Nov 2009 — Danger in Pradise

The stormy season is in full sway in mid November with rain every day; often it’s dark by 5 as the clouds close in and the dogs all go to ground. It’s a wonderful time for the garden, although it has its dramatic moments.

Lightening strike is something I have long been aware of, as our trees are now the highest things around, but we are making progress there. My theory is that with creepers, big or small, going up and through the trees, any tall tree is effectively earthed. The only problem is getting them established without engulfing the tree with exuberant growth. On last week’s walk in Rimba Ilmu, we noted a terap tree that had been struck, but it was dead just at the top; where the lower branches touched adjacent trees it was still alive. That connection is what protects trees in forests, otherwise we would see far more lightening damage than there is.

I am constantly aware too that wind loosens and breaks fruits and branches, so it’s not a good idea to walk in the garden at Rimbun Dahan just before a storm hits when the wind has considerable force. A bunch of old coconuts landing on you is not a healthy proposition.

On Friday 13th, we should have been prepared. Our only Shorea sumatrana, one of our first plantings, near the staff houses, was snapped in two by a strong wind. Fortunately it fell away from Effendi’s house towards the garage, but a piece of branch from another tree fell onto the roof of the garage and skewered right through! Some of the trees have extremely heavy wood, and a fall from some height at the right angle is extremely hazardous. We considered leaving it as a natural installation, but that would have been more hazardous to my stores inside!

This is the same tree that recently flowered in a veil of pink. It was one of the first Dipterocarps planted at Rimbun Dahan, and is critically endangered in the wild. Luckily we have recently propagated 10 seedlings from this tree, when Lauren Black drew and painted its botanic features. We were also able to collect several seeds from the fallen branches. I’ll have to plant them away from the buildings and make sure they have structural support. Creepers tie the trees to each other and provide stability as well as grounding them from lightening strike.

Landscape design in the tropics has to factor in protecting buildings, as the plants do present danger. Similar to kampong adjacent to forest, you don’t want to be too close: snakes, wild boar, centipedes and monitor lizards have all found their way into our house, and ants are an every day problem, but these are not the only issues. In the tropics, houses are more comfortable away from overhanging trees, and this is where I have an issue with the enveloping nature of the Bali style of planting, the tropical version of an English cottage garden.

Overhanging trees do shade a house, but they don’t make it any cooler. Instead they prevent it from drying out during the day when the sun has full force and from cooling quickly at night. Humidity increases, much to the detriment of the building and things inside. Trees too limit the amount of air movement through a building, and if you want natural ventilation to substitute for air conditioning, trees in close proximity will block the little air flow there is.

Another reason for planting away from buildings relates to viewing the trees. Tropical plants do not have spectacular displays of flowers that one associates with an English garden. Flowers are small and only occasionally do they appear en mass for a dramatic display. In a forest, fragrance is more important to advertise the readiness of flowers for pollination when vistas are blocked all around. A lavish display of blossom would be wasted if it can’t be seen. When considering placing tropical trees to view any flowering, they are better positioned away from the house as flowers are on the outside of the canopy; if a tree is adjacent to a house all you see is its underside and not any display of flowers or changing foliage.

The gardens at Rimbun Dahan surround the buildings, but wherever possible there are spaces between buildings and plants, including those in pots. Early plantings though, like the Shorea sumatrana, were carelessly placed close to houses, only to crash down decades later. I guess too, I never appreciated how big they grow in relation to the domestic scale.