Garden Updates

November 10, 2014

Sometime early this year, we got a gardener. And now my garden is almost unrecognisable.

The good news is that, almost nothing has died since my last update so many months ago. The grass, the trees, everything made it through the long summer and the dry monsoon. Not just made it – almost everything flourished.
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The gardener, Mr Albert, raised and leveled the lawn by adding two layers of sand. To my utmost dismay, each time it completely smothered the grass and made my lovely, lush green lawn look like the Sahara desert (not that I’ve been there… but what I imagine it might look like). Both times, to my delight and relief, the grass pushed its way through and created a brand new, lush green lawn. It’s still a bit lumpy though – certainly not Wimbledon.

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The creepers: The Jasmine is flowering and fragrant, though it hasn’t grown any taller. The bougainvillea (not a creeper, I know, but close enough) is leafy and colourful, somewhat more green and less colourful than I would like, but just after the rainy season you can’t help that. The ice cream creeper – I don’t know, it might be a lemon. I mean, it was supposed to be an ice cream creeper, but every picture I’ve seen of the ice cream creeper on the net shows tiny pink flowers and this one has tiny white flower. Maybe it’s anaemic? At any rate, it has grown and covered the railing of the basement garden and produced some flowers, even if they are anaemic. In the back garden, the vanilla creeper is slowly finding its way up the wall. Next to it, a small creeper with pretty little red flowers is keeping it company.
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The flowering trees: One gulmohar has grown into a splendid and beautiful creature, though it hasn’t shown us any flowers yet. The other one, sadly, is struggling. We had to move it from its place in the back lawn to a place outside the house and it hasn’t recovered from the shock yet. The other trees are all flourishing. The frangipani has grown beautifully and got a good set of flowers. The jacaranda, the golden shower, and the java cassia had all dwindled to a single dead-looking stalk in summer, but each one has got a new set of branches and leaves. The java cassia is already showing the shape it’s going to assume in another ten years. It’s only about waist high so far, but its branches span 20 feet from tip to tip and they’re pushing further every day. I’m going to have to prune it drastically and soon and the prospect is breaking my heart.
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The fruit trees: We don’t have any fruit off any of these yet, but just for the record, we have a custard apple, a banana, a chickoo, a lemon, a sweet lime, a mango (if four leaves can be called a tree), and about 8 papaya trees. And also, just for the record, I don’t eat papaya and I have no clue what we’re going to do with so many papayas, assuming all of the trees eventually bear fruit.
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And the vegetables. Vegetables, as I’ve said before, are not my thing. All the same, now that we have a gardener, we have a vegetable patch at one end of our lawn, and also a good collection of pots on one verandah. We have spinach and tomato and onion and beans and carrot and red capsicum, all of which have already yielded a harvest, to a greater or lesser extent. And we have cabbage and egg plant and various other things that I don’t even recognize that are still growing. And more tomato and more onion. It’s quite impressive really.
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And finally, the crowning achievement of our gardener, we have a brand new, dedicated 5000 litre tank which stores rain water and will be used for gardening through the long, dry summer months. There’s a lovely pulley system rigged up over it. I haven’t tried it out yet, so I’m not sure exactly how much fun it’s going to be to lug a bucket of water up the eight foot depth… but I expect I’ll find out soon enough. Summer is just around the corner now, isn’t it?

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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.


Plants are Amazing

June 4, 2014

You have to live with them to realize just how amazing they are.

As you might know, we are somewhat extreme in our approach to water. So, in the long dry months from November to May, we gave our garden a scant dose of grey water. Due to our minimalistic approach to water consumption and because grey water does not include black water, we didn’t generate much grey water at all to begin with. The water we did use then went through phytoremediation, nourishing our thriving bed of reeds. The somewhat purified grey water then wound up in the grey water sump, to further purify under the effect of the ultraviolet rays from the sun. In this process, a fair amount was lost to evaporation. What was left was barely enough to keep our tiny row of hedge plants green, let alone the vast expanse of grass. So – everything died. Our gulmohar lost all its twigs along with their leaves. Our jacaranda and java cassia were both reduced to a single bare stalk. Our golden shower not only lost all its leaves, it developed a crack right at the bottom of the trunk that looked entirely lethal. Our bougainvillea flourished, our bamboo looked happy enough and our ice cream creeper stayed green, though it didn’t get new leaves, but everything else withered and looked to be in varying stages of death throes.

And then, at last, in the first week of May, just three weeks ago, we got our first proper shower of the year. Some cyclone, the papers said, somewhere far away, but it was enough. Three days of rain, and our garden sprang back to life. It was incredible. Grass that had gone yellow and dried up months ago suddenly turned green and grew three inches overnight. All our trees sprang new leaves, even new branches. Even – in fact, especially – the golden shower that had appeared to be the most doomed of the lot. It still had a crack that threatened to sever the trunk two inches from the ground, but now it had so many new leaves it was practically unrecognizable. A chickoo tree that had shown no evidence of life has sent forth a ton of new leaves. Our gulmohars grew to over ten feet in height – much of the growth achieved even before the rain at last hit us. Plants I had totally forgotten about have sent out shoots – a whole row of tube roses I’d give up for dead and a lily bulb that I had not even known what to do with, have surfaced unexpectedly. I almost yanked them out, thinking they were weeds.

Oh yes, weeds. The joyful task of spotting them in the grass and pulling them out is now back in my list of everyday to-dos. I can’t say I’m thrilled about that, but weeds are part of the same amazing persistence that I see in the rest of my plants.

What an amazing ability nature has given her children. A long, long dry season and not only do they survive, they bounce back with double the vigour, in double the numbers. I might have known this at an intellectual level at some point in my life, but it’s only now, when I see it unfolding before me, that I can even begin to appreciate it.


Eight Months Later

October 17, 2013

In February this year, our lawn looked like this.

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The experts had come and been paid a king’s ransom to plant grass. They had planted in November or so, last year. Almost three months before this picture was taken. Clearly, something was not working.

Then, in June, it looked like this.

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We had given up on the front part of the lawn altogether and had it ripped out. Below a scant inch of mud, there was a thick layer of cement and construction dust. We had the entire front part excavated (by hand! hard work) to a depth in some places of almost a foot. Then we filled in the cavity with a ton of coco peat and compost. That’s what gave it that rich, black look.

Then we planted grass – no experts with their fake advice and half-baked ideas. We bought the grass ourselves, and planted it ourselves. It was a long, hard day’s work, but at the end of it, it looked like this.

We had separated each sapling and planted it painstakingly at first, but then, as the day wore on and the pile of grass waiting to be planted remained largely undiminished, we gave up and just spread the sod out like a blanket. “We’ll do the sapling work later,” we thought. But the sod settled down happily and grew roots and “later” never happened.

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In a couple of months, the entire front cavity that we had excavated was flourishing – a small pond of green.

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So now for the next step. We ripped out the rest of the scraggly-straggly lawn, and in August, just as the kids’ birthday party was upon us, three-fourths of our “lawn” looked like this.

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Lovely, ain’t it?

Well, we knew what to do and how to do it, so it was only a matter of getting our hands dirty. We ordered a ton of cocopeat and two tons of compost (or thereabouts) and got some help in filling out that Olympic sized swimming pool. I planted the last installment of grass all on my own, in the first week of September (or thereabouts).

And now, six weeks on, it looks like this! Voila!

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Morals of the story:
Hard work pays.
The “experts” don’t know nuffin. (Our “expert” told us the soil was fine, our grass wasn’t growing because we weren’t watering it enough. Or our water was bad (being recycled gray water, you see). )
Who says grass is only for Wimbledon?
Hey, perhaps I can set up as a home-grown lawn consultant.


The Grass is Greener

August 22, 2013

On my side of the fence! In fact, the other side of the fence doesn’t have any grass. And the grass on my side of the fence is really very green, lack of competition notwithstanding. We now have four little patches of grass – one in front to the left of the car park; one to the right of the car park; one in the basement garden, nicely hidden from view; and one at the back, which was planted just a couple of weeks ago but has come up quite lush and green already. Of course, I don’t claim any credit for that patch – I didn’t plant it and I haven’t even done much by way of watering it, blessed as we have been with good rain this year. Of the other three patches, the only one I really worked on was the one to the right of the car park and naturally, that’s the one that looks loveliest (at least, to me it does). Remember how I complained that I hadn’t been able to plant it “properly” in sapling format but had thrown it down in sod format and then sat on it for good measure? Well, it doesn’t seem to mind at all – sapling, sod, and being sat on all seems to have turned out well.

Right of car park:
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Left of car park:
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At the back.
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Also at the back. Don’t you love those yellow cannas? We can see them from the kitchen, it’s quite nice.
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And then those trees, the gulmohar and the jacaranda, which were all stripped of leaves by unknown hands, remember? And the java cassia, which was doing ok in my last gardening post, also shed all it’s leaves and began to look pretty much dead. Well, they’ve all recovered and got a lovely new set of leaves, even the Java Cassia. Again, no credit to me, it’s the marvelous persistence of life, and the benevolence of the rain gods. All I did was to spot a couple of hungry caterpillars and promptly throw them out.

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The one tree that turned out to be irretrievably dead, though, was the golden shower. Well, what to do? We went and got a bigger and better one, and put it in the same place and it seems to be doing ok so far. I have some misgivings about this tree, though. I didn’t somehow think its leaves should look like this. I just hope it is going to grow the kind of flowers I want it to have.

The hibiscus has still not thrived, though. After giving a few happy blooms in rapid succession, it grew sulky and started throwing large unopened buds to the ground. I believe this is not uncommon behavior for hibiscus, but the internet is not very helpful in terms of identifying the root cause. From what I’ve read, it could be either too much water, or too little; or too much fertilizer, or too little, or the wrong kind; or too much sun, or – you guessed it – too little; or… I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t like having geranium for company. The geranium doesn’t mind, though. It’s growing like a weed, filling the place with masses of leaves and a few bunches of bright red flowers. I don’t really like it much, but it’s hard not to smile when a bunch of bright red flowers shines out at you as you open the gate.

(That blurring is not because the flowers are out of focus. It’s artistic licence. Seriously!)
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Right now we have 10 trees (all saplings) scattered around the house, and 5 different types of vines/creepers/climbers, with multiple instances of each. Nothing much is flowering right now, but hopefully in another 2-20 years, they should all be in bloom.

Jasmine – growing like a weed. The other vines and creepers are taking it more slowly.
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But when it comes to gardening, it can’t all be good, not even during the monsoon. It should have all been good, though, but there’s always a but. And the but in our case is that large patch of lawn which, if it had existed, would have united all the broken up pieces of lawn. After much discussion, sweat, and soul-searching, we decided to dig up the large patch of lawn that wasn’t doing so well and give it the same treatment we’d given the front patch. Dig it up, throw out the rubble, bring in a couple of tonnes of compost and coco peat, bring in truckloads of fresh red earth, and bring in sacks of fresh Bermuda grass and get it all done in a week or so, so that it would have two or three good months of rain to settle in.

We didn’t intend to do all the hard work of digging and ferrying out and ferrying in and laying out all on our own. We expected to get people to do it for us. And that’s where things started to go haywire. One set of guys came, dug, ferried, and struck dirt. Another set of men came, dug and ferried some more and cleared out the dirt. Then all the men disappeared, leaving a couple of mountains of clean-ish mud piled up in the “lawn”. Then the rain – which had granted us a well-timed temporary hiatus – returned and… well…

At last, on Sunday, a couple of people came and leveled out the mountains. It’s not a garden yet, but at least there’s hope. If it rains, we can call it an Olympic-size swimming pool.

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In Full Bloom

July 1, 2013

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After a long, long time, the hibiscus has rewarded my patience, persistence, and eternal optimism. The last few blooms from this plant were sorry looking things, and after those it stopped producing buds altogether and showed every indication of giving up the ghost entirely. I moved it to a different location, and now, despite its worm-eaten leaves, after weeks and weeks and weeks, it’s finally produced one happy looking bloom that’s lasted two days, and there are another three buds on the way.

Not that I’m overly fond of hibiscus or anything, but it’s good to see persistence and hard work paying off. Especially after so many other plants have completely withered away.


One Step Forward…

June 26, 2013

…several steps back.

This is not a happy post.

Last week I was so thrilled with my garden. I’d planted everything I’d ever wanted and a few things I’d not even heard of and it all looked lovely.

Now… sigh…

The Jacaranda looks like this

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The Golden Shower looks like this.

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Actually, you can’t tell what it looks like, because you can’t really see it in the picture. All you can see is the stake. But if you look really hard, you can see a dried up stick tied to the stake. Yeah – that’s my beautiful tree.

The gulmohar, which had no reason to fail, looks like this.
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Some callous *%&($*&^($*&6-ker went and pulled off all its leaves.

The hedge looks like this.
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Those spring-onion type things in the background are lilies which were a gift. I’ve just planted them – give it a day or two and then we’ll know whether they’re going to bloom or die.

Remember that hibiscus, one of the very first things we planted? It blessed us with half a dozen blooms in quick succession, then gave up the ghost and was as good as dead. I’d moved it from the back to the front some weeks ago, hoping it would revive in the direct sun, and it did perk up a bit and get a few new buds. But no flowers have come yet and now its leaves look like this.
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The grass is the worst of all. It looks like this.
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Now I’ll bet you’re thinking – hey, that actually looks quite nice, what on earth is she complaining about. I’ll tell you. It’s supposed to look like this.

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See the difference? Yeah, I know the first one looks a lot better, but see – that’s the mat approach. Ok, if you already know about grass, you can skip this part. But if you, like me a very short time ago, know nothing, read on. So grass can be planted in two or three ways. One is through seed – of which I know nothing. The other is through mat. Mat is usually used for Mexican grass, not Bermuda, and it’s really neat. You just unroll it and spread it out and you’re done. That’s what all the fancy apartment complexes and corporate complexes have. It’s low-maintenance, but takes a lot of water and needs a good dose of chemical pesticides to fix the termite problem it comes with. But Bermuda is known to be more drought tolerant than Mexican, so we didn’t really have a choice. And I’m not sure if Bermuda is ever done in mat, but it is conventionally done in this sapling format – which is why it should not look like the lush green thing in the first two pictures and it should look like the sparse balding thing in the picture above.

The thing is, we still don’t have a gardener. Actually, when we started to do the grass work, a man came knocking on our gate claiming to be a gardener and offering to do the work for us (for the paltry sum of Rs 1500). And Amit sent him away.

So I spent two hours working on planting grass myself and all I got for my efforts was a backache. It’s bloody slow work. Not to say it isn’t relaxing and peaceful and all that – it is. But all the same. We had these three extremely heavy and bulky sacks of grass in our driveway and the nursery we’d bought it from had adjured us very sternly to get it all done in less than 48 hours (while also assuring us that it was quite possible to do so on our own sans gardener). After two hours of tedious (I mean, peaceful and relaxing) work, I calculated that it would take about ten hours of work to get the whole swimming-pool area done. And that meant it would take me at least one week (and two weekends).

But what to do with the grass in the meantime?

I suggested to Amit that we lay it out with the earth sods face down and water it thoroughly and hope for the best. I’d done that with a bit of leftover grass from the initial planting so many months ago and the small patch seems to have happily taken root in our back yard right where it was dumped. Maybe this will take root too?

The thing is, this is not exactly a mat of grass, it’s more like big, uneven clumps of grass torn out of a field and bagged up and sent to us. So when we spread it out (which was itself a good 7 person-hours of hard work) it didn’t exactly give us a flat, level, Wimbledon kind of surface. It is all up and down and clumpy. And I’m not at all sure it’s even going to take root. What if it just withers up and dies? That’s a lot of money and one whole Sunday irretrievably down the drain.

On the other hand, what else could we have done? There’s no way I could have planted all that grass in one or two days. And if we’d just left it in the sack, it would surely have withered up and died.

And now that it’s there, lumpy or not, if it settles down and puts down roots, I don’t think I’m going to do anything more to it in the foreseeable future. The most I might do is to get some more grass and cover up the area I had so meticulously planted. Since it’s not exactly Wimbledon anyway.

Huh. Back to the drawing board. So much for the dream garden. That thumb of mine is still the wrong colour, it seems.

PS: I probably shouldn’t say this, because next week I might have to write its epitaph as well, but for now at least that king of my garden, the Java Cassia (apple blossom) is doing ok. Let’s hope it lasts.
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