots in which you’re growing plants; there are public parks where the soil remains exposed. Even in hospitals, there are open grounds around. All you have to do is throw some seeds, which are capable of growing on their own. Then, the concept of fertility should also be considered. So, how can you make the soil more fertile? You can try making compost in your home. It doesn’t take much time to make compost in your own place! Keep your greens that are vegetable waste, two layers of carbon like dry leaves or paper, and leave them in a corner. In about a month, they become soil. When you make it in your home, you can be sure of its quality, which is not the case when you buy it from outside,” said Shilpa.
“Then, there is the problem of water depletion, which has gone to such an extent that 20 years down the line, we might be fighting for it. So how does it reduce its consumption? Many people are accustomed to overwatering of plants which needs to be prevented. Overwatering leads to the decay of microbes and roots present in the soil. If you keep the moisture intact in a proper way in the soil, the microbial activity is very good. Even rice can be grown without water, but the main problem is weeds. That’s why farmers keep water stagnating on the farms. In Una farm, whatever water we consume daily goes to the banana or papaya circles, which are flourishing, and the circle is ending. So, the water is not going to the sewer but back to earth, refilling the soil. How can this be implemented in an urban context? So, many communities in Hyderabad are recycling grey water and using it for plantations, which is a commendable initiative. So everything we use should be reused and recycled, thus going back to nature. This very loop of life has been missing for almost the last two decades.
“In apartment systems nowadays, we have drainage systems in which we can’t intervene, right?”
“No, there are people who are separating the grey water and black water since the laying of drainage systems. They wanted to recycle, so they are planning it accordingly,” said Shilpa.
“Can you elaborate a bit about the grey water and black water?”
“Gray water is the wastewater which comes from your household, such as washing clothes, utensils, and even used for bathing. Then, water mixed with human feces is called black water, such as which is used in toilets. Black water has a probability of contamination, but not gray water. Even black water is being filtered and used for agricultural purposes, but not in an urban context. Nowadays, people are generally most concerned about pests in plants around them. Now, every type of plant has a different need. When you plant different varieties together, they act as a collective family, much like friends, and help each other grow together. This is termed companion planting, where every plant has a friend and an enemy. The root system also needs to be considered since they are also different. For example, when you are growing moringa and a herbal plant like okra, there is no chance of a pest attack since most herbs, like basils, mint, etc., repel pests. These things must be kept in mind while growing a plantation since these are some very basics. If an insect is eating the leaf, it is fine. However, if it is eating the fruit or vegetable itself, it can be seen as a pest, else just an insect surviving on leaves. Now, if there is a pest on your plant, a predator comes and consumes it. That is how nature works, but we are increasingly getting away from it. I have a one-acre farm, but you’ll hardly find pests destroying my crops because I have predators too. I have bee-eating birds, then insect-eating birds, etc. So, the cycle goes on, thus preserving the ecosystem. So that’s a major area of my work; how you can invite birds, butterflies, etc. After all, every creature has a right to life, and they help in their ways to help in preserving the soil,” informed Shilpa.
“Great, you are doing wonderful work,” said Zehra.
“So can we start with our presentation?” asked Shilpa.
“As you can see, this was the situation of Oorna farm when it was taken control of, which was in a really bad state. Both the pictures are from 2020, having a gap of 6 months. The land was barren for ten years, and then we started working on it.”
“Can you tell us the meaning of Oorna?”
“It’s the quality of Buddha, which means peace and concentration. We’ve taken it from the actual term Oornam.”
“In the next slide, this is of 2021, after we had our first rains. Till then, we hadn’t planned anything for the farm as I was still studying permaculture and wanted time to design the farm. This was a very initial design to grow like anything we had. People generally want to grow natives, but you can start with any seed you have, keep the soil covered, and then go for native seeds. The next one is 2022, where you can see the farm coming up to some shape,” said Shilpa.
“Is this the house that you live in right now?” asked Zehra.
“No, this is the studio, our working space. The blue shed is the house, which is a container home, that we designed on our own, keeping nature’s patterns in our minds. So, in the next slide, this was an image of the time when we got the farm,’ said Shilpa.
“Can you tell us the exact location of your farm?”
“We are located near the Pragati Resorts.”
“Can anybody come and visit your farm?”
“Yes, people are always welcome to visit our farm.”
“In the next slide, you can see we have made some trenches to prevent rainwater from leaving the farm. It thus gets percolated in the farm itself. This way, you are recharging the ecosystem. Then in the next slide, the first one is a pond, about twenty feet deep, where the water gets collected. In the second water, you can find rainwater harvesting being practiced. We also have tanks to collect rainwater. You can also find trenches on the farm, built for the same purpose. In the next slide, what you see, is called diversity. In this picture, I can identify 8 to 9 vegetables and flowers growing in this patch. This is how you should cover the soil always,” said Shilpa.
“So, this is what you meant by companion planting?” asked Zehra.
“Yes. There are ragi, radishes, cluster beans, and chilies growing here. There is some beet growing in the background as well,” said Shilpa.
“So, do you plan how and where to grow each of them?”
“Yes, we indeed plan everything, even the sunlight direction. There are plants that need 4 hours of sunlight, whereas others need 6 hours. So accordingly, we need to plan everything. The picture in the next slide depicts our initial crop, where we didn’t plan what to plant and just broadcasted corn. We did not take that much output from it; we just chopped and dropped everything to cover the soil and regenerate it,” said Shilpa.
“In the next slide, all you can see are weeds; nothing else was planted. However, it has its advantages because when the weed is coming out, it depicts a deficiency. When there is some deficiency in the soil, certain kinds of weed help to bring out that material, which is why let them grow simultaneously with our crops, unless they bother our plants,” informed Shilpa.
“But we have a general perception, right, that weeds take up the nutrients in the soil and hinder the growth of plants?”
“Every plant has a different need. There is a misconception that all plants need the same minerals, energy, etc., from the soil. In the picture, the plant you see is very good fodder for growth. Also, it is a very good legume plant that fixes the nitrogen in the soil. You should always think first about the factors that can affect your plant while planting it. Nature has designed everything in a certain way that helps in co-existing,” said Shilpa.
“What are the tall trees we find in the picture? Are they also planted by you?”
“No, the tamarinds are 25 years old; they were already there. So, in the next slide, this picture is of the next stage of our farm, where I had done pigeon peas for its leaf litter which is very good for nitrogen fixation and also for nitrogen fixation. Here you can see the trench. You will also find that the ragi has fallen down due to unexpected rains. Interestingly, we have such good soil that we even use it for our construction purposes. You can see mud walls in this picture, which are made from this soil. Then again, the next slide is a contrast between before the plantation and after the plantation. There is a time gap of seven months here. The next slides capture some images in the rainy season and winter season. In the next slide is a picture of the harvest of sweet potatoes. The picture on the left was taken in the rainy season when about 12 varieties of plants are growing together. There is turmeric, rosella, bananas, papayas, beetroots, etc. Then in the next slide, near the snake guard, you can see five to six varieties of plants growing, such as cosmos, chilies, rosellas, okras, etc. All of them are from one patch. In the next slide, we are growing a native vegetable here, which is called Kasarka in Telugu. The picture on the right is called a raised bed, and we are planting Tapioca in this. This is one method of growing plants. When you have clayey soil, this method is used, where water doesn’t stagnate the roots,” said Shilpa.
“How many people are there working on your farm?”
“None. I work on it, but some volunteers sometimes help in the process,” said Shilpa.
“Okay,” said Zehra.
“In the next slide, the image you will find is where I have trained ladies in tailoring and natural dyeing. Now we are also making bags, etc. This is part of my vision to empower women at the rural level. So foraging is the topic of our next slide. All these leaves, you see, are foraged. Every leaf has its nutritional and medicinal value, which we are very much unaware of nowadays,” said Shilpa.
“All these leaves in this picture can be cooked and consumed?”
“Yes. Except for taro leaves that need to be boiled for remediation; otherwise, the rest can be used as palak. The picture in the next slide is of a thorny variety of brinjal which you won’t find in the market. There are mostly ten types of brinjals, and about thirty varieties of beans, whereas we only get to see one or two. So, seed saving is again another big aspect of how to take forward all these native seeds. I have, in fact, started a seed bank last year,” Shilpa said.
“This brinjal is a wildly grown one?”
“Yeah, no need to take extra care.”
“It tastes the same?”
“Actually, somewhat different and tastier. Now in the next slide, you can find images of multi-layered plantations. The red cowpea here acts as a shrub, acts as a shrub to the plot. There are many different kinds of okras in the same plot; there are peanuts, that are tubers that are grown underground, radishes that nourish the soil, chilies, carrots, etc. Chrysanthemum attracts bees for pollination, and marigold repels nematodes in the soil, etc. So, many things can be grown in a single plot and nourish the soil simultaneously. In the next slide, we find images of tubers and rhizomes, which play a major part in soil regeneration. The picture on the left is of purple yam, and on the right is black ginger, which is very medicinal in nature. In the next slide, we find, in the image on the right, there are nodules which are like bumps on the soil. They absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix them in the soil, which helps in the growth of roots. The image that you find in the next slide is of the summer season, which is very dry. Whatever vegetation you can see survives on very minimal water input. Whatever is growing is because of the mulching that we do. For every batch, we do four inches of mulching, and very less water is given to the plants,” said Shilpa.
“So whatever water they get is either from the soil or the rains?”
“We water them once in four days because the water can sustain due to mulching. For mulching, you can use cardboard, maize crop waste, etc. You just need to cover the soil with brown. Then in the next slide, you’ll find images of insect diversity. Insects are very important in the sense that they act as pollinators, primarily. In the next one, you can see the grey water that we were talking about, and on the right-hand side, the bananas that you see in the image are grown from them. The next slide captures images of some permaculture workshops we did with kids, where we generally teach them about the Cobb technique. In the next image, you will find a wall-building workshop being conducted, and the soil is from our farm, added with a little bit of cement,” said Shilpa.
“How strong are these walls?”
“They happen to be stronger than the cement and brick walls. These are basically ancient techniques that have been forgotten mostly,” said Shilpa.
“Wonderful. That was a lovely workshop, Shilpa. Thanks for joining us today.”