Jun 21, 2018

How to bring back the green...

Back in 2007, when we bought the land for Karthi, it looked like this...

There were coconut trees that looked tired, a few jack fruit trees and a jungle jack that towered above everything else. There was little ground cover, and what little there was was mostly the thorny touch-me-nots. The plot, open from both sides was the grazing ground of local livestock which ate up any grass and left the thorns. Since the owner was away and didn't bother to fertilize or otherwise take care of the coconut trees, the coconuts were taken by anyone around and any dry thing that fell was taken away for firewood. 

After we leveled just enough space to build Karthi, we faced a lot of trouble with soil erosion, lack of nutrients in the soil to support plants and all-pervasive touch-me-nots which tore at our feet and ankles if we dared walk anywhere other than the front yard.

Neither DH nor I were any good with combating any of these problems. Back at my home, my gardening experience was limited to sticking anything into fertile soil and have it grow and be fruitful. DH hadn't even done that. So we had to read, ask for advice and simply blunder our way through fixing things.
Here are the things we have done to combat these problems:

1. Terracing: One of the most efficacious things we did in our upper yard was to dig rainwater ditches. We had come across rainwater-harvesting ideas while building Karthi. So when we got workers to make proper coconut thadams, we asked them to dig wide ditches to hold water during the monsoons. The ditches were kind of random and made walking in our upper yard a bit difficult, but they did help with water retention and soil erosion. But eventually they naturally filled up.

After a few years, we hired an excavator for a day and did some real landscaping work on the upper yard. The whole yard was dug up, the extraneous vegetation matter was pushed deep into the soil and we made two proper terraces. This had proved very good in catching water and improving the soil's fertility.

2. Culling:  Our property contained 8 jack fruit trees and a towering jungle jack tree that cut off most of the sunlight in the morning. At the beginning, we felt reluctant to cut down any tree. But finally we had to admit that all this abundance of trees, especially the luxuriant wild jack that was not even putting out fruits anymore were not contributing anything good except dry leaves. 

So down came the wild jack, one old jack fruit tree that was too close to a younger one and hindering its growth and another one that again stood on the eastern border, blocking the light. This opened up the yard to plenty of sunlight. And in addition, selling the wood gave us enough money to buy a weed trimmer.

3. Giving back to the soil: Most people around us deal with weeds and natural refuse in two ways: a) Whatever is dry, they burn. b) They use spades to dig out the weeds. Both these management techniques are harmful in the long run. Burning increases pollution (as we see when large-scale burning of the refuse in Punjabi and Haryanvi fields causes smog in Delhi). When weeding using a spade, the soil loses its fertile top cover and the lack of roots encourages soil erosion. 

As novices in the art of land management we were under a lot of pressure to do an annual digging up of weeds and even using an excavator every year to improve our soil. Even I reveled in doing some spadework, thinking of it as "prettying" my garden by eradicating all the weeds. But after reading books on permaculture, especially Fukuoka's works, I finally put an end to the systematic impoverishing of our already poor soil. 

As much as I can, I let the dry branches and leaves rot wherever they fall. The leaves that fall in our front yard get swept and put around garden plants. It's only when the plant beds can't hold anymore that I resort to a little leaf-burning.The dry coconut leaves also get to rot in their respective thadams... If they pile up too much or stick out into our paths, I reposition them or get a bill hook and chop them up into smaller pieces. 

Our weed trimmer does exemplary work in this field. I take it out for a spin and all the nutrient-rich green parts of the weeds fall back into the soil to rot and provide even more nutrients. At the same time enough of the weed survives to grow back and provide much-needed root support to the soil and prevent it from flowing away in the rain. I've decided that having a natural "lawn" looks much better than naked soil around my plants. I still root out some 'undesirable' weeds by hand, especially the thorny ones or ones that grow too tall and strong for my weed cutter. But those are appear very sporadically now and plucking them out does not harm the soil.

4. Coco peat: Oh, I could sing paeans to coco peat all day long! Our soil is predominantly clay that becomes spongy and squishy in rainy weather and iron-hard in summer. Even if I added cattle manure and bio-gas slurry to the soil, it didn't help much. On one of my jaunts to the garden shop I noticed these blocks of material and asked about them. The shop guy talked of it as a soil substitute made from coconut fiber. I certainly had lots of soil around!!! But I bought a block after reading the instructions, fascinated by how it said that the block would expand to several times its size after being soaked in water. Talk of buying things for the wrong reason!

Once my curiosity about its expanding qualities were satisfied, I experimentally added coco peat to the soil and found that whatever I planted in it grew immeasurably more luxuriantly that it did in our plains soil EVEN WITHOUT ADDING FERTILIZER. I read up more on coco peat and found that it is indeed added to clayey soil to make it porous and allow the plant roots to penetrate it better!! What a serendipitous discovery!

I hope these tips help anyone starting out in land management on their own. Currently I have a new adversary. I don't know what it is called, but it is a wild climber of the legume variety that is rapidly taking over yards everywhere, even destroying forests. Its lavender flowers beguiled me for a while but then I saw its truly heinous propensity of choking even sturdy and well-established plants. THAT is one weed that needs to be uprooted, even more so than the bloodthirsty touch-me-not.

So, on with my trusty gardening gloves! See you later!!!

Jun 14, 2018

Monsoon blues and greens

The dirty breakfast dishes are still waiting in the sink. The laundry is calling out loud from the washing machine. My SHE cards tell me that I have a full day of chores ahead. But when I stepped out to close the gate after my family departed, for the first time in several months I felt the urge to take out the camera, to write, to share. So my dear dishes, laundry and chore home-blessing cards, please wait a bit while I get this done!!!

The first thing that called to me was the sun...

...shining on the rain-drenched Napier grass through which I had mowed a path last week. The camera is a poor instrument to catch the magnificence of the light on the bright green. I stood a full minute enjoying the light before I ran in to get the camera...

My coral jasmine has decided that it is Onam already, making floral carpets and lending her blossoms to sundry bushes near her while vying for space with my plumeria.

Oh how I love those blossoms... they bring back the best memories of my childhood...

The color-changing bougainvillea that I had trained over the wall to say "Hi" and nod its blossoms at all passersby was blown right back and snapped in two by the wind last Saturday. I am not sad, because I know how soon it will grow back. In fact, the wind has done me a great service by sparing me the job of trimming it 😊. Now if I can just bring myself to cut it in manageable parts and get it to the top end of our yard where it can rest in peace without the thorns damaging me...

The globe amaranth providing much needed color relief from the rampant greenery...

The sun struggling to penetrate the vegetation of our absentee neighbor's overgrown yard into our backyard...

The fragile little "springs" that my ivy gourd is putting out to catch hold of its new trellis. I moved its pot to a different spot since a falling papaya tree broke the net I had set up for it earlier. Those tiny springs inspire me with so much hope and happiness...

Just take in this list for a moment...
  1. A childless aunt has multiple hospitalizations for acute diabetes issues.
  2. Husband and one child contract a nasty virus that combines fever, cough, sneezing, vomiting and consequent dehydration which last more than a fortnight each.
  3. Another kid contracts a urinary tract infection that has his bilirubin shooting up and gives him high fever.
  4. A cousin's wife and two kids have a serious accident. The lady is bedridden with multiple fractures on her legs. The kids survive with a fracture each.
  5. The cousin, a high-functioning alcoholic who had been restrained till then by his wife's loving supervision, decides that his wife's bedridden state is the ideal time to leap off the wagon, goes on an alcoholic binge and ends up in a coma. In the ICU for two weeks without knowing if he will survive. Now recovering, but still not mobile and has a food tube and breathing tube. Still in hospital after a whole month.
  6. A nephew gets acute appendicitis and gets hospitalized just in time to avoid appendix rupture. Still has a painful recovery.
  7. Dad needing and getting cataract surgery.
This is what we have been going through from the beginning of this year.  I have had to personally care for only four of these people, but the sheer stress has been drawing out all joy in life. So much so that happiness seems even more fleeting than usual! 

Movies, books, summer outings - those go-to remedies for the blues - were just momentary distractions in the doom and gloom.

Today, it's different. Today once again I feel that life is not a burden. Today I've decided that enough is enough. It's time to get on with writing, baking, sowing those new seeds, going beyond mere housekeeping routines to do something creative, something extra. 

The sun's rising brightly over Karthi once again!

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