Pass the spinach…er…diazinon please!

Kamini Raghavan

tomato-plant We decided to take a detour this time for our cover story and reach the classroom through a different route – and to help us along, we enlisted a friend who has made a modest success of an experimental kitchen garden. Listening to her description of the project, we realized there was a lot to learn from it, and much that could be implemented – in our schools, and, more importantly, in our homes. So let’s listen to her gardening story and take what we can from it, to learn, and to teach…

Food! We all love food, some of us live to eat, some of us eat to live. Either way, we all have a love/hate relationship with food.

I am not a huge foodie and I am not at all fussy, give me my roti/dal, a couple of veggie dishes (especially if spinach is one of them) and I’m happy. All I ask is that the veggies be organic and fresh! But where I live, getting my hands on organic vegetables is almost impossible, so I have been settling for the next best thing – fresh vegetables from the local vendor around the corner. I make sure I buy them when his truckload arrives around 9 a.m. in the morning, so at least if not organic, it’s fresh! So imagine my horror when I found out that the vegetables in the local market are grown with 700 times the allowed pesticides that can be used. Not 5 or 10, but 700!

Yes, so along with my cauliflower curry I have been eating Cypermethrin, the bhindi fry I love is laced with Monocrotophos, Palak Panir is accompanied by Malathion and Diazinon….. apples, oranges, and grapes are not exempt either and are known to have residues of Aldrin and Chlordane, two deadly pesticides! There is irrefutable evidence to show that these residual pesticides can lead to all kinds of health problems including cancer, kidney, and neurological diseases.

This is when my husband and I decided to take matters into our own hands and grow our own vegetables. We researched soil, we learned about pest-free gardening, we went into the backyard and peered at the ground to see what creepy crawlies were living there, we poked, we prodded, we bought fertilizer, we bought manure, we bought organic pesticides, we got rid of our gardener whose mantra was spray, spray, spray….. and while we were in the midst of all this we chanced upon the whole concept of HYDROPONICS! I won’t go into too much detail, you can read about it at “”, but basically it is growing vegetables without soil, but only in water, where the plants are anchored in vermiculite or rock wool. Pests live in soil, so by default no soil – no pests! Pretty simple.

Of course, reading about it was one thing, actually starting our own hydroponic garden was quite another. No one had heard of it in Hyderabad. So some more reading and Googling and we found a vendor in Tamil Nadu who was selling bags of coco peat. Coco peat is just pure and simple ground up coconut husks that have the appearance and texture of soil, but none of the mineral content. So it mimics all the characteristics of soil without the problems associated with soil.

Hydroponics can be as simple as growing a single plant in hand watered bucket or as high-tech as being fully automated, monitored, and controlled with your cell phone! The average home hydroponic setup is somewhere in between – it has a growing medium in trays, a reservoir/tank to hold the nutrients, a submersible pump and drip irrigation tubing for ease of watering, a simple timer and an air pump to oxygenate the nutrient solution. Of course light, natural or artificial, is also required.

cabbage Since we were almost out of space in our backyard, we decided to set up shop on our rooftop. So, this is basically our set-up. The 4” long x 8” wide bags of coco peat came in flat bales which swelled up once we wet them with water. Each bag went from being an inch high to 8” high. Then 3 or 4 “Xs” slit on top of each, into which the seedling were planted. If you are scattering seeds for veggies like spinach and lettuce, you can make a long rectangular cut out and scatter the seeds. Once the little veggie saplings are planted, they need nutrients. The nutrient/fertilizer is concocted according to a very specific formula. NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), magnesium and calcium and a host of trace elements, are mixed together in water. (A small note here: even so called “organic veggies” in many markets, have NPK in their soil). A huge plastic container holds this nutrient mixture, and the pump and timer feed it to the plants via the drip irrigation system at specific intervals.

Of course, as with any new venture, we had successes and we had mishaps! For the first month, there was no action at all from the tomato plants, then we finally noticed flowers, then all of a sudden BOOM – we were bombarded with them at the rate of almost 2 kilos a day! We planted too few lettuce plants, like any gardening project we should have staggered them! One of the coco peat bags got so heavy on one side it tilted, and most of the water and nutrients drained to one side…. so the cauliflower got waterlogged and rotted! We only planted one bhindi plant – I don’t know what we were thinking – so we get 2 or 3 bhindis a week!! By the time I cut them and make bhindi fry, we get a mouthful each! But these are all easily avoidable mistakes, so as long as you stagger the planting of seeds, and assess how much exactly is needed for your consumption, you can minimize the wastage and save yourself a lot of headaches! Some vegetables are more prone to insects than others…. the lettuce, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and tomatoes were insect free, the okra and bell peppers were immediately attacked by pests which we controlled by using an organic pesticide like neem oil.

Nothing can beat the thrill of picking your own freshly grown veggies, however tiny or measly the harvest is. It’s an indescribable feeling. We have a long, long way to go before we are completely self-sufficient, but it is good to know that at least part of what I am putting in my mouth is organic and pesticide free! The last time I made a salad it took less than 5 minutes for the lettuce to get from plant to table and the taste was amazingly fresh!

Basic setup
There are many ways to set up a hydroponic garden and the way we set up with coco peat is just one way. It’s messy but it works.

The most important items you need for hydroponic gardening and the sources are:

  1. Coco peat grow bags: These cost approx. Rs 50 per bag from You will also have to pay the freight cost. The cost from Nagercoil to Hyderabad was about Rs 350; this will depend on the distance to the final destination. You may also be able to locate local suppliers in other regions.
  2. Digital timer: Rs 1100 on It is programmed to run the drip for 2 to 4 mins depending on the stage of the plant at 8 am, 10, 11, 12 pm, 1, 2, 3, and 5pm. Instructions come with it and it is easy to set up and wire up.
  3. The timer runs a submersible pump that is used in aquariums or can be bought from an air cooler store for Rs 250 – 450. It is typically used to pump water in these coolers.
  4. The air pump is about Rs 300 or so and can be bought from an aquarium store.
  5. The submersible pump is in the nutrient tank, which is a 200 liter black tank (has to be black to prevent algae growth due to sunlight) and is connected to 16 mm drip tubing which goes past each plant. A barb is fixed in this tubing and through it a 6 mm tubing is connected to the dripper for each plant. A good start is to use a 2 liter per hour dripper initially, and as the plant grows change to an 8 liter per hour dripper.
  6. The nutrients can be bought from Atul Kalaskar on They will be delivered to your address with detailed instructions on mixing them up. It is also possible to make your own, which is about one tenth the cost of this, but it takes a bit of running around.

Dos and Dont’s

  1. Germinate the seeds in coco peat and not in soil, where they pick up pests right away
  2. If possible, it is better to grow one vegetable at a time since they grow at different rates and require different amounts of nutrients, and germinate and transplant them all together. Otherwise, it is a headache to keep track of their differing needs.
  3. There must be a drain hole in the grow bag – punch it out at the bottom and collect the excess run-off there. This can be provided to other plants in the garden but not reused.
  4. Make sure you provide support to the tomato plants as they grow bigger or they will keel over under the weight of the tomatoes.
  5. When the fruits turn red watch out for rodents and birds trying to eat them. It’s best to pick them in the evening.


Hydroponic Projects

Here is a project for small groups of students to highlight some of the interesting facts regarding plant growth.

Material needed

  1. One 2 liter bottle – A Sprite or Coke bottle will work well
  2. A black plastic bag
  3. A roll of scotch tape
  4. 2” x 2” piece of thermocol from a hardware store
  5. A small funnel
  6. Tomato seedlings already grown in coco peat (to discourage pests) about 6” tall
  7. An air pump with tube and air stone from an aquarium store
  8. Plant nutrient from for hydroponics

The project will demonstrate how to grow tomatoes without soil. You will use only air and nutrient dissolved in water. The thermocol piece will hold the plant and allow it to grow bigger while still holding it.

tomatoCut the mouth of the 2 ltr. bottle so that the thermocol piece fits snugly in it. Insert the air tube with the air stone at the end of it into the plastic bottle.

Make a cut in the thermocol piece and insert the seedling into it.
Tape around the thermocol to keep the plant in position.
Place the thermocol into the plastic bottle.
Insert the funnel between the plastic and the thermocol.
Pour the nutrient into the bottle until 75% of the plant root dips in it.
Note the level of the nutrient within the funnel.
Place the bottle in the black plastic bag to prevent algae growth in the nutrient solution.
Start the air pump.
The installation should be placed in sunlight.

Check the level of nutrient every day.
Add enough to bring it up so that 75% of the plant root dips in it.
Note the quantity of nutrient added each day.
Plot this on a graph.
Measure the height of the plant each day and plot it on the same graph.
Plot the height of plant versus daily consumption of nutrients.
After a few weeks, the plant will produce yellow flowers.
Gently shake the stems to make the flowers pollinate. You are the bee.
As the plant starts to bear fruit provide it support or it will keel over.
Observe the nutrient consumption at different stages of plant development.

Kitchen gardens for families
Here is an easy way for a family wanting to start a kitchen garden, to use the rooftop terrace where possible.

coco-peat-brick List of materials
Plastic sheet
One coco peat brick – available in any seed store, Rs
Nutrients as mentioned above

Place a row of ordinary bricks in a 2’ x 4’ area, place a sheet of plastic over it, and then another row of bricks over that to prevent the plastic from slipping from place. Put the coco peat brick into a bucket, break it up, add some water to it until it is fully moistened and breaks apart. Its volume will expand enormously. Fill the area enclosed with bricks with the coco peat all the way up to the second level of bricks. Plant the seeds in this, keep it moist and it should germinate in a week. Keep the area constantly moist with nutrients mixed with water.

I hope I have inspired you all to go organic! If you are lucky enough to live in a big city, you can get organic produce at the market. But if you still want to experience the thrill of growing your own vegetables hydroponically, e-mail us and we will happily share information with you!

The author is an interior designer by profession and has interests in painting, music, yoga, and gardening. She can be reached at

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