Managing the Ecosystem

June 9, 2014

First, there was a sapling.

It was a jacaranda sapling – about 5 ft tall, slim as a stick (I do mean that literally) and with very few stems and even fewer leaves. Well, no, surely there were more leaves than stems – but it was a close thing, not too many of either. In low light conditions, like dusk, dawn, any time in between, or on a rainy or cloudy day, it wasn’t an easy sapling to spot. And it was outside our front wall. That’s prime parking for patients who want to visit the doctor across the lane. And patients rushing to get in line at a doctor’s clinic aren’t particularly sensitive to the presence of a thin stalk that might or might not have a few leaves attached. It’s only a matter of time before someone drives right over it.

Well, the jacaranda was one of our many babies in the plant world, so of course we wanted it to survive, thrive and live to a ripe old age. We did what any loving parent would do. We put a barricade around it. Three rough wooden poles tied together at the top.

And those poles formed the bottom of the food chain.

They got termites. Well, they were outside our house. And there’s a storm water drain that separates the space where the jacaranda is planted from the wall of the house. Then there’s the wall itself. Then there’s the garden – a vast expanse, about 50 feet in all. The back of the lawn has now been converted to a vegetable patch.

Anyway, termites (or dimak, as I knew it in my childhood days – though that refers more properly to the evidence of termites rather than to termites themselves) are a big problem in houses made of wood. Our house is made of mud brick. Termites don’t eat mud brick. Even our cupboards are not lined with wood. Only the cupboard doors are wood and those are treated or something. Anyway, the cupboard doors and all the rest of the doors and windows of our house were far, far away from the termites in the barricade surrounding the jacaranda tree. There was a drain, a wall, and an expanse of garden separating the one from the other. It wasn’t worth wasting a thought on.

Until I saw termites in our lawn.

I didn’t actually see termites, of course. I don’t want to see termites. I’ve seen pictures of them and that’s bad enough. They are gross looking worm-like creepy-crawlies and I don’t want to have anything to do with them. So I’m quite glad I didn’t see any actual termites. I saw the pock-marked muddish (not exactly muddy; but with the same relation to mud as reddish has to red) expanse that is their home. Or, if it is not their home, it indicates that their home is below. Very far below. Apparently, termites can live as much as 40 feet underground. I’d thought of raking the soil or pouring boiling water on the nest, but clearly that wouldn’t work – not if the little buggers were hiding 40 feet underground. All it would do is to kill my grass.

The good news, I found after checking with Mr Google, is that termites don’t bother living plants. They only eat dead wood. The bad news is that the only thing that eats termites is ants. Well, we have ants in plentiful. No shortage of ants in our garden. I’ve been doing my best to kill them by feeding them vast quantities of cornflour (apparently it explodes in the poor lil creature’s tummy. Ooooh!) but no sooner do I manage to destroy one colony than another springs up a few feet away. I did mention that they have a 50-foot long expanse to play around in, didn’t I? And that’s just the side garden. We have little bits of lawn in the front and back as well, and the ants don’t seem to need GPS to find their way to them.

Ok, so ants don’t eat plants either; and they do eat termites. Why not just let them be? I’ll tell you why not. For one thing, their nests are a muddy eyesore and they quickly – incredibly quickly – grow to obliterate and obscure my beautiful lush green grass. For another, the nasty lil buggers bite like hell.

And then, there are the aphids. Aphids are these tiny little insects that do eat plants. They can destroy vegetables and they aren’t any too kind to our creepers and reed bed either. Ants eat aphids – which should be a good thing. The trouble is, ants are so fond of aphids that they actually farm them. That is, they encourage aphids to come and set up home, and then they eat them, but not so fast as to kill off their food source. Huh – and I bet you thought we humans were the only animals smart enough to grow our food. When it comes to food, ants are just as smart – or smarter. They might have brains one thousandth the size of ours, but when ten thousand of them get together and start to figure things out, they are pretty damn smart.

So now I have my work cut out for me. First, I have to keep the aphids away. I had got rid of one lot by spraying them with a concoction of all kinds of things from the kitchen – ginger, garlic, red chilli, onion. I could have made a curry out of it after I’d finished boiling it and straining it for the juice. It was pretty potent, though. It seems to have had a fairly long lasting effect too, which is good. I only have to make sure no aphids come back for seconds.

Then, I have to keep feeding those greedy ants their cornflour. If you see the price of cornflour going up, you’ll know why.

And then I have to deal with the damn termites.

My gardener, under my instructions, has removed the termite-laden wooden pole from around the jacaranda sapling. He replaced it with a fresh wooden pole. Unless termites are very particular about the exact species of dead wood they will eat, I suspect that this strategy was a little misguided. It’s like when you go for an eat-all-you-can buffet and you eat so much of the prawn that they have to take the serving bowl away and bring another one out.

As they say, there’s never a dull moment.

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