GARDENING: THE CONSTANT GARDENER

Published February 21, 2021
Butterfly food | Photos by the writer
Butterfly food | Photos by the writer

Pesticides, herbicides, weedicides and a whole host of other assorted highly toxic chemicals for garden use have been proffered as solutions to pests and diseases for long now. So long, in fact, that the vast majority of gardeners, both old and new ones, accept them as being a basic necessity for healthy fruits, vegetables, flowers and for lawn maintenance. In reality, the opposite is true.

These toxic chemicals are ridiculously easy to buy. All one has to do is walk into a garden supply store, explain the problem and often, without a single word of caution, let alone an explanation about their use, you will be offered a bottle, a spray or packet of something that has a lethal effect on wildlife, on the environment, on the very air we breathe and which is a killer in every sense of the word.

In many other countries, the sale of such poisons is strictly monitored and a high percentage of them cannot be sold unless the potential buyer is officially trained and licensed, and will wear full protective clothing and goggles when spraying/applying the toxins. But, in Pakistan, profit not safety rules the roost.

Tagetes help repel garden pests
Tagetes help repel garden pests

Ease of access to countless horrific toxins actively encourages even some of those who should — and probably do — know better, to use them as they want (in line with so many other wants these days) an instant solution, rather than one involving persistence and hard work. The indisputable fact that forward planning can prevent a goodly percentage of garden pests and diseases from becoming a problem in the first place, isn’t given due consideration either, as that too involves research, patience and physical work.

To be fair, in the face of these ‘easy’ chemical interventions, some sense is finally prevailing. An expanding movement of people, many of them young, are actively promoting organic growing methods now and, when circumstances allow, selling their chemical-free produce in places such as the wonderful Farmers’ Markets that are increasingly making their presence known from one end of the country to the other.

Growing organic involves more than not spraying toxic chemicals on your plants. But it’s not as complicated as it may seem at first glance

The first such Farmers’ Market was held in Islamabad back in 2012. This market has been growing in size and content ever since. And yet, as I have personally witnessed on more than one occasion, some of the buyers of organic produce appear to think nothing of going home and spraying toxic chemicals on the fruit, vegetables and herbs they are trying to grow at home. It beggars belief!

Voracious caterpillars
Voracious caterpillars

In these circumstances, what would make sense is the establishment of free country-wide educational programmes teaching organic growing methods and organic solutions. Perhaps the government could develop these in conjunction with our existing agricultural universities. But, as we all know, this is unlikely to happen. So, as is often the case, any positive progress in this direction would have to be initiated by the private sector or by suitably qualified NGOs. Plus, along with teaching home gardeners how to grow organic, it would be wise to widen the base to include at least small farmers too.

Growing organic is not, unfortunately, simply a matter of stopping using any chemical interventions, be these on the pest and disease or fertiliser fronts. There is far more to successful organics than this.

Knowledge, observation, the creation of natural balance, insect management, soil science, the role of companion planting and plant relationships, weather cycles and indicators, water management, crop rotation and much more, all have essential roles to play. But the largest input by far, outside of sheer physical hard labour, of course, is that priceless quality known as patience.

Please don’t misunderstand or be put off by what may, at first reading, sound exorbitantly complicated. It isn’t.

A love of — and respect for — nature, in all of its complex shapes and forms, is the solid base from which organic growing practices can be built and, as with building anything, it is wise to take just one small step at a time.

For example, just look at those voracious caterpillars, be they feasting in the flower or vegetable garden. In time, they will turn into the butterflies that are so entrancing to watch as they perform their ethereal, floating dances around the garden, pollinating as they go. Without pollination there will be no fruits, and therefore no food for humans and no seeds for future crops.

But, the argument goes, butterflies lay eggs which turn into caterpillars that destroy plants before they can fruit or bear seeds. Therefore, if we are to have crops, we must kill the caterpillars — and spraying, with poisonous chemicals does kill them instantly. Little, if any, thought is given to the fact that toxic residues will remain on, and inside, the crops intended for human consumption, in addition to the adverse environmental impact of this practice.

There are, however, organic alternatives: make a daily check of the underside of plant leaves, especially those you have seen butterflies visit, and, on spotting a clutch of eggs — these are minute, laid in their dozens and often orange or yellow — simply rub them away.

If you have missed eggs and caterpillars appear, wearing gloves, pick them off. Put them in a bag or bucket and either dispose of them away from the garden or in the bin. The choice is yours.

The knowledgeable organic grower has a different solution: planning ahead by planting around garden edges or in unobtrusive spots, the preferred food plants of whatever species of butterflies regularly visit the garden. The butterflies much prefer to lay eggs on their preferred plant varieties and will then, largely, leave your fruit and vegetables alone.

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 21st, 2021

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