Propagating sugarcane

Sugarcane stems being prepared for planting

Sugarcane stems being prepared for planting

One of our neighbours harvested some sugarcane last week and shared it around. When we got our armful of it, we dilly-dallied a bit too long and it started drying up to the point where we decided it was too hard to try to consume. It would have been a different story if we had one of those nice roller-squeeze machines that they have at the hawker centres to extract the juice, though.

Naturally, I decided not to let the sugarcane go to waste. I had noticed several buds along the stems, so I cut them so there was just one bud per piece of stem. From experience, I know that roots will grow from below the bud, along the circumference of the growth ring, so where I was able to, I cut the stem as close to the bottom of the bud as I could. It wasn’t easy, because the exterior of the stems was already rather hard and woody, like bamboo. For those that I could, I cut close to the growth ring. I’ll be able to just push the stem straight into soil, and they will be able to start growing. For those stems that were too hard to cut, I’ll lay them sideways to grow. Plants are very adaptable and will do what they need to to grow!

 

A bud above a growth ring. Roots will grow out from below the brown ring.

A bud above a growth ring. Roots will grow out from below the brown ring.

The last time I tried growing sugarcane, I had mixed success. The plants need a good supply of water, and some of them died off in the drier months. I particularly liked the one growing in a pot because with the dark red stems, it looked very pretty, like an ornamental bamboo plant. However, it has a tendency to topple over as the plants get bigger. This shows me that sugarcane needs to be planted out in the garden rather than in a container.

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Choosing and storing seeds

Packets and packets of seeds with so much potential in them!

Packets and packets of seeds with so much potential in them!

I love growing plants from seed. Just opening a packet of new seeds and pouring them out to take a look at them is like Christmas or a birthday to me! I’m just amazed to see them in all their different shapes, colours, textures and sizes, with each seed containing the potential to grow into a plant that can delight with flowers and provide sustenance through their fruits, stems, leaves and more.

Yes, I tend to go a little overboard whenever I’m in the vicinity of seeds, but over the years, I’ve managed to learn a little restraint. Instead of choosing things that catch my fancy, I’ve learned to consider the plant’s growing conditions to see if it has a chance of growing in our hot, humid climate in Singapore. There have been many disappointments in the past when I had no luck growing plants from cool, temperate climates – but that was just me being optimistic. I guess I’ve become a little more realistic now. If I’m making an order from, let’s say the US, I’ll now choose those that grow in the southern states where it’s hotter and more humid, and closer to the equator. Or I just choose seeds from countries closer to home, like Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand. That leaves plenty of choices.

Having lots to choose from means I have quite the collection of seeds right now. Since we live in a hot climate, the best way to store your seeds is to keep them in the fridge. This prolongs their lifespan for much longer than is stated on the seed packs. I have some that have been in the fridge for more than four years that can still germinate. For those, I try to remember to save seeds from the newly grown fruits or flowers to store for the future. Saved seeds will be even better because they will be acclimatised to our garden, so I sometimes consider the first planting a sacrificial one because the plants need to get used to the new environment. As long as they produce fruits that I can save seeds from, I’m happy.

Do note that if you order seeds online to be responsible in what you get. Anything sent in will be checked by Customs, and you don’t want to get flagged or have to go and pay to collect your shipment, do you?

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Sweet potato harvest!

Almost 3kg from this sweet potato harvest

Almost 3kg from this sweet potato harvest

Well, the sweet potatoes have been growing in the same spot for about three years, and I figured it was time to move them to another spot. It’s that thing called crop rotation where leaving the same plant in the same spot for too long means it will drain nutrients from the soil and deplete the soil vitality.

Anyway, we’ve started pulling up the vines and of course found more sweet potatoes to harvest. They were of all shapes and sizes, from skinny to oval to turnip shaped. There was one monster-sized one that made me wonder how it had escaped detection for so long! We haven’t pulled out everything yet but got a harvest of almost 3kg of sweet potatoes. That’s not too bad in my books!

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Ulam Raja: a multi-functional plant

Cosmos caudatus flower

Cosmos caudatus flower

The first time I visited Alexius Yeo’s permaculture garden, a pink cosmos flower caught my eye. It had the typical cosmos flower shape but had pastel pink petals that lightened to white at the centre of the flower. It was so pretty that I got some seeds from him and started growing the plants immediately.

This plant is the cosmos caudatus, known in Southeast Asia as ulam raja – in Malay, it translates to “King’s salad”. It was introduced to the region by the Spanish, who brought it from Latin America.

Nasi ulam

Nasi ulam

I should have known from the fact that Alexius was growing it, that this is an edible plant. The young leaves are used in salads in Indonesia and Malaysia, and in fact, we ate it in the mixed herb rice dish known as nasi ulam.

“Ulam” is a Malay word that seems to have several meanings that relate to eating salad with rice. In this instance, “salad” refers to a very wide range of plants, from herbs to leafy veggies to beans to fruits to roots, and they are prepared in various ways. However, this post isn’t about that. However, if you understand Malay, you can visit this page to read more about the ingredients of ulam. Just don’t try to Google Translate it because it’ll give you some really funny (odd yet humorous) meanings. There are pictures, though; those should help.

Ulam raja leaves - typical of the cosmos plants

Ulam raja leaves – typical of the cosmos plants

Besides looking pretty, the ulam raja plant also has some interesting properties. It has reportedly been used in traditional medicine for centuries to treat metabolic disorders. The medicinal claims have been scientifically investigated over the last couple of decades and have been confirmed to reduce blood pressure and bone loss. It also increases good cholesterol and decreases bad cholesterol.

Cosmos caudatus is also said to have antibacterial and anti-fungal effects; it repairs blood flow and purifies blood of toxic substances. It is a strong antioxidant and reduces inflammation, and is being investigated to treat type 2 diabetes. You can read a more in-depth article on the uses of the plant here.

Side view of the ulam raja flower

Side view of the ulam raja flower

From the gardening point of view, this is an easy plant to grow. The seeds germinate readily and the plants seem quite hardy as they get no special care from me. A pretty cool thing about the plant is that the leaves close in at night, like the plant is “sleeping”. I guess it’s a photoreceptive thing, the same way a sunflower plant follows the sun during the day! Budding will start when the plants are over a metre high. The flowers go through the same routine as other cosmos plants – they bloom and produce seeds that can self-sow readily. Some people say that this can make the plant invasive, but it’s too early for me to know. The same can be said of all cosmos plants, but I’ve had instances of the plants dying off. Let’s see if this variety is more hardy than the yellow and orange ones. Stay tuned!

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