Frustrating ficus plants

Have you ever noticed those plants that grow out of cracks in pavements and walls? Or in gutters and drains? They start out small and innocuous, but unless you realise what they are, they can become HUGE problems!

Here's the ficus plant growing very happily behind the pipe...

Here’s the ficus plant growing very happily behind the pipe…

I’m talking about the ficus tree. There are many varieties, but I think the name, the Strangling Fig, says it all. This plant has tenacious roots that look like horizontal hairs spreading out from the main plant. In the wild, they grow on the surface of host trees, eventually enveloping and “strangling” the host to death. In urban areas, the roots grow along walls and other solid surfaces, and can, in time, demolish the man-made things because the roots grow into the cracks, then expand.

One such plant grew just outside my neighbour’s back wall. They cut it down once, but it grew back in no time, and eventually broke the wall foundation and shifted the wall enough to start breaking it as the plant grew. In fact, the roots of the plant even entered our garden through the drain, and when discovered and yanked out, had covered about six square metres on our side! Our neighbours eventually had to rebuild their back wall.

We also had one that started growing on the porch roof, that was so deeply embedded that even after some repairs had been done, including cementing over and painting, still managed to break through and continue growing! I’ll just say that whenever I see this plant now, I attack it as quickly as I can.

All wrapped up, but the plant still managed to send out a stem (bottom right)

All wrapped up, but the plant still managed to send out a stem (bottom right)

So imagine my horror when we found not one, but TWO of them growing behind our water supply pipe… Even though I kept breaking off the stems and roots, they kept growing. They were firmly entrenched just between the pipe and wall, and I tried pouring things on them and even using a flame, but nothing worked. So, I turned to my experienced buddy, Alexius, for advice. What he said made sense – plants need to photosynthesise, so the best way to kill them is to remove the ability to do so – by plucking off the leaves. “But you need to do this with doggy persistence,” he said.

Apparently I’m not dog-like enough, because the plants began to fight back by sprouting even more stems, and in unreachable places for me. And, I was not persistent enough, so they had the opportunity to keep growing new leaves. So, I had to think harder, and my solution was to block out sunlight for the plants.

Pale stems, light green leaves... this plant is desperately trying to find sunlight!

Long pale stems, light green leaves… this plant is desperately trying to find sunlight!

I know what you’re thinking – if a layer of cement and paint didn’t work, what could I use? Well, I chose a couple of plastic delivery envelopes that were so thick that I couldn’t see anything through them when held up to the light. I stripped all stems off the plants, then wrapped them as thoroughly as I could. When I remembered to, over the next few weeks, I checked on them and pulled off all new growth.

I have to say, they were very persistent, because there were a LOT more stems than before! But it seemed that my method was working, because the stems began to get weaker and very etiolated as they tried to search for light. At the last check, I even found some millipedes eating up part of the plant, so I have my fingers crossed that in this situation, we’ll win.

Millipedes eat decaying plant matter. I take this to mean that part of the plant is dead and they are helping to clean up!

Millipedes eat decaying plant matter. I take this to mean that part of the plant is dead and they are helping to clean up!

If you ever notice this plant, make sure you get rid of it immediately! They look elegant when big (think of the ones at Angkor Wat), but let me scare you one more time… There’s one growing by the roadside somewhere that I pass regularly, and it’s pretty mature. Across the road from it are residential homes, and I’ve noticed a new plant growing out of a drainage hole in the boundary wall. I suspect that the tree roots have spread beneath the road to the other side, and the root has made it to the surface through a crack and is starting to grow a new plant. It has been cut a few times by the crew that maintains the area, but keeps growing back. If I were the homeowner, and knowing what happened to my neighbour’s back wall, I’d be very fearful…

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Mid-autumn keng hwa flowers

Keng hwa flowers in bloom during the mid-autumn festival.

Keng hwa flowers in bloom during the mid-autumn festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival was a couple of days ago, and we were thrilled to see that our little keng hwa plant was set to bloom during that period. If you’re a regular here, you know that we love to wax poetic over our keng hwa flowers, and we thought it was a rather auspicious thing to happen during the harvest festival. Recently, though, thanks to the movie, Crazy Rich Asians, there’s been heightened interest in the flowers. Friends have joked that we should throw a party when the flowers bloom, even going so far as to suggest selling tickets when they heard that we expected multiple blooms!

Well, it was just my mum and sister, and I, who were fortunate enough to be out in the bright moonlight, appreciating the flowers as they began to open. I didn’t expect to be so lucky, but four flowers opened that night (the previous “best” was three). They were on different parts of the plant, facing different directions, and I don’t know if it was by design, but the first flower that opened was facing east, followed by the next in line towards the west, and so on.

This variety of the night blooming cereus is somewhat miniature compared to the “regular” plant, and doesn’t have a very strong perfume. In comparison, when the normal plant bears a single flower, the scent drifts through the entire house – from outside! It’s our usual alarm when we don’t realise that the plant is going to flower. The smaller variety, though, has a very delicate scent that isn’t that noticeable. However, with multiple blooms, the air around the plant was filled with the gentle perfume of the flowers. It seemed very apt in the moonlit garden.

Sometimes, the flowers bloom in odd positions - like against a leaf in this case.

Sometimes, the flowers bloom in odd positions – like against a leaf in this case.

So there we were clustered around the plant and ooh-ing and ahh-ing as the flowers began to bloom. We naturally also wanted to take lots of photos – which, let me tell you, is not easy with bland white flowers that are highly reflective, and effective at fending off the camera’s autofocus. I’ll just say, thank goodness for digital cameras!

The flower starting to wilt the morning after. It still looks beautiful to me.

The flower starting to wilt the morning after. It still looks beautiful to me.

There was a sequence of shots that I wanted to get, of a bud opening, and the one in the best position happened to be the last flower to open. I set up my camera on the tripod and began to take progressive photos. After an hour, though, I realised that the flower had slowed down, and that the photos looked the same as the previous ones. After another half hour, the bud was still closed, although it had swelled up like a puffer fish. I fully expected it to dramatically burst open, but after another hour, sometime after 2 a.m., I was too tired to care any more. We went to bed, and the next morning when I checked the plant … the flower was still sealed shut! It looked like the sepals were fused at the tip, which held the bud tightly shut. The way it had swelled up reminded me of a lantern, especially when we were shining our flashlights on the bud from the other side. Well, it was the Lantern Festival, after all, so it seemed like the plant wanted to join in the fun and have its own little lantern!

The stubborn bud that I now call the lantern keng hwa - taken the morning after.

The stubborn bud that I now call the lantern keng hwa – taken the morning after.

I hope you had a lovely mid-autumn festival, or if you don’t celebrate it, that you at least enjoyed the beautiful full moon.

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Always hedge bets when planting

Distinctive seed and true leaves of the bittergourd plant.

Distinctive seed and true leaves of the bittergourd plant.

I started sowing seeds a few weeks ago with the intention of growing more veggies. Only one plant grew from that day’s endeavour – a single bittergourd plant out of five varieties of plant seeds sown. Maybe my seeds are a bit old, or maybe I should have waited for the right phase of the moon… Whatever it was, I need to start all over again.

That one plant, though, started growing nicely in the container where I had started my seeds, and I knowing how I tend to procrastinate planting things, I decided to get it planted out in the garden where it could thrive as soon as possible. My policy about veggie vines is to let them take root in the ground since growing them in containers limits their size and lifespan. So, this baby was planted at the location of last year’s bittergourd vine since the trellis was still handy. The trellis needed a little beefing up, but that didn’t take much time.

Bittergourd plants starting to thrive at the base of the trellis

Bittergourd plants starting to thrive at the base of the trellis.

The weather was a little hot, though, and I was concerned about whether the little plant with its three sets of true leaves would be able to withstand the transplant shock. So I got a little overprotective. I prepared the spot the day before, first digging about 10cm down then filling the hole with water to soak the soil. Then, I filled the hole with good earth and watered that thoroughly, too. I had recently thinned out our lemongrass and had old leaves handy, which I cut to shorter lengths and used as a thick layer of mulch. The next day, I watered the bittergourd plant with seaweed solution about half hour beforehand. Seaweed solution is said to help plants cope with transplant shock. In due time, I removed the mulch, transplanted the bittergourd plant, and watered it thoroughly with more seaweed solution. As a afterthought, I decided to stick in another bittergourd seed next to it in case the plant didn’t make it. The weather was pretty hot at that time and I wasn’t entirely optimistic, but I replaced the mulch and placed a few potted plants around the spot to give shade. The plant looked very sad and wilted for the first couple of days, but began to perk up after almost a week and is starting to grow nicely again. I also just saw that the seed had germinated, so it looks very promising that we will be eating those little bittergourds in several weeks’ time. Yay!

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Nature moves in when you leave a garden alone

A wheelbarrow-load of pruned branches (yes, there's a wheelbarrow under all that!)

A wheelbarrow-load of pruned branches (yes, there’s a wheelbarrow under all that!)

I know I’ve been really quiet on the blog for the past several weeks, and I have the usual Singaporean excuse of working long hours and not having much time and energy left for working in the garden on weekends. There have been some pockets of opportunity, though, which I’ve made use of – those perfect couple of hours when the mood strikes and the weather is agreeable – and some progress has been made in returning the place from a mini forest back to a conventional garden.

The green pile represents the entire wheelbarrow load from the previous picture. Amazing how compact it all becomes when reduced in size, isn't it? The brown pile is from previous shredding sessions.

The green pile represents the entire wheelbarrow load from the previous picture. Amazing how compact it all becomes when reduced in size, isn’t it? The brown pile is from previous shredding sessions.

It’s at times like this that I’m so thrilled to have the garden shredder at my (pun intended) disposal. It turned one piled-high wheelbarrow load of Peacock tree branches into a small heap of wood chips and leaves. And, I know that in two to three months, that small pile will have already decomposed into nice, dark compost. I love my garden shredder! It’s been getting a good workout from the new branches as well as old ones that we never got round to chipping up from last year because I wasn’t able to work outside that much.

The best made bird nest that I discovered  in the middle of a tall patch of heliconia plants!

The best made bird nest that I discovered in the middle of a tall patch of heliconia plants!

The downside of starting to clear the overgrown parts of the garden is realising that we are reducing animal habitat. I’ve joked about the place being a nature reserve, but there’s truth in that. My assumption of the increased number of birds here was that they were feeding here; but in clearing the overgrown areas, I’ve already discovered a few bird nests. Thankfully, none were occupied.

Just look at how thick the nest is!

Just look at how thick the nest is!

We’ve been clearing up slowly – a bit each weekend when possible – and working inwards from the edges, a little at a time. It was my hope that whatever creatures may be inside would get the message that their habitat was being reduced and know that they needed to move out soon, before we reached them. So far that seems to have worked.

View from below - see how well shaded the nest is from sun and rain?

View from below – see how well shaded the nest is from sun and rain?

We are trying to work out the best balance between nature and us. Under permaculture principles, the garden is divided into different zones, with zone 0 being the home in the centre, then moving out in concentric areas from one, which is the most “domesticated” and managed, then moving outwards in progressively less managed zones to five, which is where nature runs rampant. It’s good for each garden or neighbourhood to have that little area for birds and other fauna to claim, and we intend to do that here. We love seeing and hearing the different critters, and daily hearing the calls of bulbuls, mynahs, doves and sunbirds, and also dollarbirds and the Oriental magpie robins, to name those we can identify. I’m glad that there are other pockets of nature in the neighbourhood, whether private gardens or public areas, that form habitat for birds especially. The only birds I don’t wish to nest here are crows, because of their territorial behaviour during breeding season.

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