Urban farming is the future of healthy living

Exploring the ins and outs of how you can begin to start growing in your own backyards and balconies.

Published Apr 03, 2020 11:01am

Whether it’s a window, balcony, garage, patio or lawn — what makes urban farming a particularly viable avocation in our fast-paced daily lives is that it can be tailored to fit the budget and space you have at hand.

And while eating food you’ve grown yourself sits at the junction of fulfilment, tradition and modernity, adapting to a rapidly changing world and new ways of eating — it isn't an easy feat.

In fact, it requires seriousness and commitment.

Essentially, urban farming is all about growing food in a densely populated city or urban environment for sale, barter or consumption, and varies greatly in terms of productivity and scale — and even extends to include raising animals as well.

In Pakistan, there exists a growing urban farming community that is not only involved in promoting sustainability and adaptive food consumption but also in encouraging habits of “slow” food, organic eating, buying local, seasonal produce and using traceable ingredients in cooking.

By speaking to those who know the ins and outs of urban farming and gardening, Images explores how you can begin to start growing in your own backyards and balconies.

"They grew well": A growing community

Years ago, Sanaa Zubairi started her garden when she and her aunt decided to bring a dormant turai (gourd) creeper back to life in their yard with their gardener’s help. It worked, and they added a few banana trees and a lemon tree.

“They grew well and we had a lot of fruit,” says Zubairi, a 36-year-old mental health counsellor, clinical supervisor and life coach.

“Our maali started teaching me about [farming] since he had done it before in his village. Gradually, we experimented, researched online, picked up ideas and added more vegetables to the garden.”

Over the years, many gardening societies have bloomed and established, garden stores are spreading and nurseries are more accessible— *Stock image*
Over the years, many gardening societies have bloomed and established, garden stores are spreading and nurseries are more accessible— Stock image

Zubairi and her aunt were never alone on their journey. The pair was inspired early on by others in their circle with already thriving kitchen gardens and consulted with their local Karachi chapter of Ikebana International — the 20,000-strong international organisation to promote the Japanese art of flower arrangement where members meet once a month for workshops, lectures and discussions of plant and flower-related subjects — and Tofiq Pasha, a renowned local farmer who regularly opens his farm to the public for planting workshops and lessons.

“Along the way, we started hearing a lot about others growing their own food. I also met with Tofiq Pasha and saw his farm. It was pretty clear it is possible to grow [food] at home. The best part is opening up my window to a lush garden every morning, seeing the fruit hanging all around. There’s nothing like picking your own food, heading into the kitchen and cooking up a storm.”

Zubairi revealed that for the past six or seven years, they haven’t needed to purchase the vegetables they already grow at home. That includes loki, turai, karaila and kakri, as well as spinach for six to eight months of the year and seasonal veggies besides.

“There is always something that you can grow even if you don't have resources. Our pantries are packed with seeds; potatoes, garlic and ginger are always available to begin with. When you don't have everything listed in a gardening book or website, then you truly learn how to be creative and how nature finds a way to keep producing.”


“We have our lemons, basil and mint throughout the year. Seasonal vegetables like broccoli, tomato, eggplant, coriander and peppers keep us going for some months. We've added more fruit and have been enjoying mulberries (shaitoot) for a while now.”

Every season, she says, “We assess what we want to grow that time around and how much. Some stuff we manage to freeze as well and use whenever.”

With a lot of produce coming through, Zubairi shares it with family, friends and house staff, and has also set up a barter system with other growers like her.


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Lemons from Khuled's garden
Lemons from Khuled's garden

Seema Khuled has been regularly conducting gardening workshops and training sessions across Lahore and Islamabad for years.

Each session is three hours long and begins with basic theory — the hows and whys — followed by a tea break and an interactive practice session.

Workshops are registration-based and cover the basics like organic kitchen gardening, but also go beyond for the more serious enthusiasts with sessions on bonsai, vertical gardening, espaliering and growing mushrooms.

“We have quite an informal interactive session where the participants are at ease to ask [questions] and understand. The best part — which is very encouraging — is that participants execute all the ideas that we discuss during the workshop,” says Khuled.

“I am always there whenever they need any further guidance but they are well equipped to try on their own.”

And the interactive guidance goes beyond the weekend workshops. Khuled helps run Our Gardens, a Facebook group with over 114,000 members who use the platform for everything from help identifying plants (“Is this lettuce edible?”), to advice on techniques (“Will this trellis be strong enough to hold up my vine?”; “Should I repot or transfer this into the ground?”) to why their tomatoes aren’t thriving.

Courtesy Seema Khuled
Courtesy Seema Khuled

People also trade seeds and plants — there are even giveaways from time to time — and share photos and videos of the literal fruits of their labour for others to see. Plus, lots of wholesome memes.

“I believe that nobody knows everything but everybody knows something. That is why an urban gardening community is important,” says Khuled.

“Everyone has something to contribute [with their] experience and knowledge.”


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Though she'd always had an affinity for nature and the outdoors since childhood, Karachi-based sustainability educator and writer Zahra Ali became a full-time urban farmer in 2008 after she had an accident that caused her to put her career on hold as a result.

“During that one year, I asked myself, what will really make me happy if I had no pressures from society and no worry about my future?”

Courtesy Zahra Ali
Courtesy Zahra Ali

“I wanted to grow my own food and since then, I have found my way in the most magical ways possible. I gave up my career, which was all about consumerism and was totally not making me happy. It was a daring thing to do back then but amazing things happen when you follow your heart.”

Around the same time, she started Crops In Pots, a blog that has since blossomed into a community of urban farmers and led to other projects and initiatives. Organic City, the organisation she started with her husband Yasir Husain, holds horticulture therapy sessions with The Recovery House, runs an heirloom seed bank and opened up the Organic City Eco-Store in 2016.

Then there’s The Learning Garden, an initiative that promotes sustainability and conservation in schools through classroom and experiential learning via planting and caring for an organic vegetable patch. Over 7,000 children have participated in the programme over the last 12 years.

“I learned gardening skills mainly through reading online and emailing experts from around the world who were very supportive. I watched [videos] and practised. That is why I started my blog in 2008: to share what works and what doesn't,” says Ali.

A photo posted by Instagram (@instagram) on

“I also got in touch with a group of urban farmers in the Philippines that emerged after the [2004] tsunami hit their area. They used trash to make fertilisers and planters; that truly inspired me.”

At home and in the gardens she manages across the city, Ali mainly grows organic heirloom vegetables, herbs and fruits in containers or grow boxes and native trees for tree plantations, along with flowers, which help attract pollinating bees.

“Flowers are always a part of any organic and permaculture garden. I have grown all kinds of plants, from orchids, cacti, bonsai [to] tropical and water plants as well. All these years, I have never planted hybrid or genetically modified seeds, and all my initiatives [have also grown] only heirloom vegetables each year since day one.”


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Lahore-based software project manager Muhammad Khabbab has a similar story. Back in 2008, he first got into gardening because of rising tomato prices at the time. Apart from the standard vegetables and some dwarf fruit trees, he is now growing hundreds of plants on his rooftop and is also a collector of rare and exotic flowers — which can get tricky thanks to the fluctuating exchange rate and import restrictions.

Like Ali, he too created a community when he could not find one.

Picture courtesy Muhammad Khabbab
Picture courtesy Muhammad Khabbab

An active member of international gardening forums like Dave's Garden and Houzz, Khabbab started a blog, discussion board and an online store selling local and exotic bulbs, seeds and plants. His forum, Gardening Pakistan, often organises workshops and he makes sure to attend workshops run by others in the city.

“I always learn a thing or two whenever I attend a workshop,” says Khabbab. “When you meet with other gardeners who see things from another perspective, then you get to know many new ideas and many solutions which you did not know in the first place. Learning is a process which never stops.”

But for the urban gardening community, the learning is not all online.

Picture courtesy Muhammad Khabbab
Picture courtesy Muhammad Khabbab

Those who have access to or contacts in the rural farmlands regularly travel to interact with farmers on the ground to gain a deeper understanding of how to grow and how to grow better.

For example, Dr Sabeeka Kazilbash, who grows guava and mango trees at her home on the outskirts of Karachi, often visits her aunts in Punjab during the sugarcane or rice harvest seasons and consults with local farmworkers there to add to her knowledge.

She also writes directly to local nurseries in Karachi to ask what they’re up to and shares her own progress.

"People have always wanted to be closer to nature": A renewed interest

Extreme temperatures and deadly heatwaves in Pakistan over the past decade led to recognising the impact of losing green spaces in cities to concrete and urbanisation, resulting in government and private efforts to restore tree cover and urban forests.

Although climate change was named as a key contributing factor behind the exceptionally high temperatures of up to 49 degrees Celsius during the deadly 2015 heatwave which killed nearly 2,000 people in mostly Karachi and Sindh, what really drove the phenomenon (and subsequent heatwaves) are deforestation and the loss of green spaces in densely populated areas. This is known as the urban heat island effect.

Though urban gardening and farming also took off around the same time, campaigns calling to increase greenery in cities apparently aren’t responsible for their popularity.

According to Ali, heatwaves have not been the driving factor behind the growing interest in growing.

Speaking of lawns, It’s important to point out that the gardens under discussion almost tend to be privately-held in homes and not, for example, public or commonly-held allotments or gardens, as is often the case in contemporary cities around the world.


“Heatwaves did encourage mass tree plantations,” she notes, referring to drives to plant trees in public spaces — but people have always wanted to be closer to nature.

“Over the years, so many gardening societies have bloomed and established, garden stores are spreading and nurseries are [more] accessible. People have also started growing vegetables now and are more aware of the harmful effects of genetically-modified seeds and chemicals used in agriculture.”

Khuled concurs with Ali and says growing things has been an integral part of home life for generations. If we rewind our memories, “we can see our elders growing a few things and surely having one or two fruit trees in our houses. It's kind of reviving that culture again.”

Though they say the heatwaves aren’t directly behind the rising interest in gardening, both Khuled and Ali do credit a greater awareness of climate change — and its effects — and declining air quality among young people.

"Failure is an important teacher": Overcoming challenges through experience

Zubairi — who is also an active member of a Karachi-based gardening Facebook group — acknowledges there are lots of pitfalls when it comes to growing and sustaining your own food and garden.

In fact, she says, failure is an important teacher. “It hasn’t been easy dealing with bugs and birds, but the experts shared their experiences, and desi fixes, totkas and failures here and there prepped me.”

“It takes patience and work.”

While water is a constant and omnipresent challenge in Karachi, there are ways to work around it.

Dr Kazilbash, for example, grows according to Karachi’s climate in a limited space and is lucky her home is on the outer edge of the city, so the soil is richer.

“Certain limitations of space and resources are a common factor here [in Pakistan] and turning them into opportunities is a collective effort beneficial to all. Small space gardening is one of the primary examples on which we have gone quite far,” Khuled adds, referring to the most common type of setup group members have.

Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi
Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi

For the last 10 years, 29-year-old digital marketer Mavra Azeemi and her family have grown mostly fruit trees, flowers and ornamentals within their Lahore home: kinnow, mosambi, chikoo, red and green grapes, papaya, curry leaf, lemongrass, basil, date, guava, aloe, jasmine and rose.

Then there’s the empty plot of land next door, where they’ve planted moringa — described as a miracle tree for all its nutritious benefits — and a diverse vegetable patch.

She says, “Thanks to the empty plot next to our house, we've been lucky enough to grow a whole bunch of different seasonal vegetables.”

And though Lahore has better soil conditions and season differentiation, the smog and other irregularities can lead to an uneven or sometimes no output, which can get expensive in terms of time and effort.

Although, for Ali, who grows heirloom and organic, it was all about learning slowly through experience over the years.

She says, “It was very challenging to find organic experts, garden shops or even local gardening social media groups back then.”

Nearly a decade ago, she created a guide for starting a vegetable garden on a less than shoestring budget based on her own experience.

"Plant food for your own survival": How important is it to grow your own food?

Dr Kazilbash, who is in her 30s, grew up watching her grandparents harvest their own kitchen essentials and took on gardening as a hobby as her interest grew.

Their encouragement, however, came from the pain of their own experience.

Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi
Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi

“My grandfather often recalled his pre-Partition days and always advised that if a war-like situation [like that] happens again, [you must be prepared and] you have to plant food for your own survival. I always laughed, but this point always remains in my mind.”

For some, the drive and satisfaction of growing food lies in maintaining family tradition and a kind of modern pastoral nostalgia. Linked to that are concerns like eliminating food miles or avoiding pesticide biomagnification. Plus, when you grow spinach and lettuce in your own yard, you know they haven’t been watered with sewage.

“There is nothing as rewarding as picking up fresh food from your garden just before cooking,” says Ali, who grows organic produce in all her gardens.

“We are missing out [on] a diverse range of vegetables thanks to commercial farming. We need to revive heirloom seeds especially because over the past few decades, the world has lost a huge percentage of heirloom seed diversity.”

“The joy of picking a fresh orange from the tree that grows in your garden can never be matched by anything you get in the market,” explains Azeemi, who comes from a landowning family in Punjab.

“The connection you feel to the food you grow runs a lot deeper. You've shared the same piece of earth and gotten the same sun, grown up together, it's like the most beautiful friendship.”

“Food is the basic fuel for our body,” says Khuled, who notes that pesticide intake tends to be highest when it comes to raw leaves and vegetables.

Growing your own food is taking charge of your health with your own hands. It also tastes much better.

“I know we cannot grow everything but at least we can grow those which are consumed raw.”

Organic farming can be challenging enough at subsistence level but even more so at scale, and is much less commercially viable in comparison to conventionally grown crops. Even when produce is labelled organic, it’s difficult to ensure it is 100% so and hasn’t been exposed to harmful pesticides or fertilisers at some point.

This means the Pakistani urban garden is atomic, individual and domestic, with no infrastructure or sustainable model to turn it into a true community project that can build social cohesion and empower people.


“Commercial farms cannot be completely organic even if they try [to be] due to pesticide sprays in adjacent farms,” says Khuled, alluding to the fact that, though there are exceptions, organic farms are often located near or on the same properties as conventional ones.

For Zubairi, however, the benefits of urban farming go far beyond solely “clean” food: it can be revitalising in terms of mental health too.

“Kitchen gardening and nature are a huge personal resource to help reconnect with the world and nature, ground the self and teach and encourage others to do the same.”

“It also helps to enjoy the many things we discover every now and then: butterflies, all kinds of winged bugs and different birds coming in to share the fruit. Some are just absolutely fascinating.”

Dr Kazilbash, who also grows herbs, garlic, ginger, eggplant, potatoes and chillies, finds similar happiness when she gives much of her produce away.

“When a friend shares her experience of how she used brinjal I’ve grown in tarkari and raita, I’m just overwhelmed with joy.”

"It's important to bring young children close to nature": The future of urban farming

So what does the future of urban farming look like in Pakistan?

Ali is optimistic. “It is bright, especially since [many] schools have started educating children about being close to nature. I am very hopeful to see our future community leaders shaping greener communities.”

“Urban gardeners are getting more active with the food growing movement now,” says Khuled, which indicates a break from pristine balconies and the primly landscaped yet monotonous lawn.

"Along with beautiful, colourful and fragrant gardens, we are seeing edibles grown all along. This is very encouraging.”

“It's going to get even better if kitchen gardening can be introduced in every school and college,” Khuled echoes.

Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi
Photo courtesy Mavra Azeemi

She says, “It's important to bring young children close to nature. I am seeing a much greener and healthier environment in years to come with all these youngsters joining us.”

Speaking of lawns, It’s important to point out that the gardens under discussion almost tend to be privately-held in homes and not, for example, public or commonly-held allotments or gardens, as is often the case in contemporary cities around the world.

This means the Pakistani urban garden is atomic, individual and domestic, with no infrastructure or sustainable model to turn it into a true community project that can build social cohesion and empower people.

"Once you’re in, there is no way back": How to get started

Mid-February to early April is the spring planting season, which means right now is the perfect time to plan and start your very own garden.

Ali recommends growing locally available flowers, herbs and vegetables.

“Try to include a water feature for bees, butterflies and birds,” she adds.

“There is always something that you can grow even if you don't have resources. Our pantries are packed with seeds; potatoes, garlic and ginger are always available to begin with. When you don't have everything listed in a gardening book or website, then you truly learn how to be creative and how nature finds a way to keep producing.”

If that seems too daunting, Khuled recommends starting small.

“Start with growing things you love to see or eat,” she says. “Always ask others for help and information with your gardening. Don't get discouraged if you fail to grow something. That is a part of learning.”

“Gardening is addictive. Once you’re in, there is no way back.”