Gardening’s Current Affairs

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 52 no. 1, March 1998

After six years, parts of my garden are beginning to fulfill imagined promises: a wider variety of birds and insects come part and parcel with more species of plants and the growing trees stretch the canopy to greater heights, enlarging the mass and volume of the garden enormously. Fourteen acres of stunted orchard is evolving into the forest I imagine, but it will remain the human domain as long as I continue to plant and transplant, nurture and prune, select and reject; the process of gardening is very much a current affair. Shown’s article in the last issue about pruning and ‘surgery’ highlighted this role of the interventionist gardener, but so much, at least for me, is more a matter of chance rather than choice.

Pruning can have dramatic effects on tropical plants that are otherwise only affected by subtle climatic change that human minders do not detect. In anticipation of the festive season, we pruned our kemuning (Murraya panniculata) hedge at the beginning of puasa, the fasting month, hoping to revitalise its formal shape while giving it time for more leaf growth to conceal any exposed woody stems, but a fortnight later (combined with a lot of rain) the hedge flowered profusely and also sprouted new growth. Next year the time to prune would appear to be in the middle of the fasting month, so that the magnificent fragrance can be a feature of our open house; but then again the season will be a few weeks earlier and the rhythm may be different.

Part of the chance element of gardening can be reduced if one keeps records. It is essential to observe carefully a plant’s habits, how it performs in different conditions. Otherwise it is so easy to forget. This was my New Year’s resolution; keep records and update them diligently.

A plan of the garden has to be made before the records can mean much, especially if you intend to plant vegetables and follow a proper rotation of ‘crops’. The PC can be an invaluable tool in updating and referring to old records. When was the bed composted last? What was planted before? What’s the record of pests and problems? A rain gauge is a good idea, and daily records can be graphed and compared in the PC; and in no time you will have a full-time hobby, perfect for the economic downturn!

Observing, recording and remembering have developed our gardening and agricultural expertise over the millennia, but in the tropics where there are few seasonal variations, it is critical to continue recording and interpreting, especially as so little is really known about our unique conditions. Temperate gardens with their seasonal changes and preparations are more predictable, daffodils flower in spring and roses in summer and autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.

Perhaps Malay folk lore could give valuable insight into the habits of plants, but much traditional knowledge has already been lost with the changes in the kampung environment. It is barely viable to maintain the family plot when the younger generation is working in the factories that have sprung up all over the peninsula while the older generation looks after the children. A cash economy has replaced the need to depend on the products of small-scale agricultural labour, but the present crisis may re-introduce many of us to the rewards and delights of growing our won produce as we are being urged by politicians and the media.

Hydroponics seems a popular solution, possibly because of the marketing angle involved in selling all the paraphernalia that is required to get a simple crop of kangkung, but I am more concerned about the requirement for unnecessary chemical additives when most of what is needed is just outside the back door or on a piece of neighbouring wasteland that can be co-opted for vegetables. Instead of buying packaged additives for hydroponics, start a compost heap and get some exercise with the cangkul.

A single family generates a lot of vegetable refuse that can be recycled. You can use a large covered garbage bin with holes melted in the sides for ventilation. It will not be smelly as long as no animal products are thrown in, and a few shovels of soil to cover anything you suspect may attract flies will keep down the vermin. Cover the pile to prevent tropical rain from leaching out nutrients, but ensure it is just damp enough to allow the enrichment of rot. When the heap is finished, keep it for a few weeks and turn it to aerate and ensure it all decomposes evenly. Pile, cover and keep again until it is a rich black organic mass that bears no resemblance to the original material. Additives like dry chicken dung will greatly enrich the brew.

Making compost is much more satisfying that buying a produce to do the same thing, and there is nothing quite as pretty as a garden bed of vegetables rather than growing them in a plastic container. Perhaps my main complaint about hydroponics is influenced by its aesthetics just as much as by the commercialisation of something that can be a totally natural experience.

For anyone interested in growing vegetables organically, I can recommend an invaluable booklet that has been prepared by Siew of Cetdem, the Centre for the Environment, Technology and Development in Malaysia; send $5 and a stamped, self-addressed A4 envelope, for an excellent guide to growing vegetables organically in Malaysia. Siew previously ran an organic farm in Sungai Buloh and will be conducting courses in my garden later this year. In the meantime, study the leaflet, start the compost, set aside some garden space for produce and enjoy the results, which you will, of course, observe, record, assess and quantify. Good luck.

Cetdem’s address is P.O. Box 382, 46740 Petaling Jaya.