The path to getting green fingers is a long, tortuous path, or so it would seem as you begin the journey, foraging in the aisles of your nearby garden centre.
As a child, I would give a hang for the new plants that arrived at home from time to time. They were kind of a given. Anyway, they were my mother’s department, her passion. I had more more pressing matters to deal with. When to meet a friend for sets of badminton; when to scuttle out and grab a scoop of ice cream with my group of friends at the nearby ice cream parlour that was the place to hang; where to hide that jar of berry pickle I stole from a cache of pickles that arrived home; how to sneak a book into the bathroom where I could read for hours uninterrupted before ma came knocking on the door … Such were the pursuits I was involved in.
But when the time came to pluck flowers, there was a solid pep in my step. I would pick fistfuls of shiuli, the aromatic night-flowering jasmine, to weave garlands for my parents’ beloved figurines of various gods and goddesses. There were gorgeous blooms of hibiscus to choose from, heavenly smelling jasmine and frangipani, purplish Madagascar Periwinkle that bloomed in abundance, white crepe jasmines, electric-blue butterfly peas. The memories of others have been blurred with the passing of the years.
There were the regular coconut and date trees, bananas, and neem trees, the last of which were the bane of my existence because my mother insisted on frying them up and made the entire family chew on those bitter leaves like our lives depended on the act of swallowing those god-awful leaves. Neem leaves, for the uninitiated, are numbingly bitter and linger in the mouth long after you have had them. However, they work miracles for the skin. Later, our collective misery was abated when my mother decided to grind them up, make tiny pellets to be dried in the sun. These pellets were to be taken orally daily.
But the show stealers for me were the tall eucalyptus trees, the susurrations of which mark the bulk of my summer holiday memories of idle prancing around the gardens, and the shower of pink bougainvillea that cascaded down the four levels of the balconies of our house with great glory. A day came when all three were felled. Great sadness reigned over the heart. The eucalyptus trees were hindering the growth of other plants around them. The main branch of the bougainvillea had grown so stout that it was digging into the railings, slowly corroding them. Still, how do you reconcile yourself to practical decisions when they collide with that sentimental part of you that will not abide by reason? Here was a lesson for life itself, it seems.
Yet, despite the tree hugging core of me, I had no experience of planting a single seed or sapling by myself.
The stirrings of this need for a kitchen garden came about when I started watching chefs and cookbook writers on the telly wander into their backyard gardens and pluck glossy veg and herbs while cooking. It tantalised the senses. What would it be like to harvest veg and herbs from our own little garden?
In all our years of marriage, Adi and I have been living in apartments, none of which came with balconies. This year however we moved to an apartment with an enviable balcony that looks out onto a green belt, which in turn spills on to the bay and the park. My fingers were itching, no matter that they have had zilch experience in the field of growing foliage of any kind.
The other day we made the trip to a gardening centre. Haranguing a helper there for information till he wanted to be nowhere near us. We came back home with a few saplings, pots to replant them in, and a few bags of garden soil, potting mix, plant food, perlite.
Things started unravelling remarkably as we started our research into the heart of the matter.
What kind of pots to buy, what kind of plants to plant, does the balcony receive full sun, partial sun, or is it completely in the shade, how to cage/stake nightshade plants, what is a potting mix, how to use garden soil, the functions of perlite. Dear god, our minds felt fuzzy. Here was an overload of information and the realisation that we needed way more soil and way bigger pots if we were to get anywhere with our saplings.
In all of this routing around for knowhow of how to get our plants going, we never checked on the most basic thing. Namely, the amount of sunlight which we receive. This, as it turns out, is for a measly number of three hours. Exactly half of what our nightshades and other plants need. Excellent. This means that apart from running around with the pots, mostly on Adi’s insistence, and repositioning them to catch the ebbing rays of the midday sun, we have decided to turn from relying on nature to the machinations of man. Now we await the arrival of lights to assist our plants in the essential journey of their growth (and while we wait, we whisper to them — anything to make them feel better about missing out on their food).
But as the sweet elderly gentleman at another gardening centre told us after he had listened carefully to our woes and doled out plentiful advice, “You know what, just go with it. You will know better than me by the end of it. You will know what to do as time goes. All you have got to do is, just do it.”
And thus we roll, with this process of going bold or going home.