Monday, 12 September 2011

Leafy Greens

While veggies like tomatoes and ladies fingers provide the "wow" factor in a kitchen garden, it is leafy greens that are more reliable and easy to grow.
Of all my kitchen garden plants, the most faithful has been spinach. For over 9 months now, I've been getting a fresh crop of crisp spinach leaves every couple of weeks. At each harvest, I leave about 25% of the inner leaves to ensure another crop. While I've always been led to believe that spinach is a cool weather plant, which is quick to bolt in hot weather, the truth seems very different. Even in the height of summer, when temperatures soared to nearly 40 degrees C, my spinach never failed me. The variety I have, is well adapted to Chennai's heat and hasn't shown any signs of bolting or ageing. My homemade compost and regular watering have seen it through.
Crisp Spinach Leaves
Thriving Spinach
This vegetable is among the easiest to prepare and is very versatile. But if you're interested in deriving the most nutrition from it, it's best to combine it with vitamin C rich foods. Freshly squeezed lemon juice before serving will do the trick. A doctor explained to me, how the iron in spinach (and in fact all greens) is of the "non-heme" kind, which isn't easily made available to the body unless combined with enhancers, such as vitamin C.

Drumstick Tree (Moringa) Greens:
While the health benefits of spinach are well known, most of us do not fully appreciate the nutritional benefits of drumstick tree leaves. A few months ago, when the building gardener had vigorously cut back the drumstick trees, there were enough greens to fill several sacks, but very few  takers. Even I was hesitant and took only one large bunch, though I was offered several. I sauteed the greens and sprinkled a little jaggery in the end, fearing that they would be bitter. But the leaves tasted very good and were not the least bit bitter. In fact now that I know, I'd simply prepare them the way I would spinach.
Treeful of Greens: Drumstick (Moringa) Tree
Super-nutritious Drumstick Greens
Internet sources declare that drumstick leaves are exceptionally nutritious. They all claim that they are such an excellent source of beta-carotene, vitamin C, protein and iron that in many parts of the world they are used to fight malnutrition. What I find spectacular though is how quickly the tree grows. Even after thorough pruning, the trees have grown back in about six months. So if you can't invest much time and energy in gardening, but still want your daily serving of greens homegrown, a drumstick tree can guarantee that.

Microgreens and Baby Greens.
Fenugreek (Methi) Baby Greens

Mustard Baby Greens
Micro/Baby Greens in My Raita
Microgreens are tender, young greens harvested when the first true leaves appear and they are just a few inches tall. Baby greens are slightly older and larger. Both these are great in salads and garnishes and only take a couple of weeks to harvest. An ideal option for the impatient gardener! So far, I've tasted success with mustard, fenugreek (methi) and fennel (saunf), all of which are spices found in any Indian kitchen.
Radish Seedlings: Intensely Flavourful
Green Beginnings: Fennel (Saunf) Greens are Great in Hummus
Another comforting fact about growing them is that they hardly require any space. Old tin cans, plastic trays and other small containers can be put to use for the cause. And all they need is a sunny spot on a windowsill or a balcony ledge.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Happy Onam!

Today is Onam, the mother of all festivals in Kerala. It is the day when the legendary King Mahabali makes his annual visit to all Malayali homes. To welcome him, a pookalam (flower arrangement) is made in front of the house. 

When I was young, I'd wake up early on Onam and go on a flower picking expedition. Flowers from the garden and the wayside were collected and arranged in rings. The flower gathering trek was as much a part of the festival as the final arrangement. Today, pookalams are often grander, but the flowers are usually always bought.
Pookalam - 2011; Tuberose, Rose, Chrysanthemum, Jasmine, Lotus, etc.

Here is our little pookalam made by my little boy (and me). My mother always insisted on a hibiscus flower in the centre. It symbolises the koda (umbrella), she said, ubiquitous in Kerala.

And this is last year's pookalam.
Pookalam: 2010; Jasmine, Rose, Chrysanthemum, Marigold, etc.
Onam is about flowers, Onasadyas (feasts), new clothes and revelry. Happy Onam!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Semmozhi Poonga: A Green Oasis

On Ramzan last week, we finally made our long-due trip to Semmozhi Poonga, a botanical garden in the heart of the city. Located on Cathedral Road and surrounded by several multistorey buildings, this urban garden is a green haven amid all the city clamour. Aesthetically designed and well maintained, this is probably Chennai's best urban park.

Entrance of the Semmozhi Poonga
Vertical Garden
The entrance is singularly elegant. The archway has a vertical garden filled with numerous plant species and is a fantastic showstopper. Nearly 15 feet high it compels visitors to linger and survey the passage, before they pay the nominal entrance fee of five rupees. Semmozhi Poonga literally translates as "Classical Language Park" in Tamil. To the uninitiated, this might sound an odd name for a park. But it was named thus to immortalize the World Classical Tamil Meet, which was held around the same time as the park was built.
A Riot of Colour
As per Wiki, the 20 acre park has been built at a whopping cost of Rs.80 million. Evidently, plenty has been spent on procuring plants from other countries. The garden abounds with native species interspersed with several exotic ones. But what I found enchanting were the very old native trees that were there even before the park.  In fact though the bonsai garden is pretty, I can't say I'm elated over all the foreign plants it houses. I have come to terms with consumer goods that are "Made in China", but when a park commemorating Classical Tamil, sources its plants from China, it seems a tad ironic. I am also led to believe that some plants have gone missing since the park's inception, going by early newspaper reports. Could it be that the missing plants were imports not suited to Chennai?

A Rockery
Geese in the Pond, Climbing Up and Down the Ladder
The Park Amidst the Concrete Jungle
Bonsai Garden: Made in China

Ficus with Shaped Tree Trunk
What is faultless though, is the maintenance of facilities. Here, there are no broken benches or litter. The toilets are spotless. The play equipment in the children's park is top class. The food counters are unobtrusive, yet largely successful. All in all, Semmozhi Poonga is a lovely hang-out. Wish Chennai many such parks in the future.
Entrance to the Children's Park

Old Trees; Part of the Amphitheatre is Visible on the Left

Friday, 2 September 2011

Creepy Crawlies: Friends and Foes of the Gardener

For the past couple of weeks, I have been guilty of neglecting both my garden and blog. To some extent, my diminished interest can be blamed on the hornets, which have their now-mammoth nest near my roof garden. My lack of attention has cost me dearly. A host of mealy bugs, aphids and ants have made my brinjal plant their home. The basil has also been affected by a few black aphids.

This post is about few of the creepy crawlies that have come uninvited to my garden, at different times.

While ants in the garden can be useful -- they decompose organic matter -- occasionally they tend to eat the plant. Ants may also cultivate or "farm" other pests like aphids and mealybugs. There was a short period, when all my ladies fingers were being devoured by ants. Diatomaceous earth  (microscopic fossils of algae like, water plants) is supposed to be the best all-natural ant killer. But I couldn't find this miracle powder and so settled for the traditional, cure-all Neem oil spray. When that didn't work, I tried a thick paste of turmeric and soap. This helped marginally, but the paste had to be applied twice a day. And I didn't want to be overdosing on either soap or turmeric. Finally, after a couple of weeks, the ants did get fed up, quite literally, with my ladies finger and their numbers began dwindling. I think the ants actually quit because their voracious appetites could no longer be satisfied.
Ants Feeding on Immature Lady's Finger Pods
Aphids and Mealybugs
Aphids are also called plant lice. Both aphids and mealybugs suck the plant sap and can carry a host of plant diseases. The aphids on my brinjal had been unnoticed, because they were feasting from the underside of the leaves. It was only when I detected ants on my plant, that I uncovered a huge colony of aphids. Ants act as guardians of both aphids and mealybugs as they benefit from the honeydew (sweet secretions) that they secrete.

Pale Green Aphids and White Mealybugs on the Leaf Underside
While a butterfly is welcome in gardens, their predecessor, the caterpillar isn't. Here's a hungry baby caterpillar. Yeah! Caterpillars are ALWAYS hungry.
A Banished Caterpillar
Leaf Miners
These look like threads fused into leaves. They are actually larvae of various insects like beetles, moths and even wasps. The larvae tunnel their way through the plant tissue and live within the leaf. So far, simply removing the affected leaves is all I've had to do to keep them in check.
Leafminer on a Tulsi Leaf
Set a bug to catch a bug. Lady birds are natural predators of aphids and many other plant pests.  I have spotted a couple of ladybirds on my brinjal plant. How they have sensed that my plant is in trouble I do not know. But I feel reassured to know that I'm not alone in my fight against the aphids.
Ladybird: Hunting Pests
Now here is a creepy crawly that clearly isn't a pest.  An indicator of healthy soil, earthworms are farmers' friends. I love finding them in my garden soil. The fatter they are, the more delighted I am. Not only do these worms aerate the soil, their castings act as natural fertilizer.
A Glistening Earthworm
Since harsh chemical insecticides are a no-no in my garden, I rely on natural pest control. Most of these are painfully slow to act. The Penguin Book of Gardening in India by Meera Uberoi has  plenty  of "Indian recipes" for driving away pests. Usually they call for turmeric, neem oil, soap solution (not detergent) and tobacco leaves (cigarettes will suffice if you can't find the leaves). There are some offbeat recipes too, like the one for snails. Apparently snails enjoy beer as much as many humans. So snails are to be trapped in bottles that have beer in them! But having tried some of these home remedies, I believe the best remedy is Prevention. A healthy plant is less likely to fall prey to pests.

I'll end my post with a video link of a beautiful kitchen garden. I'd watched this a year ago; yet I vividly remember the entire presentation. Watch till the end, on how to confuse pests, the Permaculture way.