Monsters in the garden

At this time of year, you can find monsters hiding around the corner almost at every neighbourhood nursery. Winter is at bay in this corner of India and summer is not yet upon us. The plant nurseries have wares to advertise and sell. But when you stand among these freakily vibrant flowers you begin to feel that something is not quite right. Sniffing the air gives you the first clue. There is a chemical odour hanging heavy in the moist air. It is the smell of fertiliser liberally doused. The flowers begin to look like little monsters, too large and shiny, as if they were dancers in full make up, who have finished their performance and in one last held pose are waiting awkwardly for the curtain to fall, so that they can droop.

For me the contrast is stark as in my little terrace garden the flowers, herbs and beans are teeny in comparison to nursery specimens. I make some compost for them every year using the cut flowers from my vases, egg shells, banana peels, vegetable peelings, coffee powder, tea leaves _ all of this mixed in with straw, dried leaves, some dried cow dung and the sweepings and trimmings from the garden itself. Whenever we boil eggs or wash lentils, the water used in cooking these is also added to the plants.

And that’s about it. I read other gardening articles and blogs and find people following a calendar for sowing and harvesting. Obviously, every seed has its season. But here all I do is follow the hot weather and rainy seasons. When these have passed, I start to plant in the winter. I like to start experiments by scattering any extra seeds I have left over in all manner of weather to see what will happen. Of course like the researcher who gets a grant to test in his lab what would happen to an egg dropped from on high, it turns out that the hot dry Indian summer is the worst time to plant seed. My planting method is not professional. I always experience a child’s joy of discovery in the garden. It is magic that flash of green as a seed bursts into life and to observe all the changes as it reaches up into the air. And finally the anticipation as a bud prepares to flower. It’s a present wrapped in green, the final bursting forth of colour is Christmas day or Diwali day or Id or Qwanza or…as the case may be.

I read this wonderful book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. There’s bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and tiny insects in the soil all munching away at fallen bits giving us the best organic manure possible. Compost can be bacterial or fungally dominated depending on what you add to it. The addition of straw makes it more bacterially inclined. Woodland likes a more fungal soil because of the association between tree roots and mycorrhizae, which are really a type of fungus. And our garden soils prefer a bacterial mix. Who knew?

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Today I saw something amazing in my garden. I found this packet of Japanese orange cherry tomato seeds withthe most decorative writing all over it, so of course I had to plant them. In amongst them I threw in my home-grown black gram lentil seeds. The black gram dal as we call them in India are hulled and split and sold in shops. They are a very sticky lentil. Soaked overnight then ground with soaked rice and mildly fermented, they make a very popular Indian breakfast dish ‘idlis’ (steamed) and ‘dosas’ when fried. The seeds of both tomato and lentil sprouted almost simultaneously in about seven days. Every couple of days, I do a little pruning of the seedlings, removing any which look diseased. Anyway, my lackadaisical planting method means I always have too many seedlings all crowded in together infecting each other in a mass die-off _ hence, the cutting back.

I pulled out a couple of lentil seedlings today and was about to toss them in the bin (I never add the diseased ones to my compost pile) when I noticed the nodules on their roots. How many hours did we spend back in school in biology classes, listening to the poor teacher drone on about rhizobium bacteria and their remarkable ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen for the plant, thus alleviating the need to add chemical nitrogen. Well, here they were in front of my eyes, a miracle even the ancients had known about, and I am wondering why I never noticed them before. I tucked them back into the soil after throwing away the stem with the diseased green leaves. The nodules on my plants were a cream colour and I was reading over at Dave’s Garden that the nodules have to be pink, if they are white then they are not really doing anything. I hope the nodules on my plantlet’s roots start ‘working’ or are already at work. Fingers crossed.

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