While the rest of the world is slowly emerging from toe-numbing temperatures, we’re already breaking into a sweat here in India, usually by 9 a.m! Spring in Delhi is on the slow boil to summer, with the last displays of hollyhocks and dahlias before the sun begins to scorch. In a few short weeks, mornings marked by cool breezes under the swoosh of the ceiling fan will be replaced by the drone air-conditioners in sealed, concrete rooms.
Two years on, I’m still finding it difficult to adjust my gardening bio-rhythms to India. In London, it’s only in March that I even begin to think about planting, pruning, mulching... Yet in Delhi, March heralds the abrupt end of a short, lovely growing season which packs in salad leaves, herbs, tender blossoms and an early sowing of summer okra, eggplant and chillies.
Return of the Pests
I’m still deeply envious of anyone with even a postage stamp size of earth here in this mega-city of 15 million. Oh to be able to break out the fork and create beds, sow carrots and spinach in open ground!! Our first and second floor flat has generous terraces... but in the extremes of tropical weather, container planting becomes even more challenging. Last year, most of my new plants were attacked and nearly wiped out by mealy bug – a cottony, impervious white sap sucker that is impossible to control.
Imagine my joy a few weeks ago, when I discovered several dry, umpromising stubs beginning to bud! Already, I’ve got lovely, fresh new leaves on all the destroyed plants, thanks no doubt to unseasonal rain these past few weeks.
But before I could celebrate, another menace appeared. A flat, segmented, white bug that also seems to be a sap-sucker. When squished, it lets out a glow-in-the-dark yellow/green slime. Eew!! It’s not a wood louse... nor a mealy bug... in fact, no one’s so far been able to tell me what it is.
This past weekend, I sprayed it with a neem/chrysanthemum solution (the source is a really noxious smelling natural mosquito repellent that none of us can bear to use, but it’s super effective at repelling ants and lots of other pests!) That’s discouraged them, but they’re still around.
My gardener says they’re mostly harmless, and will disappear when the temperature rises. But if anyone can enlighten me as to its name, habits, control... I’d be grateful!!
Organic pest control, Indian style!
Meanwhile, the dreaded mealy bug has this morning re-appeared on a white hibiscus, one of the plants back from the deadly prune. Luckily, it’s only a small infestation. So after last year’s devastating experience, I’ve isolated the hibiscus, wiped what mealy bugs I can see by hand, and used this garlic/chilli concoction:
- A handful of garlic and green chillies, crushed.
- Mix with a cup of water and leave to ferment for a few days
- Strain, then dilute with ten times the volume of water
I’ve sprayed this spicy repellent on my hibiscus and for good measure tried it out against those day-glow critters too. Hopefully, even Punjabi pests will find the mixture too pungent to tolerate!!
Well, if I’ve missed out the year’s best growing season... I can at least – FINALLY – claim victory in the Compost Wars.
The first battle was finding a suitable container, which I finally did. Then it was a question of getting everyone to save vegetable peelings, eggshells, toilet roll cores, etc. No problem there, though the maid and nanny did give me strange looks.
It all started to break down nicely even if rotating the stacking terracotta pots was a bit unwieldy in my tiny space. I persevered despite flies buzzing in my eyes and the odd gecko leaping out in surprise!
The defeat came when I ended up with a reasonably chunky, black mixture, littered with un-digested coconut husks, mango pits and the odd rubber band. Pleased, I showed it to the gardener, who took one look at this inelegant concoction and turned his nose up at it.
“Cow manure is much better,” he sniffed.
So I gave up. The composting effort had required much time, effort and space... something I was more than willing to expend. But if I was going to end up with unusable muck... what was the point?
I opened up the storage pot, which holds the most-rotted compost. I gave the sad, dried-out pile a good soaking with rainwater from my rooftop harvesting tank. I took out the large, whole bits of husk, stem and pits. And then, I began turning it in my gloved hands.
Under the top layer of gristle, the pile took on a healthy luster and suddenly, I could smell fresh earth brimming with goodness. I crunched the remaining eggshells in my palms and fished out the odd bit of clear plastic or bottle cap. In minutes, I had ready to spread mulch for my pots!
Inspired, I’ve now rescued the dried up half-composted waste in my 3-tier terracotta bin, added lots of rain water, and moved the entire operation from the narrow, cramped utility balcony by the kitchen to the hot, open terrace upstairs.
In theory, we should be able to collect a couple of days worth of scraps in the kitchen and then dump the pail in the composter upstairs. I’m still not convinced my terrace garden has the capacity to absorb a year’s worth of home compost... but you never know!!
What is it about a morning spent watering, clearing, mulching and appraising leaves, flowers & soil? It's the only meditation in the world that clears my mind and lifts my spirits, even as my hands and nails accumulate a layer of grit. As a child, we moved so often, I never had a garden. It was only in my teens that I suddenly discovered growing things- my first plants were four cabbages, two chillies and a tomato grown next to a giant dumpster (municipal rubbish bin). I would check on them in the middle of the night, suddenly distraught when my cabbages had holes in them.
I'm still a wanderer... Delhi is just the latest rest-stop. And while I love much about the gypsy lifestyle, I do feel very keenly the absence of a place where my plants - at least - can put down roots. A place where I can watch the seasons intimately.
Maybe that's coming... In the meantime, there are ladybugs to collect, squish bugs to spray, banana peels to compost and the last few blooms of spring to enjoy.