Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Yard

It's part of the daily routine now to do a little yard work in the morning--weeding, watering, plucking aphids off the stalks, and just general mucking about. It relaxes me to walk through the yard and look at the plants that grow there, both the ones Ive planted and the ones that, like little surprise packages, just sprout from the ground and say hi.

The yard has grass and weeds. I didnt plant those. They just grew. It has a couple of kamias trees, a santol tree, an avocado tree, and a malunggay tree that were already there when we moved in, and a small aratiles tree that grew since. I didnt plant it either. It may have been planted via bird poop. There were a few other plants that were there already, including a bird of paradise. What we planted were chili (both hot and sweet), ampalaya, lettuce, arugula, alugbati, watermelon, kangkong, lemon grass, mint, tarragon, and rosemary. Except for the rosemary, theyre all doing fine. The rosemary hasnt grown an inch since I planted it about seven months ago. But it isnt dying either. They say where rosemary flourishes, women rule. Ive got three women in the house, and believe me, they rule. So I think we can safely conclude that that saying is bunk. The wife planted a few flowering plants that looked like cacti, a rose bush, bougainvillea, and sampaguita. I thought that was a waste since we couldnt eat them, but anyway...

During the dry season, everyone of them had a precarious existence. The front lawn was nothing to brag about: it was all dried up and for some reason attracted stray dogs who dutifully pooped on it in the morning before I woke up such that there were always freshly deposited ones when I went outside and breathed in the fresh morning air. I looked on the bright side; it was organic fertilizer after all. I didnt water the front lawn. Having lived in Paranaque since the early 90s when it was a veritable desert, I had water conservation ingrained in me. I trusted in the resilience of lawn grass and its ability to survive droughts for months on end. I mostly watered the vegetables and the wife watered her inedibles, but only enough to keep them alive til the next wet season. It showed in the growth rates of the plants during those dry months. I would water them in the morning and by noon the soil would be so parched that the yard turned into a dust bowl. Some of the seeds I planted werent even bothering to sprout. The alugbati remained 2 pathetic little purple stalks. It flowered, but didnt grow. The ampalaya fared much better in the dry season, as did the kangkong. The lettuce and the arugula required more watering and got more than their share. What can I say? I love salad. The trees were worry free. I didnt have to water them. They probably had their roots deep into the water table by then. The kamias were ridiculously fruiting their inedible fruit incessantly. And since we didnt have pinangat or sinigang on a regular basis, the fruit just fell and rotted on the ground. They also supported at least 3 species of bees who fed on the trees' nectar. I saw honeybees mostly, but from time to time, bumblebees, and a smaller bee (Halictid bee?) feeding on the flowers. The weeds that grew in the dry season included one that had little white flowers and yellow pistils and had 'toothed' leaves like dandelions, and also propagated via wind-driven seeds that had filament parachutes on them. In fact most of the weeds that grew in the dry season propagated that way, and we had fun blowing on the seeds and watching them fly off, borne aloft by the wind and the rising warm air.

When the rains came in May, it brought a new impetus to the plants. This was what they were waiting for, and the yard exploded with new growth. Seemingly overnight, the lawn turned green and now I have to trim them every couple of weeks with a pair of garden scissors. The watermelon started growing and flowering--we officially have one fruit growing and more on the way. The ampalaya grew more tendrils and bore more fruit. The bees which used to just feed on the kamias flowers now have more flowers to feed on and pollinate.

The alugbati, which I thought were about ready to give up in the dry season, grew and extended their tendrils, and more alugbati sprouted from the moist earth. The seeds were just laying dormant in the dust, waiting for the rains. And there were new plants growing where I dont remember planting them: watermelon, chili peppers, and patola, which I happen to hate, but might be good for luffa or something. By this time, the arugula were gone. They didnt make it through the dry season, and their demise was compounded by the fact that the kids hated them. They didnt like its bitter-peppery taste. The ampalaya surprisingly they did like. For some reason, the terroir made for fruit that were not as bitter. Probably all the rotting kamias in the yard had something to do with that. Sometimes it amazes me that these plants take the same ingredients--sun, soil, water, and air--and manage to make different things from them based on the instructions they carried. I spend more time weeding since weeds grow as fast as the plants you want to grow. But I weed with a little sense of guilt. The yard was probably the weeds' home. They were there first. The watermelon and the ampalaya, the alugbati, the kangkong, the chili pepper were aliens, conquerors, and there I was plucking the weeds out from their home so an introduced species could grow without any competition from the natives. But such feelings are fleeting and later all I could think of was, "Die, weed!!"

The santol is fruiting and Ive added climbing the tree to my morning activities. The wife likes eating them and the kids like turning them into santol-ade. I like climbing trees. It's comforting in a way I can't describe. Maybe they hearken to some sort of genetic memory when our ancestors lived in trees. Plus I like going up thirty feet high in its branches and looking around. I climb like an orangutan, making sure that at least three limbs are secure before moving a fourth one.

There are other creatures in the yard: subterranean termites, beatles, ants, a few lizards. Im not too worried about the beetles and lizards. It's the termites Im worried about. The ants are mostly the wimpy ones. Small ones and those black ones who seem to skate on the ground--theyre fast. I havent really measured, but if they were man-sized, I swear theyd be breaking the Olympic records many times over. What I wanted to see were the red stinging garden ants. I figured they would keep the termites in check. But they disappeared during the dry season and the termite mound in the yard was growing bigger. I decided to take matters into my own hands and dug the suckers out. It was hard, back-breaking work. The termites, with just their spit, managed to take soil and make some sort of cement that protects their nest. With a shovel I dug til my hands bled. I shouldve used a pick but I didnt have one. I didnt manage to find the queen, which was my goal. Kill the queen and the whole colony dies. Finally, my hands bleeding and wrapped in rags, I gave up and cleaned my wounds with hydrogen peroxide, which felt warm and the kids got a kick out of the fizz.

The next morning, I checked on the mound again and damn if the termites werent busy rebuilding. They were just closing up the holes in what was going to be another mound. They worked all night in the dark, and they retired in the morning, plugging up all entrances to the nest. Some of the arches were still in the process of being built. They were made of pellets--tiny balls of earth held together by spit. One group laid them one on top of another to form a pillar and another group laid their pellets next to the other pillar and somehow they join these two pillars on the top to make an arch and then build tunnels from those arches. Now how did they learn to do that? I decided to wait til the mound was of a substantial size, just enough to make them feel safe. Maybe theyll move the queen closer to the surface if they feel safe.

It took them a couple of weeks to build the mound up to its former size and I took the shovel again and started digging. I didnt feel guilty about this at all. I hated the suckers. I uncovered the nest with all its eggs and baby termites and the swift black ants came in and took them... but again I didnt find the damn queen, although I made a mess of their nest. Take that, termite! I poked at the remains with a bolo knife and destroyed every last vestige of nest I could find. The kids laughed at my antics, especially when I went, "You have no place to hide, evil queen! I will find you!"

The next day, I checked for any termite activity but found none. Either they have given up and moved elsewhere, calculating in their tiny collective brains that the energy expended in rebuilding isnt worth it, or I might have actrually killed the queen with all my poking, thereupon the termites lost all will to live. I checked and rechecked everyday. Nada. They werent going to rebuild there. Then the rainy season came. I dont know what they do when the rains come.

One thing to remember is that the yard is alive. Not just the plants and bugs in it, but the very ground on which they grow and thrive is alive. The soil is a rich stew of organic chemicals and micro-organisms that help everything else grow. Taking care of the yard is like taking care of a pet. Sure it doesnt leap and bark at you and wag its tail when you come home from the office but it's the same sort of satisfaction. The gifts it brings in fruit and vegetables are just a bonus.

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