I have distinct childhood memories of frantically pedaling a tricycle to keep up with a tall white haired, distinguished looking gentleman as he ambled along his leafy garden, often in animated discussion with Muhammad Ali, the gifted guardian of our turf and trees. It was perhaps this exposure to the wonderful world of plants at an impressionable age that turned me into, amongst other things, a passionate amateur horticulturist. It was this same exposure that, in due course of time, converted me into a passionate campaigner for organic gardening.

During the course of my professional career, I had to move from one station to another and reside in old colonial era ‘ghost’ houses having large compounds, where I had ample opportunity to grow things. It was therefore no surprise to my family when, upon retirement, I chose a relatively secluded spot in the Federal Capital (which is not so secluded any more), to pursue a rustic rural lifestyle.

While spring flowers adorned my humble home in a riot of color, the months of November and early December always remained my favorite time of year: chrysanthemum time. The chrysanthemum, also affectionately referred to as the ‘mum,’ is nature’s perfect creation. It blooms in a myriad of colors, sizes and shapes, has a heady fragrance and regenerates and proliferates itself every year. Cultivating exhibition quality ‘mums’ requires dedication and perseverance. After the plant has stopped blooming, it is taken out of the pot and transferred to the ground, where it multiplies and remains low key, preparing itself for next year’s show time. Around August, individual plants are potted in a mixture fertilized by manure composed of pigeon droppings. When I first became infatuated with this adorable flower and my old maali asked me to procure this form of fertilizer, I thought he was joking. I soon found out that pigeons outranked cows as far as manure was concerned.

It is an accepted fact that where there are plants, there are pests. While use of modern pesticides is effective and speedy, I have always been reluctant to use poison or potential carcinogens on fruits and vegetables. I therefore embarked on a quest to find organic non chemical solutions to get rid of plant eating caterpillars, aphids and flies. While going through an old book, I discovered that effective remedies had been in practice within the subcontinent during the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was thus, that spraying my vegetables with tobacco fluid drove away many varieties of caterpillars and flies. I also began fertilizing my lawn with crushed poultry droppings available from any poultry farm. Visitors to my house often marveled at the sight of the lush green turf even in the worst of Islamabad’s winters.

When aphids invaded my apple trees, I tasked my grandchildren with collecting lady birds and releasing them upon the affected spots. Catching this sweet little beetle thus became a favorite past time for the little ones, who also learnt a lesson in conservation of the species. I watched as my tiny red and black spotted friends began gorging themselves on the aphids, effectively ridding my trees of these sap sucking parasites. These ladybirds are now breeding in my fruit trees, providing unending entertainment to the younger segments of my family.

It was around this time that I stumbled across an ancient ‘nuskha’ which recommended mixing good old ‘pigeon poo’ into the soil around fruit trees suffering from worms in the root ball. I tried the remedy on one of my affected orange trees during the summer, with disastrous results. It was only then that a closer reading of the ‘recipe’ revealed the instruction that this treatment must always be resorted to during the winter.

My exasperated ‘mali’ now spends his weekends searching for cartloads of bird and poultry droppings, while visitors to my house during the manuring process invariably sniff the air in a bid to seek the source of the unsavory odor hanging over the premises. I have however, found a neat solution to tackle this issue. I merely announce that the family is regretfully not entertaining odor sensitive visitors for days specified in view of a fertilizing operation.

    The writer is a historian.