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  • Zahrah Nasir

Exotics must not be planted


Zahrah Nasir

Protecting plants from the natural elements is all the rage these days as more and more people are opting to cultivate species which are not suitable for their local climatic conditions or, alternatively, are desirous of growing out of season crops to reap maximum profit but, the bottom line is – is it really worth the effort and incredibly high expense if you do it by the book?

Plants imported from Malaysia, Indonesia and other Far Eastern countries are offered for sale by many nurseries throughout the country and most of them require protection from winter cold, particularly if they are being grown in places such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar. Some of these ‘delicate’ imported species also require to be provided with protective shading from the summer sun as do many plant species cultivated from imported European seed.

Gardening can, in adverse weather and soil conditions, be problematic enough without cultivating unsuitable plant species which will, undoubtedly, have cost a fortune to buy and will consume another fortune in the up keep; so why do people still do this?

The answers to this question are manifold. People simply love the species concerned, they want to try growing something completely different, they want to create a specialized garden with a foreign tinge , they want to show off by having something ‘rare’ or, quite simply, they have more money than sense.

These foreign species, take exotic orchids for example, often look wonderfully attractive when in bloom but, out of their flowering season, they are nothing to write home about at all and the care they need is definitely not for the faint hearted. Special compost, warm water sprays when humidity is down; protection from cold breezes; from direct sunshine during spring, summer and autumn; protection from a wide variety of fungal diseases, insect pests and, other than if they happen to be Vanilla orchids, you can’t even eat the dam things!

What I am getting at here is that, plant lover as I might be, it is not really wise to set about cultivating imported exotics when we are lucky enough to have access to literally hundreds, possibly even thousands, of plant species which are perfectly at home in our climate without having to resort to all manner of fuss and fuddle. Exotic species can introduce unwanted environmental hic-cups in our already severely pressurized country,(import regulations and plant quarantine laws are rarely, if ever applied) with lethal bugs hidden away in their soil or attached to the plants themselves, or nasty microscopic spores may be lurking likewise and, to make matters worse, indigenous beneficial insects may totally avoid these incomers and go hungry in the process.

Plus, as the title of this article implies, electing to keep such plants leaves you wide open to the protection racketeers who will inform you, after you have paid through the nose for the plant/plants purchased from them in their ‘up-market’ nurseries, that now you need to invest in green netting, thermal fleece, plastic cloches or something else of this ilk if you want your precious plant to survive outside of the summer season.

Convincing you to buy troublesome plants works as a sound profit basis for unscrupulous nursery people whose sole aim in life is profit; and the larger the profit the wider their smile. Having sold you perhaps one initial problematic plant and the ‘gear’ to go with it, they figure, usually quite accurately, that when this plant dies as it probably will unless you have enough prior experience to nurse it along, you will be back for more so as not to waste the costly ‘gear’ that went with it. Totally avoiding plants which are not climatically suitable will save you a lot of heartache, one does tend to get attached to plants, and negate the necessity of laying out thousands of rupees on protective stuff which, when you think about it seriously, tends to look pretty awful when in use as it is not natural to wrap up trees, shrubs, border plants, climbers and pot plants, even entire hedges as the C.D.A. in Islamabad has just done, in manmade or other fibre during the cold season of the year.

On the other hand, protective covering aimed at encouraging fruit and vegetable plants, edibles rather than the above mentioned ornamentals, to survive cold periods or to prolong their productive season by shading them as hot weather approaches during late spring, can be an eminently sensible move. However, this must be stressed, that there is absolutely no need to go to ridiculous expense to safeguard your crops. Starting off large seeds, those of pumpkins and melons for instance, up to a month before temperatures are suitably high so that the resultant plants have a head start on those sown at the ‘correct’ time, is a sensible thing to do but investing in expensive cloches to do it in is not sensible at all as the cost of these manufactured goods far out weighs potential benefits.

All that is needed to make your own, individual cloches, is a pile of empty plastic water bottles, preferably of the 4 litre type although the 1 litre water or soft drink bottle will do at a push. Cut them in half with a very sharp knife. Please wear strong gloves when doing this, remove the cap from the top end for air circulation and stick the cut end in to the ground 10 days before you want to sow your seeds. The other end of the bottle will need a few holes stabbed in it to allow air circulation and is then inserted in to the soil in just the same way. After 10 days have passed, the soil beneath the half bottle will have warmed up very nicely as compared to uncovered soil all around. Carefully lift up the half bottle, plant your seed in the centre of the warmed up soil, push the half bottle back in to place and your seed should be off to a good start. There will be a certain amount of condensation on the inside of the half-bottle and this will provide the emerging seedling with as much moisture as it needs.

As soon as the seedlings leaves are large enough to make contact with the plastic walls, the half-bottle should be removed otherwise fungal diseases/mildew could appear. This simple, cheap and very effective method of starting off seedlings before ambient temperatures are suitable goes a long way to maximizing crop production with very little effort.

Likewise, smaller seeds such as those for tomatoes, aubergines, capsicums, chillies and lettuce, can be germinated quickly by piercing pin holes in the bottom of a closeable plastic container, such as those of some salad greens, herbs and even cheeses are sold in. Putting in about an inch of top quality, organic compost, sowing the seeds in this, damping it down, closing the lid and placing it on a sunny window sill – sitting it in a drainage tray or on layers of newspaper to protect the paintwork and off you go.

Alternatively, a sheet or sheets of clear plastic suspended just over an outdoor seedbed, you can use branches, bricks of anything else suitable that you happen to have to contrive a support frame with, works wonders or, if shade required to keep seedlings cooler, then use either old net curtains from a second hand bazaar or used, small mesh fishing net although this can be on the pricey side.

Improvisation is the name of the game when it comes to the home protection of plants with emphasis, of course, on edible ones and on growing them organically if you possibly can.

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