A multitude of mulberries!

We've never had this many mulberries growing at a time!

We’ve never had this many mulberries growing at a time!

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I looked at the mulberry plant this week. It’s one of those plants that doesn’t require lots of attention, apart from regular pruning.  As a matter of fact, this plant started as a cutting in a pot, that sneakily took root through a crack in the cement paving it was on. It has been in this location for more than half a year and was pruned about a month ago when we were clearing the garden before Christmas. Prior to this, it bore fruits in small, scattered clumps like our mulberry plants normally do. So, I did a double-take and had to take a closer squint at the branches when I saw the incredible number of mulberries lining the branches!

What you see is just part of the branch - imagine a 2-metre long branch lined with clumps and clumps of mulberries!

What you see is just part of the branch – imagine a 2-metre long branch lined with clumps and clumps of mulberries!

I don’t know what we did to get this result, but I’ve been waiting for years to see our mulberry plants have this kind of yield! There was a video I saw years ago of someone’s mulberry tree practically dripping with fruits. I figured he had a different variety, or perhaps that our climate wasn’t suitable for mulberries, and had resigned myself to getting small harvests of a couple of handfuls (if we were lucky) at a time. I know that the birds will be competing with us for the fruits, but if we could actually get majority of the fruits, we would be able to make a mulberry pie! Or try another dessert that Mike, one of my old readers, once shared with me involving mulberries, other fruit and coconut cream. Yum! Maybe we’ll net up the plant to keep the birds away this one time…

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Using coco chips in the garden

Coconut chips used as a layer of mulch will suppress weeds and keep the soil below moist.

Coconut chips used as a layer of mulch will suppress weeds and keep the soil below moist.

Our regular year-end rainy season seems to have ended, and the hot, dry period is about to hit us. It will get more pronounced in the next couple of months when the winds carry less and less moisture, and I’m already getting worried because I see how quickly the potted plants are drying out.

It’s not just solar heat that will have this effect; a combination of wind and warm air will extract moisture most effectively. So this is when I usually start turning my attention to things like self-watering pots and heavy mulching. Taking measures like these means I don’t have to be overly anxious if I’ve forgotten to water the plants. It also means that we save water as well.

Lately I’ve begun experimenting with coconut chips. These pieces of coconut husk act as organic sponges. My buddy Alexius uses them for his garden paths. Not only do they suppress weeds, they soak up and hold moisture when it rains, and over time will decompose and provide nutrients to the plants. I’ve been mixing them into the soil of my potted plants to help with water retention, and am still working out the ratio for that. Recently, when I transplanted some young plants into a mixed planting in a large pot, I pushed in a large piece of coconut chip below each plant. I figured the chips would help to keep the roots hydrated, as well as feed the plants as they composted over time. Well, from the way the plants are growing now, I’d say it has worked!

Healthy young plants that were transplanted with a big piece of coco chip below the roots to act as a "sponge".

Healthy young plants that were transplanted with a big piece of coco chip below the roots to act as a “sponge”.

Another way I use the coco chips is putting a layer at the bottom of potted plants to act as a barrier to keep the soil from escaping from the bottom of the pots. They also keep the moisture in, but I’ve found that this attracts ants to start nesting in the pots. I instinctively dislike seeing ants on my plants because they usually signify a pest problem, but I know that they also serve a purpose in the garden. However, the pest issue overshadows all else for me.

The final way I use the coco chips is as a layer of mulch. The only problem with this is that the chips are lightweight when dry, and will be blown away by wind, or will float to one side until they absorb water. So, you have to lay a decently thick layer and expect to lose some of it. My humble opinion is that they work best when in the soil.

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Sighting of a Drongo

The bird with a fish tail - the crow-billed drongo.

The bird with a fish tail – the crow-billed drongo.

Okay, I’m no expert on birds, so I may be wrong about the specific type of drongo, but I believe it was a crow-billed drongo that we saw perched on our curry leaf tree as it fed on the remains of a large grasshopper earlier today. It wasn’t a large bird – around the size of a bulbul or starling – and had a spotted lower body which at first made us wonder if it was a young female Asian Koel. What really piqued my curiosity, however, was the unusual shape of its tail, which looked like a fish’s tail to me, the way it was forked and turned outwards.

As I filmed it, I realised it was eating something. At first, I thought it was a small fish, because of the length and how the bird was tearing at it. Later, while reviewing my footage, I realised it was the lower abdomen of a large grasshopper.

That made me feel slightly better about not killing those large insects when I see them in the garden. Do you know that they make a literal buzz as they fly? Like any other gardener, I have the urge to chase and kill them because of the damage they can do to our plants, but if I did that, we wouldn’t have such interesting bird visitors here, would we?

The drongo alternately held the insect carcass with one foot as it pecked at it – at one point arching and jerking its whole body to yank out the innards – and tossed it upwards with its beak to chew on it. When it had consumed everything, it sat in the tree for a while before flying off.

It was only later that I was able to identify it and learn that there are four species of drongo here in Singapore. One is a resident while the others are migratory visitors. Ours was the latter (assuming I’ve identified it correctly!). What a lovely encounter!

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Chinese mustard greens – seed saving

The Chinese mustard green plant

The Chinese mustard green plant

Late last year, I attended a gardening workshop conducted by the Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise. One of the activities was to sow a potful of Chinese mustard greens with a faster growing partner. It meant that we had a nice memento that lasted for many weeks after the workshop, and in my typical manner, one mustard green plant was left long enough to flower and go to seed.

I like it when plants do that, because it means that the seeds produced are from a plant that has grown and thrived in our garden, and should be more resilient with the next generation (as long as they’re not GMO). So, I happily left the plant alone to let the seeds develop fully before harvesting them. This meant waiting for the pods to turn brown and dry out a little. After that, it was a matter of carefully removing the pods – and I say “carefully” because they could split open if dry enough, scattering precious tiny seeds – then bringing them to a safe place to harvest.

The flowers are tiny...

The flowers are tiny…

The pods formed after successful pollination (some are fuller than others)

The pods are formed after successful pollination (some are fuller than others)

Collect the seeds when the pods dry up

Collect the seeds after the pods dry up

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