Soilless Nursery: Sowing Seeds of Change for Smallholder Farmers

By Harina Oberoi

June 9, 2022

A women tending to saplings placed in trays inside a greenhouse in a village.
Isarat Praveen, a tenacious farmer in Bihar, India, is leading the charge in her rural community by cultivating a soilless nursery. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

Mornings are busy for Isarat Praveen. At 6 a.m. she’s tending to her chicken flock in her backyard, as nearby roosters crow and goats bleat. Inside her house, located in India’s Bihar state, her children pack their backpacks for school.

Soon, she takes to her field to check on her growing seedlings. But hers is no ordinary nursery; Isarat grows plants without soil. 

A middle aged woman holding a tender sapling with hands inside a self constructed greenhouse in her field in Bihar, India.
Isarat Praveen holding the sapling of a vegetable plant grown in her soilless nursery in Bihar, India. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

When Heifer India facilitators first proposed the idea of a soilless nursery to Isarat’s self-help group, it was met with almost unanimous scepticism. “How can plants grow without sowing seeds in the land?” many asked.

Cultivating plants outside of traditional methods seemed amusing and, to some, impossible. Except for Isarat. Intrigued by the prospect of a challenge, she agreed to attempt the new technique.

“I just had to say yes,” she recalled. “With all support provided, why would I refuse?”

Isarat and her self-help group are supported through Heifer’s project in Bihar, which works with smallholder farmers to improve their nutrition and income, and put them on the path to a Sustainable Living Income. The project works closely with women’s self-help groups to build social capital, strengthen local agricultural value chains, improve farmers’ access to financial services, and build sustainable market linkages.

Soilless nurseries, the method of growing plants in a mineral solution or other nutrient-rich substrate, allow farmers like Isarat to increase their productivity, while reducing resource waste.

“It's a common misperception that growers are compelled to soilless growing because of a lack of workable land. Instead, this technique can help all smallholder farmers optimally utilize the land available and improve their yield,” explained Abhinav Gaurav, Heifer India’s program director.

Smallholder farmers in Bihar often own limited or no land of their own, instead cultivating produce as sharecroppers. Soilless nurseries enable them to make efficient use of existing agricultural and financial resources, and produce higher quality saplings.

“A soilless nursery is more than an agricultural innovation. It is a step toward achieving these objectives through encouraging women to start their own enterprises and carve their own route to empowerment.” — Abhinav Gaurav, Heifer India program director

Growing Plants Without Soil

A picture of a man holding a young sapling of agave plant.
Soil acts as a medium to supply essential nutrients to the seeds and saplings through their roots. In a soilless nursery, other substrates such as cocopeat can be used to supply nutrients to the seeds and saplings. Photo by Phillip Davis/ Heifer International.

In a traditional cultivation system, soil acts as a medium to supply essential nutrients to the seeds and saplings through their roots. Seeds do not always require soil to grow, but they do require nutrients, Abhinav said.

“Soilless gardening is the method of growing plants in mineral solutions or any other substrate other than soil that contains nutrients,” he said. “This method increases the quality of the produce and also protects the plants from environmental hazards, pests and rodents.”

In a soilless nursery, seeds are sown in the substrate of cocopeat — a soil conditioner made from coconut husk — and provided with moisture until they begin to germinate. The tender saplings are then fed vital nutrients and carefully preserved in a greenhouse until they are ready to be transplanted into the ground.

This technique directs resources to the saplings and reduces the human labor of digging and weeding, water waste, and instances of fungal diseases in the crop.

A Moment of Courage

Heifer India supported Isarat with the necessary training and equipment to launch the experiment.

“I was shown videos on mobile and laptop of demonstrations of this technique,” said Isarat, who also received plantation trays, a substrate, minerals like vermiculite and perlite, and organic matter in the form of vermicompost.

Driven by her resolve, the self-help group used 17 trays with a capacity to grow around 1,400 plants as a pilot test. And after three weeks, their seeds yielded around 1,300 saplings of different seasonal vegetables.

“It was a thrill seeing the outcome of our work,” recalled Isarat. The group then planted the saplings in soil, and within weeks the vegetables were ready for harvest.

A middle aged woman holding a tray with several young saplings.
Isarat Praveen holding a tray in which she grows high quality saplings without soil. Once seeds germinate, the young plants are planted in the fields and provide nutritious vegetables to farmers. Photo by Pranab K. Aich/ Heifer International.

Of the 1,300 grown saplings, the group sold 380 to other group members at INR 2, or 26 cents each, and members used the rest for their homestead kitchen gardens. Those grown without soil ended up taller and healthier than similar saplings grown using traditional methods.

For Isarat, deciding to proceed when most of the group’s members refused was a point of pride.

“It's about evolving and progressing in life,” she said. “I want every woman to overcome apprehension, see a bright future, and work towards it with small steps of change.”

And she continues to dream big: Isarat hopes to expand her farming venture, take on a leadership role in her self-help group and continue to motivate other members to grow and learn. She aspires to inspire other women to believe in themselves, discover their potential and become self-reliant.

“All it takes is a single moment of courage to try something new and begin the change,” she said.