Announcing the arrival…

Finally, the sight every pineapple grower years for: the crown!

Finally, the sight every pineapple grower years for: the crown!

It’s taken an entire year for this to happen. Last April, we harvested our first pineapple. As there was a sucker on the plant, I decided to let it keep growing, to see if that sped up the process to the next fruit. Four months later, I noticed a second sucker growing, and detached it because I read that the fruits of suckers growing on the parent plant will be smaller in size. This is known as a ratoon crop. Since then there haven’t been any more suckers, and I put the plants at the back of my mind. Except for trimming the sharp tips, I don’t usually bother with them. However, I do occasionally peep down to the centre to see if there’s anything happening. Well, my patience has finally borne fruit (pun fully intended). The first sucker is finally crowning, so I reckon we’ll get to harvest in July or August. Hurray!

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Growing mung beans

Freshly harvested mung beans.

Freshly harvested mung beans.

Possibly for the first time, I’m growing an edible plant for the sake of growing it, rather than with the intention of consuming its edible parts. Why? It’s a leguminous plant that introduces nitrogen to the soil, and when you intend to grow edibles intensively, it’s good practice to grow a crop of legumes before you start planting other plants.

I’ve attempted to do this in the past with bush beans like French beans. The problem was that those beans didn’t seem to like our climate or perhaps our garden, and didn’t grow well enough to start fruiting. Then when I visited my permaculture friend’s garden, I saw that he grew mung beans as his nitrogen fixers – and that they grew very well indeed!

I got a couple of pods from him to start growing plants, but when you want to prepare garden beds, you need much more than that. So, the next time I went to the supermarket, I saw and bought a nice packet of organic mung beans and sowed a handful once I got home. They germinated within days, and I was happy. I planted them in an experimental bed just to see how they grew, because that’s what I like to do the first time I grow anything. I call it the “getting to know you” period.

Mung bean flowers and pods.

Mung bean flowers and pods.

The plants grew about a foot tall before pale yellow flowers began to bloom. To my delight, pods soon followed, albeit short ones, and I left them on the plants until they began to dry up. When the pods had turned dark brown in colour, I plucked them and eagerly split open the dry pods to reveal the bright green mung beans inside. It was a proud moment. Then, I sowed the new seeds back in the bed and watched as the new generation grew.

The interesting thing about this is that the second generation plants, having grown here, grew stronger and had longer pods. The original seeds hailed from India. I’d imagine the climate where the mung beans had grown is similar but not the same as ours here in Singapore, which is why the original beans didn’t grow that well. It just shows that once you successfully grow something, it’s good to save seeds as the plants have acclimatised to your garden or plot, and will likely continue to do so with each new generation.

It’s also a great investment. If, for example, I had stuck with the original two pods that had sixteen seeds, and if each plant bore three pods of eight seeds, I’d have harvested 384 seeds from the original sixteen. If you replant all those seeds, and the ones after that, you’d get a mung bean farm in no time!

A little forest of germinating mung beans.

A little forest of germinating mung beans.

Let me give you a little tip, though. It’s a good idea to germinate your seeds indoors first because there are birds that will simply devour the seeds, even though you’ve pushed them into the soil and covered them with mulch. I had one experience where I had thickly sowed a bed and covered it with some of my woodchip mulch only to see several spotted doves descend on the bed the next day and flick away the mulch to get to the seeds! They had a great feast and I had a mini tantrum…

I’m glad that I’ve finally found a good nitrogen fixer for our garden. Once I get through the initial bed preparation phase, I’ll continue growing mung beans, this time with consumption in mind. I will probably interplant them with other plants. And of course, we’ll continue to grow other beans that we love but need trellises.

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Natural snail control

Abandoned or discarded snail shells.

Abandoned or discarded snail shells.

Something occurred to me recently. It used to be that whenever I ventured into the garden after it had rained that I would see what looked like an army of snails everywhere on the ground. Okay, maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but there would be many visible snails of all sizes happily travelling across the wet grass or venturing up plants and trellises where I would usually remove them from.

Lately, though, there don’t seem to be that many of them. As a matter of fact, I’ve been finding lots of empty snail shells scattered especially along the edges of the garden.

At first, I thought that the toads had devoured them. Then when I considered that, it didn’t seem logical as some of those snail shells were what I’d call “grandfather” size. It didn’t seem logical that the few toads I’ve seen would be able to eat them.

Then I got a little concerned whether there was some kind of disease that had wiped them out, because our immediate neighbour also noted the lack of snails in their garden, too. However, we had not encountered a situation where there were dead, rotting snail remains like after you scatter snail bait around, so I ruled that out, too.

So the mystery remained… What had happened to the snail population in the neighbourhood?

Well, one night I suddenly realised that there was quite a bit of high-pitched squeaking going on in the garden. Whenever we hear squeaks, we usually presume it’s rats making the noise. However, there’s something else that squeaks at night, and that’s the garden shrew.

We discussed the shrew last year and if you recall, snails were on the list of things they eat. It looks like they have found a nice food source in our neighbourhood, because another neighbour a few lanes away has also noticed a decrease in snails.

One good thing about animals in nature is that whenever they find a source of food, they increase their population (like ladybugs breeding on plants infested with aphids), and when the food source dries up, they move on to greener pastures or breed less. The one thing I’m not thrilled about is the prospect of predators of shrews coming in, because this includes snakes… Owls would be more interesting, though.

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The magic of mulching

Sweet potato plant popping up from under the thick layer of mulch.

Sweet potato plant popping up from under the thick layer of mulch.

The weather is beginning to get hot and dry again, although the northeast monsoon season isn’t supposed to be over just yet. However, I’m anticipating those horrible dry months when the soil dries out quite thoroughly and the lawn dies, and we have to make sure our precious plants are watered a few times a day.

This is compared to parts of the garden that I rarely water, like the sweet potato patch that surrounds the marrow vine. That is a mostly unmonitored part of our garden that has plants I consider to be established. It’s a patch surrounded on three sides by trees that provide both shade and one thing that I forgot to consider – mulch in the form of fallen leaves.

I already know that the leaves of the peacock trees are good fodder for compost. They are small and break down within a week or two, and are rather abundant in supply in our garden.

Yes, it looks scarily messy and overgrown, but those sweet potato vines are shading the ground mightily well, surrounded by trees on three sides. None of them are watered by us. You can call this a natural system based on nature.

Yes, it looks scarily messy and overgrown, but those sweet potato vines are shading the ground mightily well, surrounded by trees on three sides. None of them are watered by us. You can call this a natural system based on nature. The marrow vine starts somewhere in the middle, to the right. You can’t tell because it was such a hefty plant that my trellis collapsed!

Then there is the jambu or water apple tree. Those leaves are thicker and more waxy, and take a really long time to break down. I used to try to run them over with the lawn mower to break the leaves into smaller pieces so that they would decompose faster. However, what I didn’t consider was that having such a thick, slow to decompose layer of such a material could be a good thing.

The whole idea of having a layer of mulch is to provide a protective layer from the heat of the sun that both slows down evaporation and keeps the soil cooler. I didn’t realise that beneath the sweet potato leaves was such a layer of mulch built from leaves from both sets of trees. What I suspect has happened is that the peacock tree leaves decomposed quickly to feed the soil while the jambu tree leaves provided the protective layer. This has resulted in an abundance of sweet potato vines that, together with the mulch, has probably helped the marrow vine, which has been the most productive ever! We used to harvest about three marrows per vine in our past experience when there was no mulch whatsoever. This time, we’ve harvested about fifteen fruits (we lost actual count).

Another whopper of a marrow growing.

Another whopper of a marrow growing. With fruits like this, wouldn’t you be willing to live with the overgrown looking patch? :-P

So I think this is a system that works – tall plants to provide shade and mulch material, together with ground cover plants that are dense and close to the ground. Needless to say, I’ll look into other plant combinations, just for the joy of learning more!

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