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Green Thoughts: Nature’s own pest controllers

My name is Patrick Campbell. I have lived happily on this island Eden since 2004 with my Thai partner Wan. All very different from my upbringing in rural, austerity England, where I first developed an abiding passion for the countryside – which I recently described in my memoir Plums to Persia.

Sunday 9 July 2017, 10:00AM


Tropical gardening presents a new and exciting challenge. We all make mistakes, but embracing nature is always rewarding and salubrious.

In time to come, and as green spaces disappear beneath the island’s remorseless concrete jungle, gardens will become the principal haven for all the fauna as well as the flora of Phuket.

Look after your flowers, shrubs and trees. In return, they will enrich your lives not only with vibrant colour, but with bees, birds, butterflies and rich, pure, fragrant air.

In this column for The Phuket News, I hope to provide advice, guidance and information about the endlessly fascinating world of tropical gardening.

If you have any questions about your own garden or would like to know more about a specific topic please email me and I will do my best to help.

For this, my first column, I want to look at controlling insect pests by encouraging nature’s own pest-killers to do what they do best.

Unfortunately, every Phuket garden is home to plant eating insects. Most people control these “critters” with insecticides, and indeed sometimes there is no alternative.

Just check the ingredients – carefully – when you buy pesticides. Though illegal in most countries, chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT and lindane still turn up like bad pennies.

Their long-term impact on the environment, on everything from birds of prey to bees, has been catastrophic.

Less dangerous alternatives include carbamates such as cardaryl, or parathion; better still, plant-derived compounds such as nicotine, rotenone or pyrethrum.

But wherever possible, you should let nature take its course, and provide its own bio-controls. This means that reptiles and amphibians that have taken up residence in my garden, namely the lizards, skinks, geckos, frogs and toads are welcome to stay.

I attribute the fact that there are few snails and even fewer slugs to the presence of these voracious insectivores.

Of these, one of the most useful is the banded bull-frog or chubby frog (Kalouka pulchra). It is distinctive looking, with a dark brown back, creamy belly, and a broad salmon-pink stripe along the body. Almost round, it can, if distressed, make itself even more rotund.

In the monsoon they surface from holes (often excavated in flower pots) where they spend most of the dry season, in order to feed and breed.

They are not large – no more than five centimetres in length – but they are big consumers, both of slugs, and of insects such as crickets, grasshoppers and termites.

Another amphibian that puts in a daily appearance at present is the river toad (Bufo asper). Unlike the chubby frog which dislikes chlorine intensely, this species squats by the pool and, on occasion, even plops in.

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A larger creature, with a distinctive broad head and warty, knobbly skin, it is reliant on its dark yellow-green colour for camouflage. Only if prodded, will it hop into the adjacent undergrowth. But it is another gardener’s friend.

All these frogs and toads need water to breed. They favour my fish pond: hence the presence of tadpoles at this time of year.

Among the lizards, the sun skink or mabuya (Eutropis multifasciata) is an attractive and useful fellow, since he is terrestrial, lives in the leaf litter of flower beds, and emerges at dusk, to prey on slugs and other invertebrates.

The largest family of lizards, skinks typically have small legs, streamlined bodies, and attractive coppery scales.

Less obviously a gardener’s ally since they live in trees, arboreal agamid lizards are also good to have around, since they feed principally on insects.

They are easily identified by their excessively long, fragile-looking tails and dorsal crests. Safe in my domain, their habit of freezing when disturbed, makes them an easy prey for human predators who hunt them with a noose at the end of a long stick.

Geckos, the commonest reptile of all, have not yet been mentioned – for the obvious reason that they favour houses rather than gardens. And they are a bit of a mixed blessing since they leave their black droppings everywhere.

Nonetheless, they account for large quantities of pests, especially mosquitoes. The commonest variety in Phuket is the spiny-tailed house gecko. There can be scarcely a Thai home without its complement of “lucky” geckos patrolling the ceilings and walls.

On the other hand, the tokay (Gekko gecko) is less visible, partly because it is able, chameleon-like, to change the colour of its skin.

A family lives in my garden wall, where, every evening, the male gives vent to his loud, rasping cry. Naturally aggressive with a fierce bite, the tokay is the largest and most striking member of the gecko tribe, up to a foot long, with blue-grey skin and vivid, orange spots.

Consequently it is much in demand in China and in the pet trade. A shame… it is much more valuable running free and devouring large insects such as beetles, grasshoppers and ants.

Snakes of course are the natural predators of all these reptiles. Friends are always regaling me with stories of large cobras in or around their properties, but my walled garden only attracts vibrantly coloured tree snakes. Nonetheless, they have a hearty appetite for lizards and frogs. 

And what of dragons? Alas none. The nearest I came to a dragon in Phuket was a huge carrion-eating water monitor which used to inhabit a nearby marsh, and which once ambled across my lawn. It was all of six feet long and they are second in size only to the Komodo Dragon. Little wonder Thais are in awe of them.

 

Patrick Campbell has been writing for ten years about gardening in Phuket and allied topics. If you have horticultural or environmental concerns, please contact him at drpaccampbelll@gmail.com. Many of his earlier creative and academic publications can be found on his blog Green Galoshes at: patrickaccampbell.wordpress.com

 

 

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