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.

tree
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.

grass

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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Making the Grass Grow Greener

February 8, 2013

Throughout much of the time that we spent building the house – or rather, getting it built – we argued violently over the outdoor areas. Initially, we had agreed that Amit had sole responsibility for the house and I got to design the outdoor spaces (in addition to furniture and furnishings, of course). Naturally, as we came closer to completion, the boundaries got fuzzy. I wanted grass everywhere, and Amit wanted all sorts of things – vegetables on the terrace, a papaya plant, lots of other fruit trees, and at least one neem to ward off the mosquitos. He also argued vociferously against grass – our water-conservationist architect had pointed out that grass is expensive on water.

 

You’d think they’d have had the same problem in Chandigarh, which is certainly no oasis and gets much hotter and drier in summer than anything Bangalore can aspire to. I don’t recall any such problem, but that was thirty-odd years ago and everything was simpler back then.

 

Still, I had my heart set on grass, so we continued to argue until well after we’d moved in – which might explain why it took us three months to get the grass (but in fact, that delay was mostly due to the contractor’s tardiness).

 

We did take some concrete steps, apart from arguing. We had a water recycling system put in place. This is great, actually. All the water we use in our house for washing and so on (gray water, that is, which excludes water used for flushing the toilets, which is called black water), goes into the recycling system. What we have is a phytoremediation system. So there’s this long pit along the side of the house, looks a bit like a long flower bed, not very wide, covered with a bit of silty soil and a layer of pebbles on top. There are reeds planted all along this pit, the sort of leafy thing that grows by lakes and ponds. The gray water flows in one end, has various detrimental chemicals absorbed by the reeds, and flows out the other end into a deep tank. When the tank fills up, it overflows into the storm water drain outside the house. It doesn’t need to go into the sewage line, because it is pretty clean water, really.

 

How clean is it? Well, you wouldn’t want to drink it. We’ve been using this water on the plants, and, like I said, they are still alive – most of them. I wouldn’t use this water for cooking or even for bathing, though. Last time I turned on the pump, the initial burst of water that came out was dirty yellow in colour and I certainly didn’t want to touch it – it reminded me inescapably of… well, what’s warm, watery and yellowish? (Remember, toilet water isn’t supposed to be coming into this recycling system – or that’s what they say. I’m not entirely convinced about the skills of our plumber guy, but I’m just going to hang on to that thought.) Still, warm, watery and yellowish thought it was, it went into the grass anyway, and doesn’t seem to have done it any harm. In fact, a few weeds that had emerged have gained six inches in height since then. Hmmm.

 

At one stage, Amit had weaned us off all sorts of chemical cleaning agents and we were using only organic solutions (based on saponin, also known as soap nut) for washing dishes, washing clothes… and even, for a very brief while, for bathing and shampooing. But eventually I weaned us off the organic cleansers and back onto the good old commercial stuff. This was aided by the architect’s assertion that cleaning agents do not harm plants and might even do some good, by providing them the same essential ingredients as commercially-available fertilizers. I’m not sure of that, but what I can say is that when Amit had tried to re-use water that had saponin in it on his vegetables, some of them promptly withered and died. Our phytoremediated water hasn’t done that to our plants yet.

 

But it’s not easy.

 

At first, when our grass was planted, our gray water tank was full and overflowing. But there was no way to get the water out! You could throw a bucket in and haul it out with a rope. We had some odd jobs still being done around the house at the time and we also had the grass contractor sending in men to water the lawn every day, but all of these hardy folk, despite bringing adequate muscle power to the job, absolutely refused to use that water. The cement mason went so far as to say that water wasn’t good enough for his work! I mean – it’s cement, how particular can it be???

 

I don’t think it was the effort of hauling the water out by the bucket that put them off, though – they just didn’t like the idea of gray water. These were, after all, some of the same people who built our house and I know they used a bucket to haul water up for months while they worked on the construction. Even the women did that. Ah, but that was white water – or at least, they thought it was. That was tanker water, of course, so it was more like a fairly muddy, rather dubious white water, hard, and full of all kinds of sediments and other undesirable matter. Tanker water, in Bangalore, is borewell water, which means it’s not river water, it’s taken straight out of the ground. It has even been known to contain heavy metals like, if I’m not mistaken, cadmium and mercury. Still, at least it hadn’t been used for washing vegetables, clothes, bodies, and dishes, so it was considered to be pure and clean and good.

 

This gray water tank goes maybe 15 ft into the ground and I clearly lack the muscle power to throw a bucket in with a rope tied to it and pull it out full of water. I’d probably fall in after three attempts (or sooner). Amit is a tall, strong guy, but I doubt he’d be able to do this either – not without breaking his back. And since he’s gone and broken his ankle ligament already, he’s conveniently out of the picture. Anyway, the original idea was to get a pump and pump the water out. Just doing that took a while, but eventually we did it. However, it’s not a submersible pump. It’s a small pump that sits outside the tank, with a long pipe that you toss into the water. You turn on the power and the pump sucks up the water and spews it out the other end, to which a hosepipe must be attached beforehand.

 

So now that the grass contractor has thrown up his hands and left, and with Amit still out of action, watering the lawn is a(nother) task that has fallen upon my tender shoulders. And what a task it is. After several sessions of watering, the level in the gray water tank has sunk pretty low. Consequently, I only get about 20-25 minutes of watering before the water runs out altogether. Now consider this. We obviously can’t leave the pump sitting there next to the tank all the time, because someone might well come in and flick it. So the pump is locked up in the gas chamber (an external chamber where we store our gas cylinders, nothing worse). So, to water the grass, I first have to get the pump out of the gas chamber, along with its pipe and it’s incredibly long power supply cord. And this pump is quite heavy by now, because the pipe, which is fat and about 10 ft long, is full of water. I have to lug this weighty and unwieldy contraption over to the tank. Open the tank cover, which is also quite heavy. Throw the pipe in. Take the power cord and plug it in. Then go all the way round to the back of the house and collect the 120-ft long, extremely bulky and unwieldy and somewhat heavy hosepipe, throw one end in the lawn and then unravel the rest of it all the way to the front corner where the pump is sitting. Attach the hosepipe to the pump. And then it’s safe to turn on the pump. If there is an airlock, I have to open the air vent and quite likely treat myself to a quick shower with gray water. And then, hopefully, if there’s nothing else that can go wrong, I’m in business.

 

After about 25 minutes, when about half the lawn is watered, the first gasp of air comes up the pipe, indicating that the water level has sunk to the extent that part of the pump’s pipe is now exposed to air. It’s time to turn off the pump and then reverse the entire set-up process.

 

Wait three days for another six inches of water to accumulate in the gray water tank, and then… rinse and repeat. Phew!

 

Right now, I’m  watering the lawn only once a week, hopefully giving the gray water sufficient time to recharge. The grass doesn’t seem to be too happy with that – it’s protesting by going yellow in patches. But, when I go for my well-deserved hot shower after all this hard work, it feels good to know that the water that’s going down the drain is not going waste – it’s all going to be put to work making sure the grass is greener on my side of the fence. So it’s ok if I run the shower just a little longer than absolutely necessary. Ah, bliss!

phytoremediation reed bed

our lovely lawn
That’s our reed bed that does the phytoremediation of our grey water. The underground tank is beyond it, in the background. And that’s our lawn, coming along nicely, don’t you think?


Planted… And Waiting for it to Start Growing

February 3, 2013

So last weekend I blogged about my first attempts at planting. But I’m not one to let the grass grow under my feet – though I wish it would, for once – and so… once the boug were looking healthier, we decided the time was right to expand our portfolio. Amit’s leg was still in the pretty blue fibre-glass cast when we went to the Lalbagh nursery one Sunday and came back loaded. We got:

    Two Neem trees (for Amit, obviously; he thinks they will keep mosquitos away)
    Four canna lilies (because our water-conservationist architect’s firm says they will help with phytoremediation and can be grown hydroponically – more on both topics in a later post)
    Two pots of petunias (because Amit likes pretty little flowers)
    A frangipani tree, which consists of two dried-up and rather dead-looking stalks in a pot (I don’t know why exactly we got these, but it appears we had all somehow agreed to get them)
    A lemon tree (again, Amit’s idea – don’t ask me why).

And a friend had casually handed me a curry patta sapling a day earlier.

Naturally, Lalbagh didn’t have any of the trees I wanted, so clearly another trip will have to be made at a future date.

Meanwhile, there was a full-fledged nursery in our back lawn now, which all needed to be given water and admiration on a daily basis. And most of them needed to be planted, too, which, since Amit was in no position to do such a thing, would have to be done by me. Me. With my own lilly-white hands that had never hitherto been sullied by common garden dirt, much less with gross things like compost. I mean, doing all that mucky stuff once is bad enough, but at least it was for my darling bougainvilleas, which I very much wanted. Do all that work for stuff I didn’t even want?

Well, at least by now I had a spade to help with the digging. And though Amit was out of action, I had two other pairs of hands, albeit small ones, that had not the slightest objection to getting into dirty and mucky stuff.

And so, incredible as it may seem to those who know me, and incredible as it seems to me, I did it.

The petunias went down first, and they were easy. They didn’t have a deep root, and in one place we had loose, sandy soil that didn’t need digging. We put one plant out in the blazing sun, and the other we put in a shadier spot where it gets little direct sunlight. The one in the shady spot looked hopelessly wilted and defeated when I planted it, but by the end of the day it was smiling happily and had new flowers to offer.

Then I planted the lemon tree. I have no idea how these things grow – websites mention mysterious things about soil types and pests and diseases which all leave me nonplussed. So I’m still more-or-less going with my “water it and leave it alone” approach. The lemon tree had small white flowers when we got it, but these fell off some ten days later. Is it unhappy or is this normal? No clue. But it has some new shiny green leaves and the browning of the tips, which Amit diagnosed as malnutrition, has reduced or maybe those leaves have fallen off. Whatever. To the untrained eye, it looks ok.

Then I planted the curry patta sapling. It’s a fairly tall creature, with several twigs ending in leaves, but it seems to be in a comatose condition. It doesn’t seem to be growing or dying. The leaves have not fallen off, nor have any new leaves come. The poor thing has a weak backbone and clearly needs some support, but even assuming I do eventually get around to tying it to something, will that help it grow? I’ve been watering it most days, and it’s not in a full-sunshine spot, and I don’t know whether I need to do something for it, or whether it’s just a slow-growing plant. I had a curry patta plant in one of those government bungalows my father was in just before I got married. All I remember about it was that it flourished, grew to be taller than me, and produced plenty of leaves. I don’t recall ever giving it any special attention or even watering it, but heck – that was 15 years ago and I was busy starting my career and planning my wedding, so I might just have missed something.

By the time I was done with those, I was exhausted. But I was also, surprisingly… it’s difficult to find the right word, but the closest I can think of is satisfied. Far from being yucky and mucky and gross, I found being in the dirt, digging, planting, even the compost sprinkling thing was all – satisfying. It gave me a strange sense of release. It was completely unexpected. I’ve never been a very earthy sort of person. The closest I’ve come to nature is when I trek, but, though I enjoy the earthiness of trekking, I’m still a city gal at heart. I have as healthy an aversion to dust, dirt, and creepy-crawlies as anyone else. Yet here I was, plunging my hands into soil, then into compost, then into water, getting truly muddy in the process, getting brown in my fingernails… and coming away feeling satisfied with it all.

There’s still lots to do. I have to figure out the hydroponics of canna lilies. I have to figure out how to get two dead-looking stumps to grow into an actual flower-bearing frangipani tree. I have to throw some chickoo (sapota) seeds into the ground and see if I can get a sapota tree out of it. Likewise for various other plants that I’m now willing and eager to try. I’m even game to get some more flowers and have little patches of colour in our lawn. Growing plants in our garden is clearly going to be a whole lot of work. That much I was prepared for. What I hadn’t expected was to actually enjoy it. Even the fact that there are two neem trees, four canna lilies, and two dead-looking frangipani stumps waiting to be planted – none of which was originally on my wishlist – doesn’t seem so bad any more. It might even, just possibly, be something I’m looking forward to.
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Planted

January 27, 2013

I’ve mentioned before how I’m not endowed with a green thumb (https://poupee97.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/black-not-green/ ). I’ve always believed that plants are fairly hardy creatures and if you just give them some water from time to time, they’ll be fine. That probably explains why I’ve not had a lot of success in growing stuff. We even had Poinsettia once when we were in the US, and that’s a plant that blooms just about everywhere including inside every mall you go into around December-time, and it still died under my tender loving negligence.

The other thing is, I’ve never been very fond of plants – that is, not very fond of flowers. I like things that grow in the wild, but I’ve never been fond of manicured lawns. I like grass; or at least, I like the idea of a big expanse of lush green lawn of grass, but beyond that the only thing that really attracts me is huge big, sprawling, gracious trees. Banyans. Poplars. Flowering trees like Jacaranada and Laburnum and of course the king of flowering trees, not gracious but a riot of red when it flowers – Gulmohar. True, the flowers last only a couple of months – but that period more than makes up for the rest of the year with its drab leaves and seed pods. In the summer months, to come home to a vibrant combination of yellow, purple, red, and – if fortune favours me and I can plant and nurture it, a Java Cassia – pink – what could be more wonderful than that?

If you are in Bangalore and if you’ve been somewhere near Minsk Square in about March or April, you couldn’t have failed to notice a large, graceful tree just inside Cubbon Park, where the walking track is, towering over the statue of some long forgotten British king. That, my friends, is Java Cassia. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it and I’m determined to have one of my very own. The question is, where?

The problem is, I grew up in Chandigarh in a huge and fairly gloomy two-storey, four-bedroom (five if you count the study) government house. If you know Chandigarh, and if you know government houses, you know what kind of gardens those places have. The back lawn was – the way I remember it – sprawling, untamed, and thrilling. (I’ve mentioned it before, in one of my earliest blog posts – https://poupee97.wordpress.com/2005/10/30/on-childhood/)

When I wasn’t exulting in the untamed wilderness of my back lawn, I was at my grandmother’s house. Their house was vast – and their lawn, while sprawling, was the polar opposite of an untamed wilderness. All manicured lawn, neatly shaped flower beds, orderly columns of trees. Every year, in an almost ceremonial fashion, things would be planted. Sweet peas over there, pansies here, roses there, petunias elsewhere, chrysanthemum, dahlia, phlox – a place for every flower and every flower in its place. Meanwhile, partridges nested in the bottle-brush, large fragrant citrus fruits ripened on the lemon tree, and all kinds of things happened in the tall, ancient poplar. In the front lawn, a beautiful vanilla creeper (or was it an ice cream creeper, I never can remember) grew all the way up the wall to the sunlit terrace where it fell over the parapet in an exuberance of small pink flowers.

In its own placid, peaceful way, my grandmother’s garden was beautiful too. My aunt made a ritual of doing a round of the garden each evening, inspecting the blooms, the fruits, and the wildlife with equal joy and enthusiasm. She often cut a flower from here or there to place on a vase in the dining room. All those years ago, when I was 7 or 8, I learned that flowers must be cut slanting at the end, to better absorb stuff and to live longer in a vase.

I also, much to my surprise, picked up a fair knowledge of flowers. I didn’t know it though, until recently, when in discussions with friends I seemed to know as many or more flowers than average.

Still, I didn’t have too many opportunities to grow things myself, and those opportunities I did have I either wasted or messed up. After marriage and even more so after kids, on innumerable occasions, well meaning friends and family members gifted us plants, all of which, invariably, without exception, died under my tender care. The only notable success I can recall was the bougainvillea that sprang up in another government house, this time in Delhi. It grew vigorously, the way some bougainvillea do, and soon it formed a beautiful cascade over our boundary wall and near the gate. I can’t actually claim that to be my success however; my only contribution to that thorny plant’s lusciousness was to tie it up and trim it from time to time. Apart from that, it seemed to thrive on a mixture of admiration and neglect – which is exactly as it should be.

Three years ago we moved into an independent house which had a small patch of – I can’t say lawn, but at least – open area around it. It was a rented house and we were on the first floor; there were other tenants on the ground floor. I could have made some effort to tidy up the open area, to start something there, but I didn’t. I didn’t own that space – either technically or emotionally, so I let it be, and of course it went to weed.

Meanwhile, Amit started his vegetable garden on the terrace and I – while I did not stridently object or do anything to stop him – certainly made it abundantly clear that the project had nothing to do with me. I consented, on occasion, to cook and/or eat the produce thereof, but that was the limit of my involvement. Why, you might ask. No real reason – I’m just not a vegetable garden kind of person, I’m a flowering tree kind of person. And perhaps grass.

Then we moved into our new house. We were fortunate enough to have about 1500 sq ft of garden space. That’s excluding terraces and other paved areas.

For the first three months, we did nothing. Then, finally, we got grass. Lots of grass. We covered the front and the driveway in grass and even though it is Bermuda (not Mexican) and it is seedlings (or whatever they call it, not a mat), it is still grass. True, it’s patchy, not thick yet, but still, it’s grass. Wow. We have a lawn!

And now we have loads of work to do. Watering. Not to mention weeding.

But now that we have a lawn, why stop? I mean, watering grass is not even work, really, is it? It’s enjoyment, relaxation. And while we’re doing the watering anyway, we might as well have a few plants there, right?

Then Amit went and tore his ligament and everything came to a grinding halt. Until the weekend before New Year. We’d gone out for a lavish lunch for which I’d dressed up in my long black skirt and exactly on such an occasion Amit told me to stop at the next roadside nursery that we passed. And, I was dumb enough to do so, long black (tight) skirt notwithstanding. That was when we got our first proper plants – three bougainvilleas (two pink, one white) for me and one red hibiscus for Tara.

For the first time in my life, I planted something, all on my own. Amit stood there but wasn’t of much help. The kids did their best to help… and naturally had to be reined in. And I dug and planted and sprinkled compost and watered and then looked fondly at my fledgling plants and waited for flowers.

As far as the hibiscus went, it wasn’t a long wait. The plant was heavy with buds and within a day or two, a flower appeared, to be followed every two or three days by another one. A couple of buds fell off, but the plant was still heavy with buds and looked happy. Not so the bougainvilleas. The most leafy of the three began to look droopy in days, and the most colourful of the three lost all its flowers and the bright pink leaves that everyone takes to be its flowers and that make the plant so pretty. Its leaves also fell off and pretty soon all we had was a dry brown stalk and a few dusty-looking leaves clinging on, or perhaps waiting to go.

The thing is, when I planted these first few plants, I had no spade to dig with. But I had the saplings and didn’t want to wait till I got a spade. So, I dug the hard, dry, cracked red-brown dust using the plastic cover of a Coffeemate jar. It was hard work and not very effective. The holes I got weren’t really deep enough when I placed the saplings in the ground. So when the bougs began to look droopy and lifeless, I first tried putting more water, then tried putting less water and then – following Amit’s advice – tried covering up the exposed roots with fresh earth and compost. Something clicked, because all three bougs look happy now. The white one didn’t have any exposed roots and had started growing almost at once and now has gained in height and sprouted new flowers. The two pink ones that hadn’t been faring so well are beginning to look up. Brown stalks have turned green and new reddish leaves have started to appear. Maybe these two babies are going to survive after all. Amit cautions me to be careful, though. He says if I keep looking at them every couple of hours, they’ll die of a surfeit of love and attention.

The fact that a few plants have been under my sole guardianship for a couple of weeks now and have survived is quite a pleasing thing. It might well be time to expand my little family in the garden.
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