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Growing for gold

August 03, 2014


Signature Dr Imran Afzal: another pristine garden that excites and delights in equal measure
Signature Dr Imran Afzal: another pristine garden that excites and delights in equal measure

It is said that a horticultural obsession is as powerful and dangerous as a fairy-tale aphrodisiac. And in the Brothers Grimm, at least, quaffing one always had disastrous consequences. But not for Dr Imran Afzal — because when he started treating his garden as if it was hispatient, it bloomed to such perfection that he won the horticulture society’s annual competition for residential gardens thrice in a row.

“Gardening is about living things and you have to treat your garden just like a living being. It is only then that it responds and pays you back — just like people or pets or relationships,” says Dr Afzal.

Dr Afzal’s first liaison with gardening was in 1990 — since he found some extra time to dabble in the garden. “I started landscaping and planting, and enjoyed it very much. On Sundays, I would browse the nurseries on Karsaz and Defence Road, and look at plants, insecticides and accessories.”

Soon, gardening became a passionate hobby.

Dr Imran Afzal extends the compassion and concern of human healthcare to plants. The results are astonishingly gorgeous

But it was some seven years ago, when he planted all seasons through the year, his friends began to first notice that his garden consistently looked good. A cousin insisted that he participate in the Pakistan Horticulture Society’s annual competition for the most beautiful residential garden.

“I won the second prize the first time I competed; and then the gold medal for the following two years, after which you are not allowed to compete anymore,” beams Dr Afzal. “I now enjoy changing the landscape of my garden whenever I like.”

With official accolades came greater responsibility — everybody wanted Dr Afzal to set up their gardens.

“I do up gardens for friends and people who are passionate about gardening like me. You can be as creative as you like, so I make sure that if I do six gardens in a year, not one of them should look similar to the other. Very few men take up this hobby.”

Gardening is about living things and you have to treat your garden just like a living being. It is only then that they respond and pay you back — just like people or pets or relationships

Given his passionate relationship with gardening, you could have almost forgotten that Imran Afzal is a doctor. He reminds you by drawing parallels between plants and patients, of how nurturing plants is an equally painstaking processes: “Just like people, plants also have ailments and diseases. You have to, for example, monitor what you are feeding the plant. Is the soil adulterated or impure? All kinds of insecticides are available in the market, there are organic or natural methods to treat them too, but one should know how much of what has to be used.”

Does he treat his plants with the same compassion that he has for his patients? “I have seen people leave their gardens to maalis and say hamara maali bohat achha hai whereas gardening is a hobby. Nobody really has a green thumb; you simply have to put in some personal time and effort. You have to be a little educated about whichever hobby you take up and gardening is a hands-on hobby. Whatever I have learnt is by looking around, and learning by experience.”

Dr Afzal began by getting his hands dirty, literally.

“Right from the beginning, I have had one person supply soil to me. Even if he arrives at 1 am, I will go out and check the soil. I will pick up a handful with my bare hands and even if I close my eyes I am able to tell that if the soil is just right or not. If, for some reason, I can’t check it then, it’ll be the first thing I check the next morning.”

A beautiful garden doesn’t come for free, says Dr Afzal, explaining why gardening is an expensive hobby; especially so in Karachi.

“Gardening costs can be surprisingly high. People build a house for millions but shrink the size of the garden because land is expensive. Those who choose to maintain a beautiful lawn should budget accordingly, because it costs to maintain a beautiful lawn,” he says.

“There is a variety of grass available in the market like Dhaka, American, Tiffni and Korean grass. People prefer American grass; a turf-type grass which looks very nice and can be grown in patches but it is very expensive and delicate. Dhaka grass is less expensive and more resistant.”

Dr Afzal describes grass as “a canvas on which the rest of the planting is done”. The canvas needs to be watered consistently. “Water has to be purchased and quality is yet another issue. People buy sewage water because it is cheaper, but it stinks and is not organic because it is treated a number of times,” he says.

In Karachi, the flowering season is in winter. “Seeds available in the market are third or fourth generation seeds which produce flowers that cannot produce seeds. They grow and die at the end of the season, so you have to buy new seed every time and start from scratch.”

Plants get infected with disease so you have to know what to give them. If you don’t know, advises Dr Afzal, it is better to seek “excellent guidance” from some insecticide shops. “If you tell them the problem or take a leaf to them, they are very helpful in identifying the problem and providing a remedy.”

Gardens close to the sea are challenged by salinity. “Mostly in the Defence area, you need to go two or three feet deep for planting grass in a sustainable way, by layering coal and different types of soil taking salinity and osmosis into consideration. This way even if the grass dries up, it will regenerate. It is quite similar to humans who feel asthmatic near the sea but are fine if they live further away. That is why gardens in North Nazimabad, which are away from the sea, are easier to manage compared to those in Defence and Clifton.”

Interestingly, just before the annual competition in February, prices soar in the market as people want to buy everything they can to create a fabulous garden as fast as possible. “Competitive gardening involves a lot of money” says Dr Afzal. “People who want to compete and win spend money in lacs and create a garden in a month. They buy bonsais, deploy a bunch of gardeners and landscape artistes, and sometimes even plant the entire pot along with the plant so that it looks strong and healthy before the judges.”

But the horticulture society’s competition is competitive and scrupulous. A garden is judged for three or four consecutive days. “The judgment is very thorough and they can tell if a plant has been planted just for the competition or it has been there for some time. They mark you for landscape, rockery, pathways, grass, plant health, arrangement and ambience. At the end, you get a report card — which is like a child’s report card from school,” says Dr Imran with amusement.

The easiest way to have a beautiful garden and to win the competition is to have a genuine interest in gardening, tips Dr Imran. “When people build a house, they discuss plans; go themselves to buy tiles and fixtures. But when they do gardening, they rely on shopkeepers and gardeners. It really takes very little time. You just have to walk around and look out carefully for injuries or ailments. Then you can tell your maali the specifics to deal with the situation. When I can’t spare the time to put in physical labour, I supervise my maali who spends about two hours every day.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 3rd, 2014