Gardening In Thailand
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Having just written a hub about my experiences at our local horticultural college at Sparsholt, I now feel compelled to write a sequel. This came about because of the huge difference in gardening practices in both the country of my birth, England, and the country I’ve retired to, Thailand.
Gardening in England was part of my life and an important and integral element I’d grown up with. Not one I’d always cherished I must admit, but having two Grandfathers that were both phenomenal gardeners it had to be part of my genetic wiring and I had to succumb eventually didn’t I.
But having spent over 2 years learning more about the scientific, professional and business side of gardening and horticulture at Sparsholt College, my husband and I chose to retire to Thailand where the newly acquired skills would be easily transferable – ( I thought).
Wrong! If I’d had any ideas of setting up a business I was sadly disillusioned in the first few months. Not only does everyone, but everyone! have a market garden, nursery or garden centre, but horticulture is not a valued skill here. In England gardening has gone chic and people are queuing up to lend their skills to the thriving business of gardening and landscaping, but in the tropics there is no such kudos attached to such a ‘mundane’ occupation. People are paid rock bottom wages and work very long hours. Horticulture gives them no status in the community. Rather, they are looked down upon. Farmers are in the same bracket – a peasants job, mean and lowly. Certainly no-one would go to University and gain a degree in it!
What a difference in attitudes between East and West, poor countries and affluent. If only we could show them (the faceless 'them' in Government) places like Kew Gardens or Wakehurst; take them to the Chelsea or Hampton Court Flower Shows or around our wonderful Universities and colleges. The status of western gardeners is so different and it’s such an ignominy to these wonderful people that, like so many of us in the West, love gardening and horticulture in all its forms.
We have two wonderful ladies, Noi and her daughter Fern, who live in our small village and come every Saturday to help us with the garden. What Noi doesn’t know about tropical gardening isn’t worth knowing. She could truly write an inspired book or two. Like us, she is so enthusiastic about her skills. When I first knew her I was amazed at her plant identification skills. She didn’t find your plant in the book; she took a leaf and crushed it, took a sniff and told you exactly what it was and what could be done with it, ie; edible; poisonous; medicinal; tree; shrub; flower; aesthetic etc. Maybe some westerners can also do that, but I’ve never witnessed it in my many years of gardening. Not even from my very knowledgeable Grandfathers.
She also has green fingers (or thumbs is it?) and whatever twig or seed she plants will grow. My admiration is for her ‘loofah’ plants, which are grown for the kitchen. Hence, picked before they become an actual loofah for the bathroom! She gave me 10 seeds and to date I’ve managed to grow one solitary, spindly plant! And rather like my efforts at growing papayas, which thrive everywhere but in my garden, it will probably die before it attains maturity. I’ve loved the loofah from the very first time I saw it at Kew and determined to have a plant of my own one day. I’m tending it very carefully
My first disillusionment with gardening in the tropics came with my efforts at growing tomatoes and cucumbers; something which at home, you never even think about – they just grow don’t they! But here? Well, if I tell you after 6 months I managed 2 pigeon egg sized tomatoes, you won’t be surprised! And no, I didn’t bring seeds from the UK, I bought the vegetables in the local market and a packet of seeds from the local nursery. In the end I gave up the unequal struggle mainly because it was cheaper and far less stressful to buy all my veggies in the local markets.
But having said that, I certainly have had some successes, mainly with tree seeds. On our forays to the local golf course I managed to gather rather a lot of seeds from many different trees growing in abundance there, much to the irritation of my caddy who thought I was not paying enough serious attention to my golf game. A golf course like ours at Plutaluang is a treasure-trove of ‘fast becoming extinct in the wild’ trees. Mainly because the grounds are left untouched and the old, mature trees suffer no problems, they do what nature intended – they grow! The amazing thing about these seeds was that the majority of them germinated, so at one point I had over 60 young trees flourishing on, under and around my workbench and garden. To say I was delighted was an understatement. But after re-potting several times I began to wonder at the wisdom of my efforts – anyone here can do this and they do; so I stopped collecting seeds, - well not so many anyway! The remaining trees are between 10 and 20 foot high now and planted around the garden. My greatest enchantments are the Kaffir lime tree, the Kapok tree, the rambuttan, the lychee and the Ylang ylang. The Kapok tree is a treasure and I want to live long enough to see it mature and produce fruit of its own.
The huge difference in tropical gardening of course is the weather. Thailand is very close to the Equator, just some 12 or so degrees north. And here in Thailand it rains rather a lot so the atmosphere is permanently humid, with humidity most days around 80%. A wonderful atmosphere for fungi to thrive on plants from higher latitudes. The soil here on the coastal belt of the Gulf of Siam is also sandy. There are rich pockets of loam but mainly sand is the basic soil. The final factor in our garden too is despite the land being agricultural, once the developers came in with their heavy machinery it ‘killed’ the soil. For the first 3 years we were here we saw nothing of any soil microbes or fauna. Not a solitary snail or earthworm. But over the years we’ve introduced tons of new soil and the environ is now fauna friendly once again. The snails are rather large but I love them and we co-exist happily together.
One thing I quickly learned – don’t panic when things get eaten by the various denizen of the garden. The plants invariably recover and seem healthier for a good munching! We also have cattle that browse our fence line and as the fence is not very high they can reach quite a lot of my beloved plants. That is now fine by me as it saves me having to do too much pruning.
Large Red ants are another pest to contend with, but not in the way the term is usually applied. They’re only a pest when you hit their nest and they swarm all over your arms, head and back biting you for your temerity (or is it for your stupidity for not looking where you’re going?) These are the one thing I’m ashamed to say, that we zap with the spray occasionally. But only if they’re where you seriously want to work. They make the most amazing nests by rolling up a few large leaves (still attached to their twigs) with a web-like, white coating and live and breed in this. There are nests everywhere in the garden if you look around and they do a lot of good (please don’t ask me to enumerate but I’m sure the entomologists amongst you will know).
Another big difference in tropical and temperate gardening is the local herpetological population – snakes, toads, and other reptiles that inhabit our rural area. But I’ve found, if you make enough noise when you’re approaching a patch of dense foliage, they usually slither off in the opposite direction. They really don’t want confrontation and after five years of traipsing around in the undergrowth, happily the herpetons and I keep well apart. We are home to snakes, lizards of various species, frogs, toads and tortoises, but you really have to be very quiet to spot them. Our most delightful encounter was the python. He was in our neighbours garden and was chased by their dog. His immediate thoughts were to escape and he spent the night in our big bamboo outside the bedroom window! No poking or prodding with net or sticks would budge him so we left him, and sure enough, next morning he’d decamped elsewhere. Hopefully not to someone’s cooking pot. They make good eating apparently.
To date, we haven’t had to put up with any large arachnids. But in my workbench area we have the most delightful tiny spiders that are like jewels in the morning sun. I’ve tried to photograph them without success. I’ll keep trying.
Tropical and temperate gardening? Very different in all respects, but both very enjoyable and definitely therapeutic. It would be wonderful to see the status of tropical gardening raised to western levels. There are obviously places that value horticulture. Our nearest botanical gardens just two miles away, Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden is an example (www.nongnoochtropicalbotanicalgarden.com) . They exhibit at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show and have come away with several medals including a Gold in 2010. But the workers are just workers, no more than that.
I’m still learning! But when I look at our lovely garden here, I’m very proud of what has been achieved in five years. The accolades from our visitors are praise indeed and most refreshing when I feel I’m not doing it quite ‘right’.
So much to learn! One lifetime isn’t enough is it!
Here’s to reincarnation then!! I think I might need a lot!