GARDENING: CELEBRATING PLANT HEALTH

February 09, 2020

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Double sunflower | Photos by the writer
Double sunflower | Photos by the writer

This year — 2020 — has been declared the ‘International Year of Plant Health’ by the United Nations and there is much we home gardeners can do to both acknowledge and celebrate this important subject.

Healthy plants result in healthy, sustainable ecosystems and these, in turn, lead to a healthy environment for all of the varied life forms existing on this increasingly beleaguered planet which is home to us all.

Totally avoiding the use of chemical interventions in the garden is just one of the many ways forward towards a naturally balanced future in which plants, insects, animals, birds and human beings share the responsibility of maintaining the complicated ecosystems existing in our own particular locations. One single whiff of chemical additive — be this weed killer, bug killer, chemical fertiliser etc — knocks nature right off balance and the long-term consequences can be poisonously dire.

Localised ecosystems have evolved over many hundreds, even thousands of years and indigenous plant species have evolved right along with them. Introducing ‘alien’ plant species can have a seriously adverse effect on indigenous plants, plus, also on the insects, bees and birds which feed on them and each of which is an important link in the ecological chain.

Scabosia
Scabosia

Alien plant species can be the source of a wide variety of problems, including the following: the alien plant may be acting as host to a harmful bacteria/microbe/infection that was previously unheard of here and this could have serious repercussions for indigenous plants and wildlife. Such an introduced disease could also adversely affect essential agricultural crops. Protecting indigenous plant health is essential for long-term survival so give the matter serious thought before purchasing alien species, even from a registered nursery that has imported them legally. No matter how tempted you are, please do not illegally import them yourselves (hidden in suitcases or whatever) as you could very well be importing ecological destruction of a very nasty kind. Import restrictions on plants and the need for phytosanitary (relating to the health of plants, especially with respect to the requirements of international trade) certification are there for a reason and that reason is indigenous plant health.

February seed sowing suggestions

The flower garden: Make a fragrant splash by sowing lots of lovely Matthiola incana — stocks whose spires of gloriously scented bloom will take your breath away. Front these with scatterings of lower growing Matthiola bicornis (Virginian stocks) for a mixture of flowers that will perfume not just your own house and garden but those of neighbours too. Drifts of softly billowing cosmos are the perfect backcloth for bee attractant scabosia, azure blue nicandra (shoo fly plant), delicately perfumed nicotiana (flowering tobacco) and a whole range of grow-from-seed dahlias. Then there are those flamboyant favourites zinnias, tagetes, African marigolds, godetia, verbena and rudbekias to start off, along with stately hollyhocks, nolandra, sunflowers, tithonia (Mexican sunflowers), gaillardia, nemisia and matricaria with lobelia, pansies, violas and sweet alyssum for edging.

Cuttings of carnations, geraniums, fuchsias and of your favourite roses can be taken and started off this month as well.

In the vegetable garden: There is so much to sow in the vegetable garden this month that it’s hard to know where to begin. But, begin we must if we want to have crops galore over the coming weeks and months. Tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines, Swiss chard/leaf beet, spinach, bok choy, endive, lettuce, mustard mizuna, giant red mustard, cabbage and cauliflower all deserve space, as do mixed salad leaves, mesclun, chicory, radicchio, radish, green onions, peas, sugar-snap peas, French beans, asparagus peas, chickpeas, carrots and beetroot. Potatoes and sweet potatoes can also be planted and, in the last part of the month, start a few each of courgette/zucchini, marrow, loki, tinda, pumpkin, tori and spaghetti squash.

In the herb garden: Chives, garlic chives, oregano, borage, basil, marjoram, thyme, plecanthrus (Cuban thyme), lemon grass, different kinds of mint, chervil, calendulas, nasturtiums, agastache, lemon balm, pennyroyal, dill, aniseed, fenugreek, arugula, rocket and a range of differently flavoured basils should provide for lots of culinary adventures.

Seed sowing suggestions are based on the Karachi climate and are slightly later, depending on temperatures, in Lahore, Rawalpindi/Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta and much later in the hills and mountains of the north.

Herb of the month: Petroselinum crispum (parsley). This well-known herb is a biennial in cool climates (such as in the Murree Hills) and annual in hot spots like Karachi and Lahore. Best grown, in partial shade, from autumn through to spring, this member of the Apiaceae family of plants enjoys rich soil that are high in organic matter and which need to be kept moist whilst avoiding waterlogging. It is particularly suited to cultivation in clay pots and other containers. Parsley can be flat leafed or curly leafed and the whole plant, including roots, is edible. Sow seed, no more than a quarter of an inch deep — ideally from September until the end of February — in pots or trays of good quality and well-draining compost and keep the compost damp at all times. Seed can also be sown directly in the ground, quarter of an inch deep, in rows six to 10 inches apart, where it is to grow to maturity. Germination is sporadic and may take from 10 days up to three or even four weeks on average. Be careful not to overcrowd seeds or plants. A space of two to three inches between plants is ideal. Keep as weed free as possible. Much slower to grow than its close relative coriander, it can be at least three months, sometimes as long as five or six months, until harvesting can begin. To harvest, simply cut off what is needed at the time, leaving the plants to grow on and keep on producing leaves until their growing season comes to an end. Nipping out flower buds as soon as they appear lengthens the life of the plants.

Please continue sending your gardening queries to zahrahnasir@hotmail.com. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 9th, 2020