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     Volume 5 Issue 107 | August 11, 2006 |

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The Joy of Gardening

Azizul Jalil

“More grows in the garden than the gardener sows.”
-Old Spanish Proverb
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”
-Abraham Lincoln

No, please do not expect gardening tips in this piece. As far as the science of gardening is concerned, I am an ignoramus. I do love green grass, plants and flowers of all sorts and colours. I work for a few hours every day--spring, summer and fall in the yard, with a few permanent flowering trees and bushes and seasonal flowerbeds. I dig, weed out, fertilise, plant, cover with mulch, water and all that sort of thing that every gardener must do. I practice the art of gardening, learning from the mistakes of previous years.

Flowers in full bloom in the writer's garden in Washington

Even as a septuagenarian, I cannot wait to get out of the house, feeling the urge to be among the greenery and the flowers. The plants and flowers are not articulate but they are not dumb either. They do respond in their own silent way and show appreciation of the tender loving care that one gives, by standing up instead of drooping and by giving new leaves and buds.

Insects and mosquitoes regularly bite me, which can be painful and sometimes dangerous. Despite such occupational hazards, gardening is very worthwhile, providing relaxation, psychic satisfaction, as well as healthy exercise. To a thinking and artistic person, it also provides time to reflect on issues of this life and hereafter, in complete solitude in the midst of a pleasant environment.

I acquired this love of nature and plants from my parents. My father was interested in the bigger and permanent trees, particularly the fruit bearing ones e.g. mango, coconut, guava and papaya. He also planted two magnolia trees in the front yard, which later produced large white flowers with an unearthly fragrance. He would take care of these with the help of the gardeners and domestic workers. In 1963, a large coconut tree planted by my father more than a decade ago was in the path of a driveway that he was constructing within the house. He dug up the tree and then, sliding it to its new location, planted it in another part of the compound. The plant survived, due to his attention and care. It still stands there tall and bearing many coconuts. My father would get the trees in our house trimmed and cleaned up annually every winter, for which a man with the required expertise would come by.

My mother's department was the smaller, mostly seasonal and flowering plants like the Dhalia, Zinnia, cosmos, antirrhinum, rose and rajanigandha. She had belis and a few orchids, brought from Thailand. In the early days, she had kennas, with its large and fabulous flowers of all hues near the compound walls. Not highly regarded, these looked like dwarf-banana plants with dark green foliage that spread fast. I have seen kennas in nurseries in USA, but do not see these very much in Dhaka these days. Until her last days, she retained interest in the garden. Sitting on the veranda, she supervised the mali and others getting the lawn cut regularly and the plants cleaned of weeds and watered. When I periodically visited Dhaka, my mother's requests mainly consisted of garden tools like the hand pruner, large garden shears, long trimmers, lawn mowers and the like. There was a bragging competition in our Eskaton houses among her brothers, sisters and sister-in-laws in matters of gardening, particularly about the size and beauty of the dhalias. Mother would save the bulbs of the successful ones in any year, save them in sand until the planting time next winter.


A heavenly retreat

In another article elsewhere, I have acknowledged the debt that we owed to the generous tips and other active assistance over many years given by Akhil Babu, who was in charge of the government nursery in Ramna. Since the partition of Bengal in 1947, I have been going with my parents to Akhil Babu's nursery. His best mali was a Muslim by the name of Majid, who would sometimes come after work to our house. We also used to visit the vegetable and flower nursery in the Manipur Farm, which was a part of the Agricultural College in the area now known as Sher-e-Bangla Nagar. To the best of my knowledge, there were no private commercial nurseries, like there are now.

These nurseries have introduced many exotic plants, flowers from different parts of the world, not only in Dhaka, but also throughout the length and breadth of Bangladesh. For example, in the fifties, I do not remember having seen any hydrangea plants, but these days they grow well in many houses in Dhaka, changing into so many shades and colours in different months of a year. During my visit to the interior by road in January this year, I was happy to see well-maintained gardens with traditional and newer varieties of flowering, decorative, spice and medicinal plants in government buildings and private houses in Rajbari, Kushtia, Meherpur, Jhenaidah, and Faridpur. In the remote and historic Mujibnagar Complex at Baidyanthtala, I was happy to see thousands of roses of a variety of colours blooming gloriously in the mild winter sun.

Gardening and exhibition of flowers and plants are on the rise increase in Dhaka and have now become quite popular. I have attended a few of these during my periodic visits to Dhaka. In the winter of 1964, I submitted a large and well- formed black prince, as the blackish/purple rose variety was called, from my mother's collection to the Annual Dhaka Flower Show near the stadium. Abdul Huq, then a DIG of police, was the president of the society that organised such shows every year. Interestingly, I was encouraged to participate in it by my government office orderly, Yunus, who was a great enthusiast and organiser of events of this kind. To my delight, our submission won a first prize in one of the special categories, which my little nephew, Antu received on our behalf. In most of the annual shows those days, entries from the Dhaka University Vice Chancellor's garden used to win most of the prizes. I have no idea how that garden looks these days.

Wherever my work had taken us, whether Kushtia, Islamabad, Washington or Lusaka in Zambia, my wife and I engaged in a little gardening, including modest vegetable gardening e.g. chillies, tomatoes and herbs. Our three boys, when they were growing up, took pride in our lawn, plants and flowers and even though we knew these to be very modest compared to some other people, we were very happy that our children had taken interest. Now grown up with their own houses and yards, they have maintained their interest. These days, my four little grandchildren between the ages of three and five, like to join me in my yard work and when they see in our house in Bethesda, Maryland little rabbits playfully running around, they scream with pleasure and try to run after them.

Let me conclude with two simple observations about working in the garden. I sometimes feel that if, by any chance, the flowerbeds were at a table height, gardening for all of us, particularly the senior citizens, would have been more comfortable. I use a wheelbarrow and put soil or fertiliser or mulch on it to avoid frequent bending and lifting. Another thing that concerns me is whether to wear garden gloves or to work with bare hands. Bare hands give flexibility and are more efficient but the thorns in some of the plants inevitably injure me and the fertilisers in the soil are not good for the skin or the health. As elsewhere in life, there is always a trade off in gardening. Rudyard Kipling wrote,

“When your back stops aching and hands begin to harden, You will find yourself a partner in the glory of the Garden.”

Azizul Jalil writes from Washington

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