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Gardening

The Sun’s Flowers

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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In summer the whole effort in a garden is geared towards saving the plants

WHILE EXPERIENCED gardeners like my mother-in-law leave their gardens to the elements in the scorching summer heat, and focus on nursing their winter plantings, I wanted more. A garden should be like a dress, said Eleanor Fish, it should be well dressed in every season. I wanted a glorious garden in 44 degree Celsius Delhi summer.

In my fervour to create a splendid flower garden last summer, I, a novice gardener, planted seeds of Vinca, zinnia, sunflower and balsam in 15 troughs and stacked them up on the rooftop. I had first tried with the seedlings tray (those black plastic ones with cups). Did not work. Very few germinated. To germinate, seeds must be sown at the right depth with the correct amount of soil, said Vikram Saini of Masjid Nursery, my ‘go-to’ guide for everything on gardening. Sowing them in those contraptions was difficult and needed a non-human mechanical arm, he added.

Despite my clumsy handling, some seedlings struggled out in the larger troughs. I spent half the summer watering them, but only one actually produced a flower and then gave up the ghost. The rest didn’t even try. They shrivelled up into brown twigs, scorched by the relentless heat. So this year, I got seedlings from Masjid nursery, and only planted sunflower seeds in the large containers with my trees. All are blossoming.

The whole effort in a summer garden is geared towards saving the plants. Sink or swim, you cry out. All my plants are in containers on the rooftop and in three balconies facing the morning and noon sun. Last year, I commanded them to swim, but some of the roses (which are among the hardiest of plants) dried up as did the Euphorbia, and sank. But you don’t want the plant to struggle to survive. Just as a malnourished person is more prone to disease, a plant that is struggling will be attacked by aphids and other pests.

This summer, I am determined to have healthy and happy plants while simultaneously conserving water (alas, my husband is a fervent believer in hoarding water), I could drench them only once every 36 hours. How can that be possible, you ask.

First, as I mentioned earlier, get healthy young plants or seedlings from a good nursery like Sunder Nagar or Masjid. The plants there look fresh and insouciant, and do notice that these nurseries follow a natural technique of providing shade to the plants (see my third tip).

Second, pot it properly. Some plants need smaller pots and like being root bound—like the Amaryllis in 10-inch pots flower gloriously. Others need larger pots to flourish, but you may have to gradually move them to the larger one. But here is the tip—size matters. Go big. You can pot a smallish plant in a large pot along with other plants and then move the others when the plant grows bigger. That way, you get the sense of abundance and a flourishing garden even when the plants are straggly and petite. Do plant before the onset of the heat, or at least keep it in the shade, and transplant it in the evening preferably after the rain following a dust storm.

Healthy plants require the right type of soil, the right amount of water and air/sunshine. Of these, soil, the potting medium, is crucial. If you have moisture retaining coco peat mixed in the soil, you won’t have to water that much. Last year, I began with a mix of earth, vermicompost and cow dung but discovered that I needed to water once every 12 hours. This summer, I have switched to a soilless mix containing vermicompost, cocopeat, and natural anti-pest concoctions.

Which plants should you get for the summer? I prefer portulaca for ground cover and a few pots of sunflowers and cosmos add to the wild charm of a summer garden

Third, as British master gardener Dan Pearson in Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City says, ‘Work with nature. Get heat loving plants for the summer but don’t just get annuals. Flowering perennials like plumbago with gorgeous and delicate light blue flowers that glow in the dark, the yellow shrimp plant, Texas sage, and Amaryllis will flower profusely in 40 degree Celsius sunshine and look interesting for most of the year except for the month or so of intense cold.’

I don’t care for the green baize that most people use to shade their terraces and back gardens. Trees perform the task of giving shade in nature, so why not on a terrace or a balcony? A tall tree produces a sense of enclosure and a loftiness of the spirit (think of those high arched churches and mosques), and when planted in 24 inch pots and placed strategically in the line of the afternoon sun (that’s the killer, not the morning one), will protect the shorter plants grouped at its base. I got a large Ficus benjamina (its leaves turn golden from the sun’s rays), stationed it in the centre of my terrace where it could shade a large area. I had trimmed it and staked it with bamboos (always stake newly transplanted trees, especially the tall ones), but in the dust storm after its arrival, the tree leaned against the parapet. It was in a wind tunnel, and a Ficus, I learnt, has shallow roots. So I had to move it against the house wall. Moral of the story: check the direction of the wind and the type of tree before getting too excited about the shade.

One way to stabilise the tree is to have other plants growing at its base (though the Ficus is quite intolerant of competitors). Ferns are thriving at the base of my other trees, particularly the deciduous varieties, which shed their leaves in winter. Ferns, as you know, are woodland plants that require shade to flourish. Also, cluster the other pots around these trees. They will provide protection against the wind while the tree will provide shade to these plants’ roots and help them retain the moisture.

And most important, get trees with large leaves and get more mature specimens. We container gardeners cannot be picky about nurturing a tree from a sapling. Melissa, who was leaving Delhi, sent around an email saying that she was selling her plants. We had bonded over gardening and had both done online courses in garden design. So I was sure that her plants were beautifully pruned and cared for. Then came the hitch. Did I want to buy a five- year-old well cared for tree—but somehow that would reduce my contribution to the plant’s well being. It is like buying readymade pots of flowers. You have not sown the seed, seen it germinate, planted the seedling, assiduously watered and fertilised it and watched it grow. Would it be cheating if I bought a nice wisteria, a bird of paradise, and a Ficus tree? I really really wanted those. Yes, I got them. It made sense to buy older trees when it comes to container gardening, particularly because some of the Ficus and palms grow slowly in the ground and at a snail’s pace in a container.

Which plants should you get for the summer? I prefer portulaca for ground cover and a few pots of sunflowers and cosmos add to the wild charm of a summer garden, and attract bees in droves. Bamboo grass (a perennial) with its more delicate fullness is infinitely preferable to kochia. Vincas are a despised flower—dead man’s flowers says one of my friends—but the white ones are gorgeous, a startling, fluorescent white.

Apart from the perennials I have already mentioned, others that thrive in the summer heat in my garden are roses (nothing beats a damask rose scented light, fresh, zest of a lime), hibiscus (highly recommend the Indian hibiscus with striking variegated leaves), plumbago, bougainvillea, wisteria (which I am training as a small tree), Lagerstroemia indica (berries that turn into pink-purple flowers), a few creepers such as Bengal clock vine (its yellow trumpet shaped flowers have begun marching up the metal twine along the wall to the terrace), blue passion flower, and jasmine, and a bunch of greens like syngonium, money plant, palms, ferns and grasses. Last year, I got two mandevilla vines but alas, both expired despite sheltering from direct sunlight. My trees include champa, chempakam (fragrant saffron coloured flowers used for worship), purple orchid tree, jamun, Indian laburnum, and Tecoma gaudi chaudi (bright yellow flowers) but alas, it is not drought tolerant despite all those testimonials. Oh, and do use rocks, sculptures or bare trees to provide the backbone of your garden. No nurture or water required for those.

Ask yourself—which season do you spend a lot of time indoors, looking out? The summer months of April, May and early June. So do don your gardening gloves and plant something you want to look at.

Happy gardening!

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