Climate change in our backyard 

 This chilling reality is closer home than one would believe, as these terrace gardeners across Chennai have found out 

February 17, 2024 10:43 pm | Updated 10:43 pm IST

Subashree Vijay at her home garden

Subashree Vijay at her home garden

‘We sow in June, not in July anymore’

“Our terrace is our farm,” says Subashree Vijay, whose collection of 400 medicinal plants got mentioned in ‘Mann Ki Baat’ in 2021. For at least 10 years, the 52-year-old has been diligently documenting her first-hand experience raising and maintaining a terrace garden. And that includes the ‘behaviours” of these plants.

The documentation contains details such as where the seeds were sourced from, the right season to sow, the first bud, when to fertilise the garden, how and when they got the first pest attack and how it was rebuffed.

Notes from the terrace

Notes from the terrace

Collecting and maintaining such data about these plants has ensured a sustainable yield, she notes.

She cites the example of black turmeric plant, which is said to grow only in the North East. “Sowed in 15x15 grow bags, the black turmeric returned a 4 to 5 kilo yield last March,” she says.

Erratic patterns

Last year, the chilli plant bloomed in full but it never gave fruit. “On enquiring with other garden enthusiasts, I found many others experienced the same. Patterns have become more erratic,” says the resident of Alwarthirunagar.

Subashree says one cannot predict climatic patterns, but can at the least be better prepared for disappointments. Aadi Pattam or July season is when most gardeners sow the seeds. “We have advanced it to June, and ever since we did that, the yield is good,” says Subashree.

With saplings, Subashree does community gardening, often outside her community, to create awareness about medicinal plants. “We have been giving away medicinal plants that we have lost and which the environment badly needs. We are working to make sure no herbal plant gets into the endangered list,” says Subashree, adding that classes are conducted for schools.

‘I go easy on the experimentation part’

For many years, the Ahmed household in Alwarpet with their terrace garden enjoyed having rose apple or jambakkai fruits twice a year. This year, they may not be lucky. “There are no signs of flowering in the tree till now,” says Jamila Mohamed Ahmed.

Jamila says February is the main season when it starts flowering. By April, the fruits would arrive. By end of June, they would be treated to a second round of fruits.

The Bougainvilleas in the garden also display an unusual behaviour: they are in full bloom much before the time.

“Usually, it is only in summer that these ornamental plants are in full bloom,” she says. The same goes for the mosambi plant.

Jamila has had to change her schedule on the basis of the plants’ behaviour.

“Normally after the fruiting season, I wait and then start pruning so as to get the plant ready for the next season,” says Jamila, adding that this exercise boosts fruiting. With the rose apple, she plans to prune close to summer so that there is some fruit by this November.

To ensure the summer sun is not very harsh on her plants, this time they are ready with a double layer of net as shade.

“The shade that my Orchids get has increased from 50% to 70%,” she says. Last February, watering plants once a day was the norm. Now it is twice a day.

Cyclone Michaung also played a role in the late blooming of certain fruits and flowering plants. “My trees have gone through considerable stress due to water logging,” she says.

Climatic changes have also taught Jamila she has to go easy on experimentation.

‘Let us help children see climate change from their windows’

The “wooly moth” infestation in a tree

The “wooly moth” infestation in a tree

The tall mango trees at Akila Kunalan’s backyard in Sunnambu Kolathur seem to be acting contrary to a long-followed script. “The imam pasand variety started flowering in Decembzer. This has never happened before in my garden,” says Akila, a software professional.

She suspects “wooly moth” infestation, on the higher side this year, could be behind the changes in the flower-bearing patterns in her garden. The banana trees have also been showing unusual patterns, especially the rastali variety.

“Flowering is either too early or very late,” says Akila, who started gardening to give her two children a hands-on understanding about the environment. Observations about the flowering of the mango trees and the increase in the number of birds visiting the garden on account of the wooly moth were made by the children.

The extended family loves to spend time in the backyard experiencing nature. Akila is part of an informal community schooling group where children are encouraged to look beyond the textbooks.

Recently, they took children to a photo exhibition in Vysarpadi that had works captured by youngsters from the neighbourhood. “This time, we made sure we did not use our car. We took public transport hopping from MTC bus to the Metro and local train. That is how we can tell children they can contribute in their own ways towards protecting the environment,” says Akila.

A whitefly in the bonnet

An invasive pest in coconut trees — whitefly — is keeping G. Ramakrishnan preoccupied. A former joint director with the horticulture department, Ramakrishnan has eight coconut trees in 25 cents of land in Kalpakam and with them as his object of study, he has been researching for a solution to this problem. “Not just the coconut trees but plants around the tree including ornamental ones are also being impacted by this invasive pest,” says Ramakrishnan. Besides the humidity in the air that helps this pest multiply at a rapid rate, the duration of mist and direction of the wind are among factors that impinge on the health of these trees. The coconut yield is also influenced by rainfall and temperature.

Ramakrishnan read about yellow sticky traps that are tied around coconut trees to fight the pest, but experienced only partial success adopting the method. “Using organic sprays and forceful application of hose are other solutions but the latter becomes a challenge when the coconut trees are very tall,” he says, adding that even guava is affected by this pest. The gardening enthusiast is working with like-minded people to study other solutions.

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