The Yard: Hazards of Collecting

yellow hibiscus, bunga raya

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]herever I go, I am always sure to bring my secatuers along. If it was only more portable, I’d probably bring a spade too. You never know when you will come across a plant for the garden. Institutional grounds are the best places to go, since they tend to have cultivated varities, and noone would miss a little cutting here or there. When I say cutting, I don’t mean chopping a tree down, I just mean clipping a twig or two off a shrub or tree. With a pair of hand pruners, there is absolutely no harm done.


Still, you have to be careful. Back in Michigan, my father had the cops called on him for digging a few volunteer Scotch pine seedlings out of a drainage ditch, underneath a power line on a public right-of-way. Anyone who stopped to think about it would know that within a few years’ time, right-of-way clearance crews would come down the line and cut down every last one of them. Yet, some watchful citizen, without bothering to come out of his house to ask what was going on, called the police on his neighbor. And the policeman was just as dense, chasing my father away, and warning him not to do it again. So, I know to be careful.

To make a short story long, a little while ago, when I found myself on Telekom grounds with a little time to spare, I strolled around, surreptitiously taking some cuttings of Mussaenda and Hibiscus when a watchguard barked at me (in Malay), “Hey, you there! What are you doing?”

“Oh nothing sir, just taking a few cuttings for my garden.”

“You can’t take cuttings like that”, he said in the same gruff voice, “those are [tooltip text=”kecik gilak” trigger=”hover”]ridiculously small[/tooltip]! They’ll take forever to grow! Give me those clippers. Here, ah, macam ni haa! That’s how you do it!” He cut off a stout branch about three feet long, pruned it a bit and handed it to me. Then he spun around and marched back toward his booth.

The Yard: Inherited Plants

A sprig of lemongrass
A sprig of lemongrass
As the yard was being cleared of brush, I came across a few plants of some value that I spared the parang for. The first is a very common seasoning in Malaysian cooking, Lemongrass or serai, Cymbopogon spp. Not surprisingly, it was planted just outside the kitchen door. From a distance it is hard to distinguish it from other grasses, though it tends to form a dense, rounded outline. Sometimes you can make out a reddish-brown tinge near the base. But just
A clump of lemongrass, <em>serai</em>.
A clump of lemongrass, serai.
touch it with the weed-whip and the smell is unmistakeable: a very pungent lemon scent. The base of the stalk is what is used in cooking. It is very woody, so it is often blended, or pulverized with a mortar and pestle before adding to the dish. If you’ve eaten at a Thai restaurant you’ve probably tasted some. It can be grown in Michigan, but only as an annual. And the spindly growth I got when I tried hardly made it seem worth it.

Asam Terung, or "sour eggplant", directly translated.The next survivor is the Terung Asam, or sour eggplant. It is a vegetable commonly eaten here in Sarawak. I don’t remember ever having it in West Malaysia, but that doesn’t mean they don’t serve it there. This report on rare and wild fruits of West Malaysia lists Terung Asam as “Wild” in West Malaysia. From what I can decipher of the report, this would simply mean that it is primarily gathered rather than

The Asam Terung plant, in sorry shape.
The Asam Terung plant, in sorry shape.
cultivated. It is listed only as Solanum spp, which does put it in the same genus as Eggplant. Personally, it is not my favorite vegetable. It doesn’t have a very pronounced flavor except for a bitter aftertaste. The Terung Asam in my yard is a very sad specimen, by the way. The fruits are typically bright yellow-orange when sold in the market. I don’t know if mine is overripe or has some affliction.

The last plant was in the back on the edge of the jungle. It is Pandan, Pandanus spp, a common ingredient in kuih, snacks/desserts. It is called Screwpine in English. It is a subtle flavor, but a lot of sweets just don’t taste right without it. If you’re eating a dessert with any kind of green color, it is probably made with pandan. Its leaf is also fashioned into a wrapper for some sweets. It can also be bunched up and thrown in a pot of rice for flavoring.

Pandan, or Screwpine
Pandan, or Screwpine

The plant itself is very wild-looking. It grows on long rootstalks that sometimes trail, sometimes stick upright. It grows into a big tangled mass after a while. My wife reports that snakes are fond of lurking under pandan. My plant is quite overgrown, so I’m fixing to give it a regenerative thrashing pruning with the parang.

The Yard: Adventures in Tropical Horticulture

Our new home is in fact several years old. The house itself is quite nice and liveable as is, but the yard… The yard needs a lot of work. I wanted a house with a lot of land, and I got that in the sense that the area is spacious. But it is missing about 18 inches of soil from the kitchen stoop to the back fence. It is common practice for developers to save costs by skimping on landscape, or even to sell homes with bare earth only. But I’ve never encountered a project where the developer just decided not to backfill at all. But that’s what I’ve got: a yard that is more like a hole.

Still! Lots of possibilities abound for doing something nice and interesting when the time comes to fill. But first, I have to deal with the jungle that has grown up in the last seven years. Here is the yard when I took it over:

The original backyard: chest-high in lalang and swamp beyond
The original backyard: chest-high in lalang and swamp beyond

After cutting and burning all the brush and grass, here is where I am now, two weeks later:

The backyard after two weeks of thrashing
The backyard after two weeks of thrashing

(I had some help. Mind you, this is Ramadan, so I’m good for about an hour of work before dusk. Start any earlier in the day and there is no water to quench your thirst when you’re done.)

Now I have found that the back fence has not just been overgrown, but has been completely vanquished. At least one tree has toppled on to it, and I fear there is another trunk under the last big mound of vegetation. While the fence has been down, all manner of viney, creepy plants have wound in and out of the fence, tying it to the ground. So my next step is to reclaim my property line with the aid of my trusty parang. The parang is the local version of a machete, but with nice heft and weight, curved and balanced for easy swinging. They sell straight-from-Brazil machetes in the hardware store too, but in my opinion, the parang is a better tool.

Stay tuned: my adventures with the yard will be chronicled in breathless detail here as events unfold.

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Strong back weak mind: Filling the backyard with dirt a wheelbarrow at a time without the benefit of an honest shovel.

Don’t be fooled by the rocks that I got: Building a dry laid stone wall with my bare hands.


Marginal Nature A fascinating overview

Marginal Nature

A fascinating overview of the thesis-in-progress of Kevin Anderson, a geography doctoral candidate at UT-Austin. I could spend a fortune tracking down his bibliography. A former philosophy student, he’s able to tackle the big questions, like “what is nature?”, that I only daydream about till my head hurts. He describes his own background that led him to study nature in urban margins:

A rundown railroad town has a wealth of marginal sites where nature reasserts itself and makes a home. Through vacant lots, unpaved back alleyways, neglected woodlots, and that magnificent trashed-out creek, my friends and I encountered nature through our own explorations. These places defined my geography of childhood and served as a necessary supplement to my formal education in school. They were places of exploration and imagination, of scrapwood forts and freedom from adult supervision, of uncertainty and practical learning about nature. No sublime wilderness or pastoral beauty resided in these places. I did not go there in search of the “wild” – such terms are adult concepts of nature. As a child, I immersed myself in these marginal places without the need to conceptualize my relationship to nature nor to judge them against other standards of nature. These were degraded habitats, but, in a basic phenomenological sense, they were my natural places, and I am still drawn to them .

Stay tuned for my own prose, in weak imitation of the above, over here (but without the phenomenology)…

Kevin Anderson also runs an interesting project at a marginal natural area called
Hornsby Bend.

Hornsby Bend is – Austin’s recycling center for sewage and yard trimmings – the most popular birdwatching site in the Austin area – the first Anglo settlement site in Travis County – a research site for riparian ecology, biosolids, and the soil food web – a demonstration site for Green Building.

Landscape Planning in the Occupied

Landscape Planning in the Occupied Territories
This is an amazing presentation. The aerial imagery is so powerful because it is apolitical. The land reveals the utter absurdity of the occupation without a single word being said.

Who designs the fortress-homes of the Israeli settlements? Who engineers the Israeli-only infrastructure that enables occupation? Professional architects and civil engineers, that’s who. What are the professional ethics of designing a home that you know will sit on stolen land? Great article here from the same site.

Alien Invasion Damn immigrants! A

Alien Invasion

Damn immigrants! A new Asian (Russia?) bug, the Emerald Ash Borer has been found in SE Michigan. It kills all varieties of Ash “with surprising aggressiveness”. This is very bad news. Ash easily constitute one out of every three street trees planted around here. Only Honey Locust and Norway Maple are as prevalent. In parking lots, too, it is one of only a couple trees commonly planted, Red Maple being the only tree as heavily planted. If Ash go out the way the American Elm did, it will devastate this region. The only good that can possibly come out of it is that more uncommon trees may come into use. American Basswood for streets and Hackberry for parking lots are two I’d like to see used more. But I’m not holding my breath that even this will make people come around. A friend who works at the MDA told me MSU is tentatively recommending Honey Locust as replacements. Good, then there’ll only be two trees completely dominating the landscape. Sheesh. There is just no substitute for diversified plantings, and while this pest is striking a native, natives are still the best choice for restablishing some stability in our local ecosystems. Those interested in native plants can try the Wild Ones for a great first start.