Dr Abe V Rotor
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.
Orchard-garden in our ancestral home, San Vicente, Ilocos Sur
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 25 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.
• 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.
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.
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 commensalisms. 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.
Do you believe in spontaneoius 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.