Growing moringa from seed

First leaves of the moringa plant.

First leaves of the moringa plant.

I’ve been attempting to grow moringa for a while now – quite a few times, actually. We call it the drumstick tree – so named for the long bean pods that may or may not resemble drumsticks. Those pods, when cut into short lengths and added to curries, are a delicious find. The outside of the pod is thick and fibrous, but the insides soften into a jelly-like texture that you scrape off and eat with the curry gravy. It sounds odd but is simply yummy!

Since my dad enjoyed eating curries, he grew the tree once, a very long time ago. The tree grew about two storeys high and was quite abundant. What Dad didn’t know then was that it isn’t a hard-stemmed tree. When strong winds blew by, the branches broke easily. After a couple of times, Dad decided it wasn’t safe to grow it as he had situated it next to the fence and didn’t want to damage the neighbour’s property. And that was the end of the drumstick tree in our garden.

Moringa seeds have a rather hard casing. I cracked them open a little to hopefully hasten the germination process.

Moringa seeds have a rather hard casing. I cracked them open a little to hopefully hasten the germination process.

Fast forward to the present, and we now have more information on the plant. Imagine my surprise to learn that the drumstick or moringa oleifera tree has many more uses than just the edible pods. Just about every part of the plant can be used – the pods are edible; the seeds yield an edible oil called ben oil; the roots can be shredded and used as a condiment (they taste like horseradish); the young leaves are edible, etc. It has many positive purposes, and grows well in semi-arid to tropical and subtropical regions. My interest in it at the moment is also that in permaculture, it is considered a good “chop and drop” plant, where you prune it often and use the chopped branches to mulch the ground.

Well, I mentioned that I’ve tried growing it a few times. It is supposed to be able to grow easily from cuttings, but for some reason, I haven’t had luck with that. The first couple of times, I simply stuck the cutting into a pot or the ground, and kept the soil damp to encourage roots to grow. It looked like leaves were starting to grow out from the stems, but nothing happened. So I tried rooting the last cutting in water. That didn’t turn out so well, either. The combination of the cutting in water created a slimy, smelly liquid that I changed daily for two weeks before calling it quits. I finally got hold of some seeds at the end of last year, and sowed them. At last, I got results…

Germination in progress... our first moringa plant!

Germination in progress… our first moringa plant!

Moringa seeds have a surprisingly hard casing. They look light and papery, but the triangular seeds are sealed tight! Since I was impatient to get a plant growing, I decided to crack open the seeds a little to give them a little head start. In spite of that, it still took almost two weeks before the first seed germinated. It was a thrill to see the little seed leaves beginning to push upwards. No, actually I don’t think they were seed leaves. When opened fully, they looked like regular tripinnate moringa leaves.

Ready for a bigger home now, the moringa plant is almost two weeks old here.

Ready for a bigger home now, the moringa plant is almost two weeks old here.

Almost two weeks later, there are a couple more sets of what I’d ordinarily call true leaves, and I think this baby is ready for a bigger home. Dare I plant it out in the garden? Not yet. There are hungry snails out there, and this is a tender, young plant – and at the moment, our only moringa plant. Nope, I’m going to coddle it a bit longer until it grows a thicker, taller stem that snails can’t munch right through. Fingers crossed that that’s not just wishful thinking!

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Bountiful bittergourds!

Our typical harvest on a single day, at least three times a week!

Our typical harvest on a single day, at least three times a week!

Our little slap-and-dash trellis has definitely done its job. I set it up to support a volunteer mini bittergourd plant that started growing just under the canopy of one of our peacock flower trees, and did my best to direct the plant away from the tree, lest it grow upwards and beyond our reach. That was two and a half months ago, and since then, the vine has flourished. Besides covering the entire length of the trellis, it has branched out multiple times and is thick and healthy, and oh so bountiful!

One of the "little monsters"...

One of the “little monsters”…

To our delight, it is a different variety of small bittergourd from what we’ve been growing. The fruits tend to be more stout and cylindrical, and can be bigger than what we’ve grown before. There have been a couple of little monsters around 10cm long, and we have a lot of fun going on “treasure hunts” on a daily basis just to see what is growing and how big it can grow!

Just one of several clusters of bittergourds on the plant.

Just one of several clusters of bittergourds on the plant.

At the moment, the plant is producing lots of fruits. We can harvest six to ten or so fruits a day, up to three times a week. The flesh is nice and crisp, and remains so even when we eat it in a stir-fry. I’m grateful for whichever bird that deposited the seed in our garden. After all, this was how we first started growing bittergourds way back, about seven years ago!

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Growing in gardening knowledge

Taking questions from the class in the cosy home setting.

Taking questions from the class in the cosy home setting.

It’s always useful to learn things from those who really know what they’re talking about, so I decided to check out what the Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise (CNLE) at the National University of Singapore has to offer. Their Gardener’s Series of workshops caught my eye, and I decided to start at the beginning with the two-day Basic workshop.

There were a few pluses that helped with my choice. Firstly, it’s SkillsFuture claimable – meaning as a Singaporean who has received SkillsFuture credits from the government to use for skills development and lifelong learning, I could tap on my available credits to offset the cost of the course. Secondly, the workshop was going to be held at my permaculture buddy Alexius Yeo’s home, and I never pass up an opportunity to wander in awe around his garden! Last but not least, Alexius was conducting the class. Since he is very passionate and knowledgeable about all things gardening, I knew it would be well worth giving up two Saturdays to learn from him. And so I signed up.

Demonstrating the consistency of soil when different components are combined.

Demonstrating the consistency of soil when different components are combined. Looks gross but it’s great for plants!

The first Saturday dawned sunny but slightly overcast. Twenty-something of us arrived at the house before 9.30 in the morning – and what a diverse crowd it was! There were retirees, people of working age, and a couple of students; and in typical Singapore fashion, the group was comprised of different races and religions. Some people had more experience than others, but the atmosphere was open and good. We were all there to learn, not just from the class, but it appeared there were tips we could also pick up from one another since we had different areas of interest that we each dabbled in.

The first part of the first day was a little heavy on theory, but it was good to start with basic knowledge. Then it got more interesting when we got into the components of soil and how to mix them for different purposes. Samples were passed around, and Alexius demonstrated different ways of combining them for different types of plants. We took him very seriously because he was sharing hard won experience, and we could clearly see the results in his garden.

How to prepare the stem for marcotting.

How to prepare the stem for marcotting.

The second Saturday was a bit more hands-on as we learned different methods of propagation and tried them out after Alexius demonstrated them. There was also more opportunity to interact with each other while waiting for our turn to try preparing stems for grafting and marcotting, or during the breaks. We had potluck lunch on both days since we were at Alexius’ home, and it was a good time to circulate and get to know each other. I was tickled to find that I’m not alone in loving to experiment with growing new plants, as many people wanted cuttings and seeds, and had already tried growing interesting plants. One of my classmates was so eager to get her hands on the multi-petaled blue pea flower plant that she gave me a lift home so she could get some stem cuttings from our garden!

Naturally, everyone had questions to ask about their own plant-growing experiences, and Alexius fielded all of them adeptly. He may look young, but he’s one of the trailblazers in the urban farming movement here, and is quite the veteran. There were questions ranging from how to grow certain types of plants to how to manage pests and plant diseases, and more.

Alexius' permaculture garden is cosy and serene.

Alexius’ permaculture garden is cosy and serene.

The second session wrapped up with a discussion on the uses and how to best grow some of the interesting plants in the garden. Moringa, basil and sand ginger were familiar, but there were less common ones, like Wandering Jew, joy weed and Moses in a cradle, which can be used to make a cooling tea. There were many more plants discussed, but you should go for the workshop if you want to know more about them. ;) It certainly provided good entry level knowledge for gardeners and had lots of great tips thrown in along the way, and for my part, also gave me a few more gardening buddies. It was definitely worth giving up part of my weekend for this!

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Bird tales

Besides the vagrant rooster who now seems to have taken up residence in our garden, it seems to be that time of year when migratory birds are passing through…

The Blue-winged Pitta

The Blue-winged Pitta

Our little buddy, the Blue-winged Pitta has come back again. Whether it’s the same one that we’ve observed in the past is anyone’s guess. However, the challenge is back on to try to get good photos of this gorgeous jungle bird.

Long-tailed Nightjar

Long-tailed Nightjar

This odd-looking bird had us scratching our heads until we discovered it’s a nightjar. This nocturnal bird used to be common when I was growing up. I loved hearing their calls echoing along our lane at night. It was a comforting sound. We knew recently that there was at least one nightjar in the neighbourhood as we’d heard the calls occasionally over the past half year. Seeing it resting in our garden during the day was exciting, to say the least. It has been observed a few times, and we hope it keeps coming back.

Unidentified bird of prey

Unidentified bird of prey

Now this bird is one we don’t have the identity of just yet. We spotted it resting in the curry leaf tree one morning and think we’ve seen it a couple of times before, but those sightings were fleeting, so I can’t say for sure. It looks like a bird of prey to me. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

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