botany1Bright and beautiful botany

Creating the ideal island garden

There’s a notion that, come middle age, one turns to God or gardening. For Barbara Japal, a homegrown enthusiast of all things botanical, it was the latter. Tucked away on a sequestered Parham hillside, Barbara’s garden is a vision of electrifying colours, sharp citrus aromas and thoughtfully created relaxation spaces which melt effortlessly into the pastoral landscape beyond.
    A cornucopia of vibrant bromeliads, dappled caricature plants and seasonal fruits and herbs, complemented by dainty pathways, an aviary and koi pond, awaits the lucky visitor. Tourists to Antigua are consistently enchanted by the vibrant flora and fauna that characterise our twin island nation. And those who choose to make a home here are usually keen to emulate nature’s bounty in their own private garden. But however much glee and gusto one pours into the landscaping, without the right knowledge of the country’s indigenous vegetation, climate and soil, your hard work can end up resembling little more than a horticultural graveyard of drooping one-hit wonders. Or, worse, a breeding ground for havoc-wreaking bugs thanks to an ill-chosen invasive plant.
    Patience too is paramount. Barbara’s flourishing surrounds are the result of 15 years of diligent guardianship, in the face of countless “trials and tribulations, hurricanes and droughts. Most people want a variety of things in their garden. They want colour and they also want instant size, rather than waiting for trees and shrubs to mature,” she says.
    Unlike some of its Caribbean neighbours, Antigua has few restrictions on the importation of foreign plants. But that should not, as Barbara points out, affect the need to garden responsibly. “Many of our palm trees are now suffering from lethal yellowing which came as a result of a leafhopper insect. All plants are supposed to be quality inspected and sold with a relevant certificate. The problem is, people don’t really know what to look for. It’s always best to buy from a reputable local nursery, such as Dawn’s in Fitches Creek, or Annette’s in Paradise View, Dickenson Bay.”
botany3    Barbara uses nothing but all-natural fish emulsion to fertilise her plants. And judging by the thriving array of everything from anthuriums to orchids, it’s sufficient. “We often get droughts in Antigua,” she continues. “So it’s important to plant things which can survive without much water, like bougainvillea which are so beautiful and in flower almost continually. Spider lily is a wonderful plant to keep your garden green and pretty all year round with its lovely white flowers. Oleanders prefer a dry climate too, and have a nice scent and year-long blooms. Ferns are also very easy to grow. And I think every garden should have banana trees.”
    Other recommendations include frangipani, which grows wild in the island’s rocky coastline areas, and national flower the ‘dagger log’, seen lighting up hillsides nationwide with its striking yellow petals. “One thing to be wary of is neem trees. They are used in bush medicine but they’re also very invasive and need to be controlled or they will take over the whole garden,” Barbara continues. “It’s important to know the soil in your area and amend accordingly, for example, marl soil will be better suited to certain plants than clay.”
    Some years ago, Barbara’s passion for gardening saw the rejuvenation of the dormant Antigua Horticultural Society, first founded in 1986. She has been its president since 2009. The society’s efforts are currently concentrated on the US$400,000 development of the country’s first botanical garden.The two-acre site off Friars Hill Road, on the outskirts of Cedar Valley Golf Course, is to be named ‘Agave Garden’, the genus to which the dagger log belongs. Boasting a vast horticultural centre selling sustainable plants and trees, including one of the region’s largest collections of agave and aloe, it’s set to open by the end of the year as a prime tourist attraction. There will also be a reference library, gift shop, refreshment bar, and an all-important hotline manned by experts to answer callers’ gardening queries.
botany2    The project has received two major boosts since works commenced. One in the form of a US$50,000 grant from the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The second was the discovery of an abundance of herbs used in traditional bush medicine already growing at the site. The plans have since been expanded to incorporate a medicinal garden featuring native herbs like ‘cattle tongue’, said to reduce fever, ‘no-yo’ for coughs and colds, and ‘nunu balsam’ to aid the digestion.
    “The Agave Garden will be open to anyone who wants to come and visit, to sit in a nice oasis and smell the flowers, buy local plants and get information about their care, as well as potting and composting.” Barbara, who gained much of her botanical know-how studying in New York, is today one of Antigua’s most ardent advocates of protecting and nurturing our magnificent environment. “Gardening is the most therapeutic thing you can do,” she adds. “I just love it; the way you plant a seed and see it grow, it’s like ‘wow’. On top of everything else, it’s oxygen for the air we breathe. That’s why I think every house should have a wonderful garden or at least plants, not just for beauty but for nature, to keep it going.”

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