Sunday, February 28, 2010

Happy Holi!

For those of you who are not familiar with this holiday, Holi is a joyous festival mainly Hindu in origin but often celebrated across religious lines in much in many parts of South Asia and among South Asian diaspora communities around the world. Holi has various religiously significant mythological associations in Hindu tradition but it is also thought to mark the beginning of spring. The most distinctive element of the celebrations, also known as the Festival of Colors, is the throwing of brightly colored powders and and colored water.
I spent quite a bit of time considering what pictures I should use for this post - considering the nature of this holiday, bright, cheerful colors are certainly the most appropriate but I also wanted something that would tie into an Indian cultural context and not just a picture of some colorful flowers. As a result I decided to use this post as an occasion to finally use my pictures of some Indian parks and gardens which I had the luck of visiting on a trip to northern India two years ago. We will begin our little tour in Delhi, progress to Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, and end in Jaipur. From among the gardens I visited, only that of the Taj Mahal will not be featured, since I already posted several pictures of if in my My 50th Post!

Delhi, National Capital Territory of Delhi

The Qutb Complex

The Qutb Minar, which forms the main attraction of the Qutb Complex UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a massive minaret of red sandstone begun in 1193 under Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, the first Muslim ruler of Delhi. It i surrounded by a number of beautiful buildings and ruins, among them mosques and tombs, as well as manicured lawns and a great variety of trees. I visited shortly after the monsoon had arrived and so everything was freshly watered and verdant.

The Gardens of the Tomb of Humayun

The tomb of the second Mughal Emperor Humayun, constructed in red sandstone and white marble beginning in 1562 at the behest of his widow Hamida Banu Begum,was the first tomb of its kind in South Asia and served as an architectural precursor to the much more famous Taj Mahal. It is surrounded by a serenely beautiful garden layed out according to the classical Persian pattern of the chahar bagh, or "fourfold garden", with pools and fountain connected by a net of intricate runnels intersecting at right angles. The water channels and walkways are lined by cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), and the lawns are springled with various trees and shrubs, including gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides) and elegant stands of silver date palms (Phoenix sylvestris).

In Front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan or Presidential Palace

These potted bougainvilleas (Bougainvillea sp.) caught my eye just outside the front gate of the Presidential Palace. The Rashtrapati Bhavan itself has an architecturally fascinating garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and inspired by Mughal garden designs. Unfortunately this garden is only opened to the public when it is at its floral peak in late winter or early spring and so I did not get to visit it but based on the pictures I have seen it must be stunning.

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

The Anguri Bagh of the Agra Fort

Anguri Bagh means "Grape Garden", and this courtyard garden in the Mughal Fort of Agra does this name justice with two gnarled old grapevines. The garden is layed-out in the classical Persian chahar bagh pattern with a raised water tank at the center of the intersecting walkways. However, its most striking feature are the flowerbeds themselves, which are divided geomterically into many smaller compartments by red sandstone dividers and are planted in a checkerboard pattern with contrasting green and red-leaved ground covers. Though the garden dates to the 17th century, the design struck me as quite modern, reminiscent of the bold designs of some 20th century landscape architects such as Roberto Burle Marx.

The Garden of the Tomb of Akbar

In terms of overall layout and the plants featured, the tomb garden of the great Mughal Emperor Akbar is quite similar to that of his father Humayun in Delhi. The tomb itself, however, is much less clearly Central Asian in design, featuring instead of central domes a cascade of pillars and umbrella-like turrets borrowed from indigenous Indian architecture. There are also plenty of plant and flower motifs in the ornate decorations of many parts of the complex, and part from tourists, large flocks of graceful gazelles also roam the grounds.

Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh

Fatehpur Sikri, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar as a new capital for his empire begining in 1570. However, the new city was largely abandoned after only fourteen years, presumably because of issues with the water supply. Constructed almost entirely of red sandstone on a rocky outcrop, what remains of Fatehpur Sikri struck me as being of rather stark beauty. I personally prefer lusher plantings to the vast expanses of paved ground found in the courtyards of this palace fortress. Nevertheless, the "gardens" that can be found at the site are interesting from a design perspective. There is, for example, the square platform in the middle of a larger square tank reached by four delicate stone bridges in a virtual inversion of the traditional chahar bagh design, or the lone planter set abruptly in the center of an enormous courtyard of red stone. According to legend, Akbar's Hindu queen grew her tulsi or holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) in this planter, in a grand royal version of a custom still found quite commonly today. Nowadays a spider lily (Crinum asiaticum) occupies the exalted place, perhaps because it is a bit hardier and self-reliant than the basil and therefore does not need to be replaced as often.

Jaipur, Rajasthan

Kesar Kyari Bagh, Amber Fort

Unfortunately at the time of my visit this famous garden was not planted with any vegetation, nor had there been sufficient rain to fill the lake that is supposed to surround this unusual jewel of landscape architecture. Nevertheless, the beautiful design is quite clearly visible. Though constructed by the Hindu Kachvaha Rajput Dynasty of Jaipur, the garden consists of a fourfold chahar bagh with geometrically arranged pools and runnels, spread out over three terraces. Within this framework, the flowerbeds are divided into intricate patterns by small stone walkways, creating an effect, in my mind,  not unlike that of a classical French parterre.

The Interior Garden of Amber Fort

Like the Kesar Kyari Bagh, the interior garden of the fort was unfortunately not planted at the time of my visit since some repair works were being carried out. The underlying design of narrow, zigzaging stone walkways was all the more clearly discernible as a result. Besides, despite the less-than-perfect state of the garden itself my visit to the fortress was not without floral interest since much of its interior is covered in flower based designs. Represented in every fathomable material, from marble to paint to mirror work, luxurious roses, cypresses, poppies, lilies, lotus plants, tulips, marigolds, and irises sprout across the walls, accompanied by all manner of imaginary vegetation.

The Gardens of Rambagh Palace

Rambagh Palace is a palace of the royal family of Jaipur which was originally built in 1835 and has been converted into a luxury hotel. I was lucky enough to stay there during my much-too-short stay in Jaipur, and greatly enjoyed the flawlessly maintained formal gardens.

I hope you enjoyed my pictures of these parks and gardens - maybe they will give you some ideas - and I wish you a wonderful Holi!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Happy Purim!

And when these days were over, the king made for all the people present in Shushan the capital, for [everyone] both great and small, a banquet for seven days, in the court of the garden of the king's orchard. 
(Book of Esther, 1.5)
And the king arose in his fury from the wine feast to the orchard garden, and Haman stood to beg for his life of Queen Esther, for he saw that evil was determined against him by the king.
(Book of Esther, 7.7)
Then the king returned from the orchard garden to the house of the wine feast, and Haman was falling on the couch upon which Esther was, and the king said, "Will you even force the queen with me in the house?" The word came out of the king's mouth, and they covered Haman's face.
(Book of Esther, 7.8)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Happy Milad un-Nabi!

 Hybrid tea roses (Rosa sp.) in Avanos, Turkey

 Lamp in the Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Hybrid tea roses (Rosa sp.) in Avanos, Turkey

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More Early Spring Flowers

I know I am repeating myself here but the other day it was quite mild and sunny and the witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia) and crocuses (Crocus tommasinianus) near my building of which I had recently posted the very first blossoms were now in full bloom and I simply had to take pictures.
Unfortunately the sulphur-yellow, delicate blossoms of Hamamelis x intermedia do not look terribly impressive in pictures. In really life, however, they are quite beautiful and a delightful dash of color in this otherwise dreary season. Crocus tommasinianus, too, did not photograph particularly well for me; I wanted to capture the sheer number of flowers, but their light purple color in combination with the bright sunshine made them look so pale that they almost disappear in the picture.
I will be back with more substantial posts - and better pictures - soon. Hopefully more flowers will begin appearing around here in coming weeks...I did see the first emerging daffodil bud today...

Monday, February 22, 2010

Interesting New York Times Article on Aquaponics

I have to admit that I had never heard the term "Aquaponics" prior to coming across this article and the whole operation seems a bit too futuristic for my taste - I guess I like my gardening low-tech - but it is nevertheless interesting and if one is to believe the article it has great potential:

I also do not think that I would ever be able to use the fish for food if I had such a system...They would probably end up being pet fish only. Then again, apparently one can use goldfish for this...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Plant Care Profile: Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

In many places where winters are mild enough for them to survive without protection, crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia indica) are among the most popular flowering shrubs or trees. I remember noticing this plant for the first time as a child on a summer vacation in the northern Italian region of South Tyrol. Crape myrtles are very common throughout much of southern Europe and the American South, where their frilly blossoms in colors ranging from deep red to white dominate both public plantings and private gardens for much of the summer. Beside the showy flowers, the plants is also appreciated for its unusual bark, which is mottled in various shades of brown and silvery grey. This feature is most notable in plants grown in areas where the absence of hard or prolonged frosts permits Lagerstroemia indica to grow into a sizable shrub or even a mid-sized tree with fairly thick trunks and branches. However, the plant can also be grown as a die-back shrub in far colder regions. In that case not much of a trunk with the characteristic bark is likely to develop but the gorgeous flowers still make this plant well worth the effort.
 A light pink specimen of Lagerstroemia indica in a south-facing border in my family's previous garden in Zone 6a suburban Michigan. At the time this picture was taken this plant had been growing in the garden for about three years. I originally brought it home from northern Florida, where I had bought it for $2.99 at a Walmart.
Origin: Despite its Latin name, Lagerstroemia indica is native primarily to East Asia, with a natural range including parts of China, Korea, and Japan.
USDA Hardiness Zone: According to most sources, Lagerstroemia indica is hardy to Zone 7b but in my own experience the plant is hardy at least to Zone 6a. However, in much of Zone 7 and in Zone 6 or any colder area, crape myrtles will be grown almost exclusively as die-back shrubs that resprout every year from the base, whereas in warmer areas they develop substantial trunks and can grow into sizable trees. Hardiness in also dependent on summer climate, since the new wood of this shrub needs heat to ripen well. Thus the more summer heat the plant receives the more cold it can generally withstand during the colder months. This past summer the Lowe's near my parents' house in Michigan was also selling crape myrtles of a low-growing variety with deep pink flowers which were tagged as being hardy to Zone 5. I am not sure to what extent that is true but they were on sale and seeing as a regular variety bought in Florida has done fine for us in Michigan for over five years now I decided to give them a try. I guess we will see next summer if they really survived the winter any better than normal varieties.
 A close-up of the flowers of the crape myrtle in my family's garden
Size: There is tremendous variation in crape myrtle size depending on the variety and the manner in which the plant is being grown. As a die-back shrub in cooler areas, Lagerstroemia indica will hardly exceed 6' (ca. 1.8m) but grown in warmer areas some varieties can reach heights of 25' (ca. 7.6m) and widths of 20' (ca. 6m).
 Crape myrtle flowers in my parents' garden just beginning to open
Flowering Time: Flowering time for crape myrtles depends a lot on the local climate. In vey warm areas the plants will begin flowering in early summer and continue flowering for a good month or more, in cooler areas they will begin flowering later. Grown as a die-back shrub resprouting from the root each spring, my specimen in southeastern Michigan usually begins blooming between mid-August and the beginning of September, depending on how hot the summer has been up to that point, and continues flowering until late September or early October.
Light Requirements: Lagerstroemia indica needs full sun - generally the more sun and heat the plant receives, the sooner it will flower and the hardier it becomes.

 Large specimens of Lagerstroemia indica in the park at the Florentinerberg in Baden-Baden, Germany (Zone 8a)
Soil Requirements: Crape myrtles appear to do just fine in a wide variety of normal garden soils ranging from sandy loam to clay, though in my experience they benefit a good deal from decent drainage, annual top dressings of compost and a good layer of leaf mulch.
Siting in the Garden: In areas that are warm enough - roughly Zone 7b and warmer - Lagerstroemia indica can be planted anywhere where it receives plenty of sun and its potentially sizable growth can be accomodated. Where winters are colder or summers are not very hot, care should be taken to plant this species in a very warm and sheltered spot, ideally in a border at the foot of a heat-retaining south-facing wall.
 Crape myrtles grown as standards in the park between the Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey (Zone 8b-9a)
Care: Ideally, crape myrtles should be planted in spring so they have plenty of time to get established before the winter but in warmer areas this is not essential. Even my first crape myrtle in Michigan was planted in August since I had brought it back from a summer trip to the South and it ended up making it through the winter more or less ok, though it failed to flower the following summer. At the time of planting, plenty of compost and bone or blood meal should be incorporated into the soil to give the plant a good start, and afterwards the area around the plant should receive a good layer of leaf mulch or wood chips to preserve moisture and to prevent extreme fluctuations in soil temperature. In warm areas, not much care is required during the growing season in first or subsequent year, apart from moderate irrigation during times of drought. However, in colder regions plants will have to resprout from the base and reach flowering size within a single season beginning their second summer in the garden and for this reason they benefit greatly from a biweekly feeding with liquid fertilizer to speed growth along. One should stop fertilizing once flowers begin to appear in late summer so the wood can ripen properly for the winter. In late fall, plants grown in Zone 7 or colder should be given a heavy leaf mulch for winter protection. I like for the mulch to stand at least 1' (ca. 30cm) - the higher the better. For this one can simply pile up the leaves over the plant or one can build  a simple wire cage around the plant to keep the leaves together. The mulch can be left on the plants until mid-spring, when it should be removed very carefully so as not to damage any new sprouts that might already be emerging. They will be extremely pale due to the lack of light but will quickly begin to turn green or reddish-green once exposed to the sun. However, if the plant has not yet begun to resprout when the mulch is removed that is not necessary a reason for worry since Lagerstroemia indica can be extremely slow to leaf out in the spring. Give the plant at least a month before giving up on it or discarding it because might very well come back! In warm regions where the plant requires no special winter protection and grows into a large shrub or tree the main care to be undertaken in late winter is pruning, which is not necessary for the health of the plant can be carried out to keep it to a specific size or give it a desired shape. Since Lagerstroemia indica flowers on this year's wood, it can take a strong pruning and still flower well as long as thhe pruning is carried out in the dormant period. In much of southern Europe, crape myrtles are commonly pruned like osiers (Salix viminalis), whose flexible twigs are used for basket weaving: grown as a standard, the branches are cut back hard every winter to only a few inches/cm above the top of the main trunk, encouraging the plant to produce a head full of strong young shoots every year. The main pest problem that appears to affect Lagerstroemia indica consists of mildew and other fungal infections, though I have never had any problem with this in Michigan, and it does not appear to be too much of an issue in most warmer regions either. In general, good ventilation and plenty of sun appear to be the most important strategies in keeping such afflictions at bay. The one pest problem I have encountered in Michigan are Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica), which are very fond of the buds and flowers of this plant. In a domestic garden setting, I have found it the best strategy of defense to go around the garden collecting and destroying the beetles once or twice a day from the day when they first begin to appear. This might seem tedious but they are actually quite easy to collect off the plants since they are suprisingly slow, especially early in the day when it is still relatively cool. Besides, manual collection means that no other plants or beneficial organisms are harmed in the process. In the long run, the numbers of beetles will diminish drastically.
An old specimen of Lagerstroemia indica in the gardens of the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, Turkey (Zone 8b-9a)
Propagation: Crape myrtles can be propagated from seeds as well as from softwood cuttings taken in summer or hardwood cuttings taken in late fall. For softwood cuttings a rooting hormone might be used. By and large, however, relatively few home gardeners propagate Lagerstroemia indica themselves since it can be easily and relatively cheaply bought in most places.
A deep pink crape myrtle in the Katz'sche Garten in Gernsbach, Germany (Zone 8a)
Use in the Garden: Lagerstroemia indica is a beautiful, eye-catching flowering shrub or tree that will bring stunning late summer color to a sunny shrub border. Where the climate is warm enough, it can look wonderful as a large solitary shrub or tree surrounded by lawn or groundcovers, which highlights not only the plant's brightly colored flowers but also the pretty bark of its trunk and branches. In areas where the plant dies back to the ground in winter, it is best integrated into a sunny perennial border or a planting of relatively small shrubs not likely to overtake it while it is rebounding in spring and early summer.