Monday, January 4, 2016

Backyard Garden as Ecological Sanctuary


Dr Abe V Rotor

Water accumulates in the leaf axils of Bromeliad and make a pond for frogs, insects - and even fish. 

Our homelot nearly equivalent to a typical subdivision residential lot lies just across the watershed of La Mesa dam, the source of water for the population of Metro Manila. 

Everyday birds from the watershed come to our garden. They perch on the trees singing melodious songs for hours. They are a gentle alarm clock and at sunset draw out the tension of the day and put it to rest. For some 30 years now with the children spending their childhood and adolescence, memories come spontaneously alive at nature’s presence. We look for nature, but nature comes to you, too. We can make the backyard a sanctuary of living things. It becomes a corner of Eden so to speak, in the inner eyes of the English poet John Milton, in the soul searching music of Beethoven, and in the quasi-spiritual reverence for life of John Muir and Also Leopold.

What makes an ecological garden? Here are some guidelines.

Let nature do the arranging of the plants – their kinds, growing habits, seasonal occurrence, and niches. This principle must prevail over our plan to make the garden Italian or Japanese in which man dictates the plan of the garden.

The garden serves three important functions.


· Cooling effect. A 10-year old acacia tree for example, has the capacity to provide the cooling power of ten 10Hp air conditioning units. Trees make a huge umbrella that protects us from heat stroke.
A pair of martines birds on acacia tree

· Windbreak. Trees, especially if planted in group or rows, and in combination of other plants, can withstand the strength of strong wind.

· Sound barrier. Foliage serves as acoustic, absorbing echoes, and filtering unwanted sound waves, and resonating the good ones like in an amphitheater.

· Dust filter. Plants eliminate particles in the air with their leaves trapping and moistening them with transpired water, thus sending them back to the soil.

· Radiation filter. Plants serve as buffer against ultraviolet rays as well as cosmic rays. So with other forms of radiation, visible and invisible, that are harmful to health and environment.

· Color filter. Plants act like a giant prism, but unlike the lens, colors are pooled into a common color - green – the coolest of all colors, neutral and soothing to the eyes and other senses.

A garden is not a garden if it does not smell like one. Ilang-ilang exudes sweet scent throughout the year. It is sweetest in early morning and evening, and a soft breeze spreads the scent in the neighborhood. The best scents in the garden come from Eucalyptus, binunga (samat), pandan mabango, sweet basil, roses, rosal, dama de noche, and of course, sampaguita. 


One day I found leisure watching a spider span a huge web. It is a giant spider called Haring Gagamba working of a tapestry. I remember the story of the Irish hero, Robert The Bruce, watch a spider making a web. The spider failed in several attempts to construct the primary frame. It gave the downhearted hero the heart to win back the crown. 
Giant African Snail (Achatina fulica)

In the garden, there are unceasing battles between and among living things. . Birds eat on caterpillar, frogs have their fill on flies, dragonflies hover and devour flying gnats, spiders entrap grasshoppers, preying mantis prey on unwary insects. I have observed hantik or green tree ants (Oecepalla smaragdina) build nest in the upper branches of talisay. Their colony is closely knit and their nest is an architectural wonder. The green leaves are sewed together by the workers stroking the larvae to secrete a sticky substance that dries like paper. The larva is actually carried by an adult like a tube of epoxy as other workers hold the leaves to be sewed together. These ants attack as an army that even a caterpillar is subdued in an instant and sooner or later cut into pieces which the ants carry to their nest to feed the colony. 
Colony of wild mushrooms on compost pile

Yet in the same spot ants and termites live together. It is a demonstration on how two different niches work, bounded by biological rules. The ant colony stays above ground to up the foliage, while the termites in an anthill called punso. Yes, the termites – they are an engineering genius. They build their mound at the foot of the big talisay tree – then, when dug out move to another place overnight, and when we think they are no longer there, it is likely that they are virtually sleeping with us inside the house. And true, we discovered a colony of termite in an apparador, and another in a roof beam. It is here that man turn against a destructive organism.

Plants kill other plants to maintain their boundaries. They abort germinating seeds even of their kind that become threat to their existence. Allelopathy is a phenomenon plants harm one another, in order to enhance success in competition for sunlight, nutrients, water and space. Plants secrete chemicals in their roots, stems, and leaves. To illustrate, we have a ten-year old malunggay that is slowly being choked by coconut and binuga tree (Macaranga tenarius). All the cultivars of mayana I planted were lost, due to inter competition, and then they were overrun by carabao grass. Ube (Dioscorea alata) takes advantage with its viny habit virtually leaping out into space, its leaves covering much of the trees and wall, then after rainy season it all disappears leaving but a five-kilo tuber ensconced in the soft earth and mulch.


But wonder what those plants are clinging on the trunk of trees. These are epiphytes, a relationship called commensalism. The epiphytes benefit from their tree host. They gain foothold and elevation to reach sunlight without harming their host. We have a talisay tree that carries on its trunk a cluster of native orchid that blooms with a dangling inflorescence appearing like giant leis. 

Lest a garden is misunderstood as purely aesthetic and ecological. One coconut tree can provide an ample supply of walis tingting, sweets, coconut milk (gata), husk for the orchids, firewood, and buko, but we love this tree of life most whenever birds build their nest on top and unfold a primitive sense of family love and care.

At night bats come and gather the ripe fleshy fruits of talisay (Terminalia catappa), and would accidentally drop a fruit or two hitting the roof of our house, and if we are not aware of the cause, we would attribute it to a prankster – or a spirit who wants to disturb our sleep.

Toad (Bufo marinus) aestivating

Do you believe in spontaneous generation? Saluyot, amaranth, kamkamote, Portulaca – these and other wild growing vegetables pop out of the ground following the first heavy rains in May, and believe it, after two weeks they are ready for the kitchen. Their succulent leaves and stems are rich in vitamins and minerals. But we do not gather the plants entirely; we simply trim down the leaves leaving the plant to reach maturity. How these wild species survive the dry months is a proof of their sturdiness which guided their successful evolution.

How high can a tree reach? Well, our ilang-ilang grew and grew and grew, and then one day a strong wind decapitated it. Then the upper branches dried up one by one until the tree has but a bunch of low branches. We know that there is always limit to growth, and the very same factors that favored it also created its liabilities. I am reminded of the syndrome of bigness whether it be an animal or tree or business. We call this Dinosaur Syndrome. 

 Tangled roots make a abode of many organisms
 
 Sulfur butterfly; two-headed skipper
The Importance of a Garden Pond 

Are you aware that having a pond to complement your garden is beneficial to you and members of your family? This is so because a pond represents an ecosystem. As such it has the basic features of a functioning ecological unit.

The pond is a field laboratory for microbiology. Plankton organisms are revealed under the microscope. In their diversity, a whole new world unfolds- a world man did not know before Anton van Leuwenhoek introduced the science of microscopy sometime in the 17th century.

Green pond Frog; tukak ba'og
There are monerans and protists, the world’s oldest- yet simplest- organisms. It is a wonder why these organisms did not evolve and develop into complex organisms like the plants and animals we know- and why they are ensconced in a confined environment such as a pond.

The microcosm of the ocean is the pond; it is like “seeing the world in a grain of sand.” And for the eons of time and generations these organisms have passed through, it is like “holding eternity in the palm of the hand.” Thus the pond is the representation of our biological world, manifesting how little we know of God’s immense wisdom contained in a drop of water that teems with myriads of micro-organisms. 

Anyone who takes time to sit by the pond could lose his thoughts in the larger realm of nature and the countryside. Cattail and umbrella plants rise among the floating water lilies, whose pink to purple flowers break the monotony of the pondscape. But the centerpiece of the pond is a community of white-flowered lotus or purple flowered Nymphaea..

 Talisay tree; butterfly plant 
From the deep green water, one may be surprised to see a school of colorful carp and tilapia, stirring at the slightest hint of company and food. Their graceful movement creates gentle waves and soft lapping sounds against the shore line. To an observant eye, small fish like Poecilia and rainbow fish form small schools that inhabit the edges of the pond and its tiny islets and coves formed by aquatic plants and stone. These tiny fish are always mindful about staying out of the path of their large counterpart. Other than small insects that fall into the water, they subsist on the latter’s morsels. 

At the bottom of the pond lies the harmless, independent janitor fish known for their role of eating crust of algae and scum. That is why they are important in keeping aquariums and ponds clean. In the process, they convert organic matter into detritus, the pond’s natural fertilizer, and are the source of sediments that accumulate and become a foothold of aquatic plants. Seldom to these helpful creatures rise to the surface, but if you want to see these shy, docile fish, peer into the water on a clear day when the sun is directly above, and you will find them lying prostrate at the bottom, like sunken ship on a sea floor.

The pond relieves tension. When you need to relax, observe the turtles basking in the morning sun, stretching their neck and appendages. Or watch those cooling off on a hot day, their nostrils and carapace protruding out of the water. Nearby, a toad might patiently sit on a leaf pad, sheepishly eyeing an unwary insect for its next meal, its long tongue coiled like spring, ready to strike like lasso.

Bees buzz from flowers to flower, while dragonflies - red, green and brown - hover prettily above the water as they search for a suitable place to lay eggs that will hatch into aquatic nymphs that feed on mosquito wrigglers and Daphnia. Strung on leaves and stalks are spider webs glistening with dewdrops. These resemble strings of diamonds that will soon turn into nearly invisible death traps for the hoppers, mosquitoes and flies that stray into them. Frogs are permanent residents in a small pond, singing at the onset of rain and exchange love calls throughout the breeding season. They remain quiet in summer as they aestivate and wait for the rains to come again.

Kataba or canal fish (Poecillia) thrives without any care, as long as there is water, living on plankton and insects that fall into the pond or attracted by a nearby vigil light. Whenever there is stagnant pools around, I put a pair of these mosquito-eating fish and that solve the possibility of malaria or dengue to occur in our the place. Our pond serves as kataba nursery of sort; we give relatives, friends and students who wish to grow kataba in their own aquarium or pond.

The green water in the pond is a good hunting ground for microscopic flora and fauna. With a microscope on hand I have discovered a lot of planktons, many of which are unfamiliar. The green color is made up of millions of one-celled green algae which constitute the pasture of zooplankton organisms. They are the autotrophs, the base of the food pyramid in a pond ecosystem.

 Skipper sipping nectar; nymphalid caterpillar
Would a backyard fill in the vacuum created by our wanton destruction of natural resources, the rape of our forests, the draining of swamps, the conversion of mangrove to fisheries? Or the gross negligence in keeping our lakes and rivers full and clean – or at least for having nature to take care of them? I doubt. But the little Eden each one of us make in our backyards would collectively recreate little by little that bigger Paradise we lost, when and to what extent we can only surmise and struggle with will and resolve. It is our little contribution in regaining the Lost Paradise. 

Trivia: By examining the physical characteristics of plants we can read how nature intended them to be used. This is not true.

This is a belief called Doctrine of Signatures, which was popular during the Middle Ages. Liverworts (Riccia and Marchantia) which resemble the shape of liver are effective for liver diseases. The shapes of eggplant and avocado suggest fertility and aphrodisiac value. Apple and mango resemble the heart and are therefore good when it comes to matters of love. Kidney beans are good for the kidney, but the truth is that it has high uric acid content. The garlic plant has a hollow stem so that it would be of benefit in afflictions of the windpipe, hence used in all types of respiratory disorders such as cough, colds, catarrh, asthma and bronchial problems.

Physical appearance has nothing to do with the curative powers of plants, or animals for that matter. It is true that garlic is an effective respiratory cure, but it is its active ingredients that are responsible for it. ~


 Staghorn fern; colony of foliose liche

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