Eden in my back­yard

Healthy pur­suits add years to our lives.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By YONG KHEE SHIN

AS I look back over the years, I can still feel the stress that comes with try­ing to eke out a liv­ing in this harsh and in­hos­pitable world. I had made prepa­ra­tions for an early re­tire­ment so that I could get away from the madding crowd.

I col­lected many va­ri­eties of flow­ers and plants to start a gar­den which would give me im­mense plea­sure and a rest­ful place to wind down later in life. I had to make do with what­ever lit­tle land I had to lay out a grat­i­fy­ing gar­den in my home in Kuch­ing, Sarawak.

To make it a lit­tle out of the or­di­nary, I ex­per­i­mented with seeds and cut­tings from far­away places. Most of them could not adapt to the cli­matic con­di­tions here. But some of them thrived very well.

My star ap­ple tree ( Chrys­o­phyl­lum cainito) is still grow­ing healthily. I grew it from a pip in 1981. I planted it for its or­na­men­tal and aes­thetic value. How­ever, it has also pro­vided me with a peren­nial sup­ply of tasty and suc­cu­lent fruits. Be­cause it is alien to this coun­try, many people come by to ad­mire it.

Some­times I won­der if it is bear­ing the wrong fruits, be­cause it looks very sim­i­lar to a durian tree. Due to the change in en­vi­ron­men­tal and weather con­di­tions, it is a lit­tle out of sync with the sea­sons. It starts to flower af­ter each crop. A beau­ti­ful fea­ture of this plant is that it needs no cross-pol­li­na­tion. Con­se­quently, I am as­sured of a big crop of fruits at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals.

The dan­gling branches sway and bend sharply dur­ing heavy storms but are able to ride out the heavy beat­ing due to its in­her­ited abil­ity to with­stand hur­ri­canes in the Mis­sis­sippi re­gion.

Be­cause it grows to a great height, this star ap­ple tree is one of the many land­marks and call­ing sta­tions of mi­gra­tory birds that come to visit this place ev­ery year. The Greater Racket-tailed Dron­gos ( Di­cru­rus par­adiseus brachy­pho­rus) are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially dur­ing the rainy sea­son. The male species has a long and forked tail. They make a va­ri­ety of melo­di­ous sounds. Some pro­duce a note like that of a pan­pipe. Oth­ers pro­duce a deep tone not un­like that of a bas­soon. To­gether, they make sweet mu­sic.

Lately, these birds have be­come a rare sight. The on­slaught of bull­doz­ers and heavy equip­ment has re­moved the tall je­lu­tong and ta­pang trees nearby to make way for con­crete build­ings. This has re­moved the dron­gos’ call­ing sta­tions as well.

How­ever, the star ap­ple tree has re­mained to pro­vide a home to many per­ma­nent res­i­dents which in­clude the fan­tails, bul­buls and spotted neck doves.

An­other tree that has sur­vived the years is the lulu tree which I col­lected from Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka. It is quite sim­i­lar to a lo­cal tree com­monly known as Kun­ing Telor. How­ever, the flesh of the fruit dif­fers. It has a pow­dery tex­ture and looks golden yel­low. It tastes mildly sweet.

The fruit it­self also looks yel­low when ripe, hence its com­mon name the Golden Fruit Tree. Again this is a self-pol­li­nat­ing plant and it pro­duces a big crop of fruits now and then. Be­cause there is of­ten an abun­dant sup­ply of fruits, they weigh down the branches and break them.

When they ripen and fall to the ground, they at­tract in­sects which in turn lure the Pied Fan­tails to catch them in the air. It is de­light­ful to watch the aerial chases as these aer­o­batic ma­noeu­vres re­quire a lot of skill.

I have added veg­eta­bles to my lit­tle gar­den as well. It is a joy to grow them to­gether with the ex­otic plants. Watch­ing them grow, flower and pro­duce fruits fills me with a sense of achieve­ment, be­sides pro­vid­ing plenty of chemical-free veg­eta­bles for the din­ing ta­ble.

Be­cause of the heavy rain­fall in this part of the re­gion, I have to be se­lec­tive in choos­ing the type of veg­eta­bles to grow in my gar­den. Toma­toes, egg plants, square beans, cangkok ma­nis and long beans are the usual plants grown here. They need very lit­tle care. Since these are deep-rooted plants, they are not eas­ily dam­aged by the rain.

Very lit­tle ef­fort is needed to pre­pare the soil be­cause it has been tilled and loos­ened over and over for many years. Be­sides, it is well cul­ti­vated and so very few pests are found here. I bury mown grass in the veg­etable beds to fer­tilise the soil. Some­times I add dried chicken ma­nure to make the soil richer.

Toma­toes are grown in long rows and sup­ported by a rail­ing of PVC pipes. When the fruits are about a week old, they would be pro­tected by a mess of plas­tic netting so that bur­row­ers will not be able to lay eggs in the fruits.

The square beans are hardy plants and are easy to grow. I plugged a few metal rods on the gar­den wall and they have served as veg­etable racks year in and year out. The creep­ers love these racks. When they are in full bloom, they in­vari­ably in­vite a gi­ant bum­ble bee and a pair of sun birds to en­joy the nec­tar in the flow­ers.

I have tried my hand at budding, graft­ing, mar­cot­ting and inarch­ing. These are dif­fi­cult pro­ce­dures and I have only been suc­cess­ful in mar­cot­ting the star ap­ple tree and inarch­ing a li­mau kas­turi tree with a li­mau pu­rut tree.

There is a fam­ily of spotted neck doves that lived with us for more than a decade in this gar­den. The hen pigeon would usu­ally lay two eggs in her nest in the lulu tree and in­cu­bate them.

The cock pigeon would perch nearby wait­ing to take its turn to warm the eggs. Dur­ing this time, the birds did not come down to feed of­ten.

How­ever, when the eggs hatched in about 21 days, they would have a vo­ra­cious ap­petite. They would swoop down their feed­ing place ev­ery 20 min­utes and wait for their food.

We would feed them with crushed bis­cuits and some­times, dried egg yolks.

They needed these to feed the young. Of­ten, they would come into the kitchen to pick up food crumbs when the meals were late in com­ing. They needed about seven to eight meals a day.

When their chicks were strong enough to feed on the ground, the par­ents would al­low them to do so for about 10 days, af­ter which the hen bird would give them many swift raps on their heads, telling them to get off and learn to fend for them­selves.

The cock was more com­pas­sion­ate and led them away to stay in the star ap­ple tree or any other tree nearby, feed­ing and car­ing for them un­til they could fly away to join the bach­e­lors club.

This is a place for the flock that have not made a home for them­selves yet. It is in a huge qui­nine tree a stone’s throw away from my gar­den. They lived quite a reg­i­mented life­style. They for­age for food in the morn­ing and re­turned home at sun­set.

Some­times, they would move to other trees. The leader of the flock would en­ter the roost­ing place first. Some­times, a young bird would un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously fly into the rest­ing place. It would be kicked out and made to take its queue.

This was a time for the cock and the hen to take a breather. It was a re­lief to see them rest­ing on the rooftop, groom­ing and peck­ing each other, and pre­par­ing them­selves to bring up an­other gen­er­a­tion of new chicks.

This same process was re­peated over and over for many years un­til they tired them­selves out. They were paired for life.

One day, the hen pigeon swooped into the kitchen and wad­dled into a cor­ner, shiv­er­ing fever­ishly. I wrapped it with a piece of warm cloth but could not save it. It was an emo­tional farewell. The cock was in shock for a long time. It re­fused to come down to feed for more than a month.

When it did, I could see that it was dev­as­tated by grief and dis­tress be­cause it was very pan­icky. It had be­come so timid that it was eas­ily fright­ened by any­thing that moved in the gar­den. It took the cock a long time to re­gain its com­po­sure and re­alise that I meant no harm.

Soon af­ter­wards it too left us. It had fought many hard bat­tles to pro­tect the fam­ily. I have seen it fight­ing with a young con­tender for more than a year, ward­ing off this in­truder. Al­though a new pair of birds came to re­place these old guards, mem­o­ries of them lin­gered on.

Be­sides gar­den­ing which has given me many hours of im­mense plea­sure, I also play a few mu­si­cal in­stru­ments such as the clar­inet and gui­tar to keep my­self hap­pily oc­cu­pied. As they say, mu­sic has charms to soothe the sav­age heart.

Very of­ten too, I would set up my easel be­neath the star ap­ple tree to do some paint­ing. The serene at­mos­phere gets the cre­ative juices flow­ing.

My first job as a sur­veyor gave me plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to tra­verse the length and breath of the for­est of Bor­neo. This en­abled me to ac­quaint my­self with many of the plants and an­i­mals found in the Sarawak for­est.

Later, slog­ging with fel­low Har­ri­ers around the coun­try­side gave me even more op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve the flora and fauna in their nat­u­ral sur­round­ings.

The artist in me loves to cap­ture for pos­ter­ity, the crea­tures and plants that dwell in the mud banks and bushes of Bor­neo is­land.

Mu­sic to fill my days, art to add colour to my life, and gar­den­ing to pro­vide food for the body and soul – uh, this is the life!

Cre­ative streak: The writer pur­su­ing his pas­sion for art un­der the shade of the star ap­ple tree in his gar­den.

The star ap­ple tree pro­vides an am­ple sup­ply of suc­cu­lent fruits all year round.

The lulu tree pro­duces a huge crop of fruits ev­ery now and then.

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