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Amid lockdown, Sri Lankans nurture their own oases through home gardening

  • Home gardening has boomed in Sri Lanka as residents under lockdown look to grow their own fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • The government, which has championed home gardening in the past, launched a program to support a million home gardens by issuing 2 million seed packs and offering technical advice to the public to undertake home gardening.
  • With the country now easing out of lockdown, the government says it will take some prodding to keep people interested in home gardening, including by emphasizing the benefits of growing food at home instead of importing it from abroad.
  • While the main benefit of home gardens is to ensure people are food secure at the individual and family level, gardening is also a useful stress buster that supports outdoor family time.

COLOMBO — On April 22, Sri Lanka eased its nationwide lockdown that was imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That sparked a buying rush for essential goods, primarily food. But another type of commodity was also high on shoppers’ lists: organic fertilizers, seeds, and clay pots. Demand was so strong that people lined up in queues with little regard for physical distancing guidelines as they sought out home gardening essentials.

Goods have become scarce since the lockdown on March 16, with food supplies from the northwest and central parts of the island suspended to contain the spread of COVID-19. With a shortage of rice and vegetables looming as part of the “new normal,” there has been a heightened interest in home gardening among even urban Sri Lankans.

During the lockdown, farming supply stores liked this one in the southern Matara area were among the few businesses still being patronized as people lined up to buy seeds, fertilizer and terracotta pots for home gardening. Image by Malaka Rodrigo.

Promoting home gardens online

Tips and tutorials on home gardening have flourished on Youtube and Facebook, with people showcasing their small-time cultivation efforts to the world.

Nuwan Nilamuni, a member of a local government authority in southern Sri Lanka, set up a Facebook group with colleagues in late March to encourage home gardening and provide a platform to discuss gardening issues. The group reached 100,000 members within a month. Similar groups have mushroomed on social media platforms during the lockdown, while existing pages and channels on farming and gardening have recorded massive growth in subscriber numbers.

Ahead of the lockdown, and uncertain about how long it would last, residents stocked up on food items with a long shelf life. That meant plenty of dry rations, but no vegetables or fruit, which, along with rice, were subject to distribution bottlenecks as a result of quarantine controls between different districts. That led people to the quick realization of the practical value in growing their own produce. And with people confined to their homes, with no outdoor activity possible, there was solace in growing their own plants.

Home gardening gives families an opportunity to connect with nature. Image by Dilrukshi Handunnetti.

Local media rallied behind campaigns such as the “Home gardening challenge,” with the country’s cricketers — superstars in a country that reveres the sport — showing how they were taking to cultivate their backyards and inspiring people.

Sri Lanka, a tropical Indian Ocean island, has climate variations that enable year-round crop cultivation. Home gardens in Sri Lanka account for 13% of the total land area. Realizing the value home gardening can contribute to household food security, the government through the Department of Agriculture (DOA) also launched a program called Saubagya (meaning “prosperity”) to promote a million home gardens.

Under this program, officials distributed 2 million seed packets to households, W.M.W.Weerakoon, director-general of the Department of Agriculture, told Mongabay.

“We offer these vegetable seed packets as a means of encouragement to try home gardening. People can find many other things to plant in their gardens like green leaves, so they can expand on their own,” he said.

The department also had field staff offering advice on tackling pests and maximizing yields. “The public can contact our agriculture hotline anytime,” Weerakoon said.

The department has tried to promote home gardening a number of times in the past, but with little success. The current concerns around household food security have caused a wave of their own, making it likely that this program will succeed, Weerakoon added.

The lockdown has since been eased in 23 of Sri Lanka’s 25 districts, so people will need some prodding to retain their interest in home gardening. “We are reminding the public of the value of growing your own food, which is healthier as vegetables available in the markets are often having high agrochemical residue,” he said.

Home harvest. Image courtesy of Nalika Ranathunge.

Urban home gardens

While rural areas have more land that can be used for home gardening, urban populations are constrained by a lack of space. “Not if you have the will and an interest,” says Arulkumar Jebamani, who lives in a second-floor apartment in Bambalapitiya, in the heart of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s commercial capital. “I have two balconies and a terrace with a roof. I use pots to grow vegetables in my tiny urban space,” Jebamani said.

Udaya de Silva, a former director of agriculture, has played a lead role in current efforts to promote home gardening in the island. As Sri Lanka attempts to reduce imports of popular spices such as ginger (Zingiber officinale) and turmeric (Curcuma longa), de Silva says it’s best to grow these medicinal herbs at home.

“This is the right time to plant ginger and turmeric as they need about eight months to mature and people can gather harvest in December/January,” he said.

There are a number of medicinal herbs found in Sri Lanka believed to be able to boost the immune system. “People can grow their own medicinal plants like polpala [Aerva lanata] and asparagus [Asparagus gonoclados] that do not require special care,” de Silva said.

Home gardening doesn’t require much space to grow a few essential vegetables, such as this lush tomato plant from a balcony pot. Image courtesy of Arulkumar Jebamani.

By early May, farming supply stores had run out of fertilizer. Once again, people had to learn to make it on their own, said Nalika Ranathunga of the agriculture department at the University of Ruhuna, who specializes in plant pathology.

“Half of the waste collected in Sri Lanka are biodegradables. If everyone individually turns biodegradable waste into fertilizer, it can effectively reduce the country’s waste production and benefit useful activities such as home gardening,” Ranathunge said.

She told Mongabay that home gardening has a value well beyond food production. Ranathunge, who got her entire family engaged in home gardening, said the activity gives more productive family time and physical exercise.

“It is a stressful time and gardening is always a pleasurable activity,” she said. “Doing it together brings the family to connect through one productive activity and offers quality family time that can eventually benefit the family with produce from one’s own compound,”

Banner image of capsicum and ocra plants from a home garden in Sri Lanka, by Malaka Rodrigo.

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