Meena peered at the big bunch of greens, which Rani had plucked from her rooftop garden, and almost plunged it into the water, when she stopped. There were tiny white insects under the dark green leaves! It was so tiny she had thought it to be fine white dust.
“Rani, Rani!” called Meena. Her daughter, now in college, and presently in her home town of Nelloor for a holiday, came running into the kitchen.
“Yes, amma? What is it?”
“Are’nt these tiny insects, Rani? Go get me my glasses, will you?”
“Yes, they are, amma,” said Rani checking behind each leaf. “Oh, no! Somehow with our soil being so organic and fertile I didn’t expect insect pests! I must ask Ravi anna, what I should do!”
Ravi was her elder brother, who had finished his college and had settled down to taking care of the family farms, which his father Inban was looking after.
Rani had, a year ago started a terrace vegetable garden, modelled on the one her cousin Jaya had, in Madurai. Rani’s garden was now yielding well and there was always some vegetable growing up on the terrace. Meena’s trips to the market became considerably less frequent.
While Rani was in college, Meena found it a relaxing past time to walk beneath the cool green shade of the green net which sheltered the plants from the scotching sun. She walked from plant to plant, with the sprinkle water can, watering the thirsty plants.
Some times Inban, her husband joined her, for he returned home early, now having Ravi take over responsibilities at the farm. They often sat on a stone ledge along the wall and talked blissfully, after the watering and weeding was done.
Meena could’nt imagine how the insects had slipped her notice.
“I must wear my glasses permanently, instead of only when I read!” she thought aloud.
Ravi went darting up the steps to the terrace, when Rani broke the news to him. It had been quite a while since he had come up to the terrace, for he was very busy at the farms, with laying drip irrigation pipes and tubes for the coconut, mango and chickoo trees.
The need to conserve water, especially during the hot months of April, May and June had risen, and Ravi thus used the limited water most economically, avoiding any wastage due to evaportion or over flooding.
Ravi and Rani walked from plant to plant and found to their dismay, that many of the plants were infested. In fact there seemed to be two or three varieties of insects happily invading and feeding on their precious garden.
“Did you see the tomatoes, Rani? Something has bored right through this tomato! It’s the fruit borer insect!”
“And there are holes in the brinjals too, anna!” said Rani, quite alarmed by the havoc caused by this tiny army of invaders!
“Some of them are eating the shoots of plants, too. Especially the tender shoots and buds! Oh, no!”
“They look like mealy bugs. And some of the insects are aphids! Yes, they eat tender stems, the leaves, flowers and fruits!
We must get rid of them! I will ask Deva to mix neem cake to compost and cow dung, and manure the plant again.”
“Will that completely rid the plants of pests, anna?” asked Rani with hope, flooding like sunshine, through her heart.
“Yes, ofcourse! And as a precautionary measure I have a solution from off the kitchen shelf,as well, Rani,” said Ravi, mysteriously, with a wink at his sister’s worried face.
“The kitchen shelf?” asked Rani in disbelief. Somehow she thought her brother would just spray the plants with one of the many insecticides she had seen at the pest control stores.
“Let’s go down, Rani. We have some work in the kitchen!”
And off they were to the kitchen and astonished Meena, as they scanned the shelves. Ravi picked up a cane basket, into which he tossed in a bunch of garlic, which had hung behind the door to dry. Soon handfuls of dry, red chillies followed the garlic. Then a bottle of vegetable oil joined the chillies and garlic.
“What is going on, here, Ravi?” said Meena. Rani was as bewildered as her mother. But she followed her brother as he scouted around, with the things from the kitchen.
Ravi smiled in answer and continued to raid the kitchen shelves.
He next opened the shelf where Meena kept the soaps and detergent for washing dishes and clothes. From here he took a box of soap powder.
“And now, Rani, I need your help here. Will you run the mixie for me?”
“Sure!” said Rani, ready to aid Ravi in any way she could.
“What do you want me to grind, anna?”
“Lets begin with the garlic, skin and all! Just add water and grind it,will you?”
Soon Rani was busy grinding the garlic until it was a rough paste, due to the peels. Next it was the chillies. Rani had already been wiping her eyes for the pungent smell of the garlic had already got to her. The chillies made her sniff as well and her nose watered. Ravi standing close by was sneezing.
“Achoo!” went Meena, in the living room.
“What are you children doing? What are you both up to?Achoo!”
Ravi walked to his mother and said,
“We are making a simple insect repellent for the plants. Our garden has been invaded by some insect pests, amma.”
“Ah, that explains the holes in some of the brinjals and tomatoes! Will this repellent be effective, Ravi?”
“It’s organic, and cannot harm the plants, as it will, the insects, amma. So even after we treat it, it’s still safe for us to eat the vegetables and greens! Which is more than I can say for the pesticides sold at the shops….”
His mother smiled and gave Ravi and Rani a hanky each along with glassfuls of fresh lime juice to drink. Then she went about her household chores.
They found a large bucket into which they poured out the ground garlic, chillies and a handful of soap powder. They poured water and oil to make the mixture watery enough to spray. They took turns to stir the mixture with an old, wooden ladle, until it was thoroughly mixed.
Rani found a faded, large, mesh-like towel, to strain the mixture. They strained it well and kept the residue to be mixed into the cowdung and neem cake manure. Meena watched the end product with interest.
“I have an old sprayer I used, for spraying soap water on the glass panes, before cleaning it with a dry cloth. I have a new sprayer, now. Use the old sprayer for your garden, children. Here it is!”
“Thank you amma! It will be quite useful, I’m sure! I thought of just dipping a leafy branch of the neem, and use it to sprinkle the solution on the plants! Anyway, we will try both, since we both need to work on it to get rid of the insects faster!”
The children disappeared with the big bucket, to the terrace. They left the bucket covered with a news paper until the next day. The insecticide could be sprayed only the next day.
Ravi and Rani were on the terrace very early the next day, even before the chirrping of the birds began! Rani filled the spraying can and began spraying each plant very carefully. She sprayed under the leaves where the aphids and mealy bugs had spread. Ravi used the neem branch to sprinkle the home made pesticide.
“Look at the red beetle, digging into the soil, Rani!” said Ravi, stopping to inspect an unusual beetle beneath the gourd plant.
“It will feed on the roots underground, undetected by us! And we will just be left wondering, why the plant has wilted! It’s good that I saw it, before it caused further damage!”
“For the pests beneath the ground Ravi, should’nt we be mixing in the neem cakes and cowdung into the soil, anna?”
“Exactly!” said Ravi, glad to see his sister picking up the rudiments of gardening and pest control so well!
The dusk glowed in an orange green hue through the green net, as the two children finally finished spraying the entire garden. They were tired but really happy they had done their part in ridding their precious plants from insect pests. A breeze blew over the plants and they felt the caress of its coolness.
The plants nodded happily in the breeze, wet with the spray, as if they had been drenched by rain. The queer smell of soap powder,oil, garlic and chillies mildly filled the air.
The next morning Ravi had to leave for the farms. He sent Deva, the farmhand, to help Rani with the neem cake manure.
Deva came with a sackful of compost and dry cowdung. He had helped Rani and Ravi plant and develop this garden, initially. He waited for a chance to be here, and see its progress.
Deva got busy with mixing the compost, and cowdung with some neem cake. Soon he threw in handfuls of the mix at the base of each plant. Once this was done, he crouched down and mixed the compost and neem mixture well into the soil.
Rani waited until he was done and then began watering the plants. She had read, insects sometimes infest plants for lack of nutrition. She hoped the compost and the cowdung added to the neem cakes would be an essential health supplement for her plants.
That evening Jaya phoned. Rani was full of news about the redeemed garden!
“Erect a few bird perches,as well, Rani.”
“Bird perches? What’s that, Jaya?”
“Oh, they are just perches for alighting insectivore birds, that predate on the insects and grubs, which invade our plants!”
“Well, well!”said Rani thinking it to be a fine idea.
Then she said sceptically,
“But won’t they feed on the fruits as well?”
Rani thought of what might happen to the tender vegetables if the birds had free play in her garden.
“Yes, but they will go for the insects first! Insectivores like non veg food! They might go for some fruits, but they don’t really fancy vegetables, except for, maybe, ripe tomatoes.”
“Maybe if I pluck them when they turn slightly yellow, and leave them to ripen indoors, I can save the tomatoes, do you think, Jaya?” queried Rani.
“Yes, Rani,” replied Jaya, “birds really go for the ripe, luscious fruits only. Leave bowls of water along with the bird feed, since they seek juicy fruits to quench their thirst!”
After a fortnight, Rani’s college let up for the final holidays. She informed Ravi about Jaya’s suggestion.
“Lets put out some rice grains and seeds for the birds, on the parapet walls of the terrace. And some bowls of water. That will attract the birds. We will leave a few openings in our green net for the birds to enter. They will feast on the insects which might have survived our pesticides! ”
And sure enough, some of the birds did fly into the net and feed on the bugs and grubs among the plants. In flew the butterflies and bees! What a beautiful sight the garden was, with the miniature fruit trees beginning to bud!
“Bye, amma! I’ll be back for lunch!” said Rani as she mounted her bicycle to visit her friends in Nelloor.
Many of her friend had rooftop gardens, modelled on Rani’s garden. Some of the young housewives of Nelloor, had also started gardens of their own. They would visit Rani or phone Ravi when they needed advice on gardening.
So Rani had to tell them about the easy, organic pest control method which had worked so well for her plants!