As we head, all too rapidly, into what is forecast to be another extremely hot summer, many people will have placed ‘escape’ higher on their list of priorities than gardening: the two though, when sensibly planned and executed, can be one and the same thing.
Greenery is cooling to the eye, soothing to the senses and works to both lower the ambient temperature whilst cleaning the atmosphere, especially in urban localities, of a very noxious type of pollutants.
Fearing a repeat of last year’s terrible ‘heat island effect’ in Karachi, lots of eminently sensible citizens and private organisations, have, over the intervening months, industriously planted trees wherever they could, and tree planting campaigns are now on the go, on an almost permanent basis, throughout the country.
Growing more and more trees is the only sustainable way to beat the heat island effect
Trees though, take time to grow and thus take time to make any visible, breathable difference. While not everyone has space to plant them, they do have space to cultivate an assortment of relatively fast growing shrubs, climbers and creepers — even in large containers / pots — all of which have the identical, albeit on a lesser scale, effect as trees.
Many shrubs, like clerodendron and lantana, make ideal hedging material, providing and depending on the angle of the sun, a reasonable amount of at least partially shaded, plantable strips, alongside their base and these strips, protected as they are, can be highly productive growing areas for a wide variety of other plants. These plants may be shade or partial shade loving ornamental species or edible herbs and vegetables with which to supplement — or even fully supply — the household kitchen.
Ornamentals which perform well in such positions include acalpha, alocasia, anthurium, caladium, chlorophytum or spider plant, fragrant calla lilies, colourful coleus and crotons, peperomia, tradescantia, zebrina and those ‘cannot do without’, extremely hardy vincas.
Keeping in mind that hedges — and ‘specimen’ shrubs planted as focal points, either directly in the ground or in large clay pots — can be planted, in prepared soil, during the months of the summer monsoon, then this month is an ideal time to make your plans and undertake the initial stages of putting these ‘green-up’ plans into liveable, growable, beautiful, action.
Buying pot grown shrubs in advance, though after you have worked out how many of what and where they are to go, is a good idea. Do not purchase ‘bare-rooted’ (growing in the ground) shrubs now as they should only be moved during the winter. Purchase pot grown ones only; here are some more suggestions for use as hedging or specimen species: Jasminium, motia, chambeli, chumpa, frangipani, plumbago, cestrum nocturnum (raat-ki-rani) phylanthus, justica, murraya exotica (kamni), ixora and jatropha.
Having discussed growing climbers up house walls to reduce interior temperatures in a very recent column, I won’t repeat it here but will say that climbers and creepers, both those grown for purely aesthetic purposes and those grown for edible fruits / vegetables, deserve more garden space than they are currently given. If, for whatever reason, covering the outside of your house / apartment and even roof with plants is not a viable option then paint every conceivable surface with weatherproof, white paint as this reflects the heat of the sun back off the building / roof rather than allowing it to soak in. It is amazing what an exterior coat of white paint can do to keep down interior temperatures.
Having encouraged, one hopes, you to put your thinking caps on, let’s now take a look at which hot weather tolerant flowers can be seed sown right now. The ever popular zinnia always and under often very difficult to handle weather conditions, still manages to steal the summer thunder by dazzling the eye of the beholder to the point of ‘sun-glasses’ required. Zinnias can be found in almost every hue imaginable — although hot pink, fire-engine red, flame orange and golden yellow tend to dominate — in single, double and frilled forms and with miniature, medium tall and gigantic growing habits. Lime green versions, ice-cool in appearance, are increasingly popular with gardeners and flower arrangers alike. Then there are the always gorgeous sunflowers in an ever expanding colour range from creamy white, lemon, traditional golden yellows, plus, pink, mouth-watering chocolate shades, reds, crimsons, oranges, bi-colours to light up the greyest of days and luminous, astonishing ghostly shades to illuminate the dark of the night. Like Zinnias, sunflowers can now be found in an entire multitude of shapes, forms and heights. Also keep your eyes open for seeds of orange cosmos, pink, red and white cosmos, yellow cosmos, tithonia, tagetes, gailardia, petunias, amaranthus of all kinds, nicotiana, gompherena, portulaca, rudbeckia, matricaria and gerberas.
Vegetable gardens — and try mixing flowers, herbs and vegetables in the same, or alternate beds, as this is beneficial for all, plus, helps to reduce pest problems —should be in full production right now and, if you get it right, in every single month of the year. Vegetable seeds to be sown this month include: lots of crunchy cucumbers and try ‘Crystal apple’ — round yellow ones and brilliant white, longish to fattish varieties if you can locate the seed — chillies of all shapes, sizes and colours — the vivid orange and scarlet ones making eye-catching pot plants, bhindi with regular green or attractive purple pods which turn green when cooked. French radish, spinach, leaf beet / Swiss chard and opt for red, orange, yellow or pink stemmed / veined chard for a rainbow of colour, aubergines in glossy purples, glowing whites, in yellow and even green speckled with pink. Lettuce and other salad greens, mizuna for instance, can be grown in the shade, tomatoes of as wide a range as possible, plum ones for sauces, cherry ones for salads, beefsteak tomatoes for stuffing and so on. Summer cabbage and cauliflower and even French beans will also do well in partial shade.
In the fruit department, there are all kinds of potentially luscious melons to go in. In small gardens climbing varieties of melons are ideal as are cucumelons, a cross between melons and cucumbers that produce tons of grape-sized fruit which resembles miniature watermelons to look at and which, of course, will be a major talking point. They taste wonderful too!
Herbs to sow now are: basil without which no summer is complete, dill, coriander, calendula, borage although it is very thirsty, arugula, and masses and masses of climbing, rambling or bush type nasturtiums whose jewel-bright flowers are, along with their leaves, absolutely delicious to eat.
Having enough water to keep your garden growing throughout the heat and before the summer monsoons, is an increasingly major issue: an issue we will be taking a look at in a couple of weeks’ time when water use and conservation will come in for serious scrutiny.
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Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 1st, 2016