Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Good Earth

In Mumbai, we of the high-rise apartments buy soil by the kilos that have more pebbles than loam; we shell out money too, for saplings, which in a place like Wellington grow wild and free! If natural resources be wealth, then the people of metros such as Mumbai are truly deprived. Their material wealth cannot buy them the joy of a green world or the good earth of countryside.

Everybody loves greenery and wants their fair share of it. Then, if you are in an apartment in a city, you convert your balcony into a greenhouse or terrace garden with potted plants. Why, even in chawls or match-box flats of cities, the balcony ledges are dangerously laced with pots sporting the common “money plant” (pothos ivy is money plant only in India and the origin of the local nomenclature is quite a mystery)  or another regular, the syngonium – hanging like a Damocles sword over unsuspecting passers by! One mention in the newspapers was truly remarkable. A tenant in a lower middle-class locality with little resources but lots of ideas had made a veritable garden, ingenuously, by placing potted tin cans and plastic packs one on top of another, like a pack of cards, to make a mountain of verdure. An innovative live installation, if there was any. Plants, you see, can find their own place in the sun!

Container gardening is fun, no doubt. Every morning you can monitor the milestones the arrival of a new shoot, leaf or bud. You pinch, prune, pluck and goad the plant into taking shape of your design. Or if you so desire, just let it grow wild, a mini forest in your verandah. The plant growth is controlled, literally, under your thumb. You can even go a step further like this bureaucrat who loved trees, but who lived in a flat in a polluted suburb of Mumbai with little space for a garden. He made his plants his trees. He took up bonsai. Bonsai is a not just stunting plant development; it is a fine art not unlike painting or writing. It is not just splashing of colours or stringing together of words; there is a method, a technique to it, and above all, there is the consideration of aesthetics. 

Gardening, as a hobby or an art form, is one of a kind. Plants are a wealth that actually multiplies even as it divides. Where can you find such a miracle that by chipping away the parent tree or by making “cuttings” you generate more offsprings? And the parent tree is none the less for it; on the contrary, it helps the tree flourish further. No asset on this earth can compare in richness to these greenbacks!

Some enterprising people have cashed on exactly this attribute of plants to make money. A “plant boutique” in South Mumbai called Crimson Fern peddles the common variety of houseplants such as dracaenas, coleus, cacti, crotons, and fittonias, albeit with a difference. The containers that house them are its USP. Striking porcelain pots, ceramic cups, odd-shaped mugs, urns, chalices, glass bowls, wicker baskets, bamboo hollows and cane trellises help create table-top masterpieces, great as gift items. Likewise, a place like Leebon Nursery in Wellington flourishes by hacking at its capital and compounding its interest!  This is the ultimate business idea, as far as I am concerned. (I know what I am going to do when I settle down in life.)


But there is no joy as gardening in an open expanse of land, which a place like Wellington offers. Flowers and foliage, for which one may give an arm and a leg in the city, grow wild here. Rock ferns, bracken ferns and many other enchanting varieties of ferns abound here in the nooks and crannies of hillsides near wet streams. According to a local expert, the impatiens or balsams are endemic to this region and grow in the wild in the Western Sholas. In the College, I have witnessed garden nasturtiums discarded by gardeners growing on garbage heaps glowing with health. Its blood red, turmeric yellow and orange flowers are a reminder, a living testimony, of the resilience of plants. And yet, what can be said of man’s persistent efforts to suppress this overriding survival instinct of plants to the point of destroying ecosystems irrevocably?

We city folks have almost forgotten what it means for plants and trees to grow in the wild by natural pollination through birds and bees, wind and water, without interventional care and feeding. Though Wellington is not a representation of the quintessential Nilgiris Biosphere, it is an interesting crucible to study how ecosystems change –for better or for worse – when man interferes with the natural habitat.  

Black-eye susan growing wild 

Nasturtiums, invasive but useful. Flowers and leaves are edible and can be used in salads.