It's monsoon season here in Delhi and while normal life comes to a grudging halt as torrential downpours flood roads, send sewers overflowing, grind traffic to a halt and make normal life a misery ... it's a great time for gardening!!
If you're reading this in Europe or the US, then your growing season is heading for cold storage. But here in India, it's just beginning. All summer, both plants and humans have been in survival mode, trying to stay hydrated in the 120℉ heat.
But for the past few weeks, the abundance of monsoon rain has meant new plants have a fighting chance and seedlings can grow! Having said that, in the course of one month, my plants have gone from scorched to positively sodden. Apart from replanting with loads of grit or sand, all I can do now is tip the water out, lest the roots suffocate.
Makes you realize why grey England is such a gardening Mecca. While the drizzly, middling weather may not be so cheery for humans, it's a blessing for so many different plants, which thrive in the lack of extreme temperatures. Here in India, each short, intense season brings its own challenges. In summer, most of my plants burned. A few ficus trees bit the dust while palms and bamboos needed a serious haircut to remove singed leaves. I had to water twice a day to keep most things standing. My single rose has been cut back so many times, I've only recently seen its leaves, never mind flowers!
But now, in the glorious, thunderous monsoon, it's time to give everything a go! Here you can see aubergine seedlings getting a good start in a coco-peat grow bag bought at my local nursery. I've also got chillies on the go, as well as lemongrass, lemons, tomatoes and an errant neem seedling! I'm told ingesting a single leaf of this miraculous plant will heal just about any stomach upset. And of course neem is a terrific pest deterrent. No wonder so many foreign pharmaceutical firms have been out to patent neem extracts.
With so much rain falling (and mostly washing away in a city that sees chronic water shortages in summer), I've also had in mind to recreate my London rainwater harvesting set-up here. It's very simple... a flexible tube attached to a downward gutter pipe channels water into a big covered plastic tub with a spigot at the bottom. I use two in London to water different parts of the garden. Rainwater is of course more acidic and therefore nicer for plants, especially evergreens. So far, I've located a suitable storage tub. Just trying to get the right plumbing bits to harness the rain water cascading off our roof!! Stay tuned for more.
Meanwhile, my composting experiment is still proving patchy. I've got a three-tier terracotta composting system from the Daily Dump. It fills up fast and rots fast too, but beyond the initial phase of breaking down, I'm finding it difficult to produce a uniform, workable compost. It's often too wet because too much green stuff gets chucked in. And when I add brown stuff (paper, cardboard), it gets too dry and doesn't break down any further. It doesn't help that no one in my household sees the point of composting in a country where household rubbish is immediately separated by hand anyway. Space is also an issue. We are composting on small terraces, so managing our rubbish, mixing it, letting the liquid drain and then sifting it, becomes a very messy job that no one apart from me is prepared to do.
Still, I was really keen... and then even my mali turned his nose up at my compost, telling me, 'Madam, cow dung is better.' I may yet abandon the whole effort!
I'm finding that the biggest challenge of gardening in India, besides the extreme weather, is finding the DIY gardening tools and information I've always taken for granted; especially ready-mixed, bagged up compost. Here, wandering gardeners called 'malis' usually handle the nitty gritty and the hard work of gardening. So I too have taken on a 'Mali Bhaiya', a very sweet easy-going guy who arrives on a bicycle with a pair of industrial strength secateurs, a machete, and his bare hands and feet. He carries sacks of earth and manure based compost to our third floor terrace as easily as a pack horse, tipping them out onto the floor and mixing them into a crumbly, dark brown tilth. He tells me what will tolerate scorching sun (bourgainvillea, desert rose, champa, oleander) and what needs humid shade... when I can plant and when I should spray... and when something has truly bitten the dust.
For months, he tried to help me save a Desert Rose (Adenium Obesum) with dramatic white and cerise tipped flowers. He replanted it four times, each time hacking away at the swollen, rotting trunk. Finally, we admitted defeat and threw the gorgeous but shrivelled specimen out. Think it was the victim of too much water... another Monsoon casualty!
My next planting wishlist includes henna (yes, that henna!), a grape vine (for shade and fruit, though it may not thrive so much in a pot), and some 'winter' flowers -- marigolds, verbena, perhaps peony? I've seen loads growing up in Kashmir in summer... And I'm told spinach will grow especially fast and furious right now, so I better get those seedlings into some soil!
Meanwhile, I recently went to a 'raw food' demonstration. The chef told us that fresh vegetables have far more phyto-nutrients (plant based chemical compounds) than cooked. I'm far from convinced about the benefits of a raw-food diet -- many vegetables are actually healthier when steamed -- but I don't mind adding a few raw recipes to my repertoire. What I especially liked was his explanation of flavorful food. If you add elements of all the flavors: sweet, sour, pungent, bitter and salty to a dish or a meal, the tongue responds with glee.
So here's a quick homemade salad dressing to enjoy on the last of that summer veg if your growing season is ending... or on the first harvests of radishes and the like, if like mine, your growing season is just beginning!
In a blender, add some olive oil, half a peeled cucumber, a couple of slices of mango, some garlic powder (half tsp), mustard powder (1/4 tsp), 2 pitted dates, a dried red chili, one red onion and a little water. Adjust the ingredients to taste.
The mango and dates give it sweetness, the garlic and chili add pungency, the mustard is slightly tart... not only does this make a great dressing, we liked it so much, we thought it would work beautifully as a summer gazpacho!
And while you prepare that raw food gazpacho, here's some food for the brain: a fascinating NYT piece on George Orwell and his obsession with growing and rearing. Happy eating!