Getting the veggie family started

It’s odd that it’s only been four weeks since we finally left the dry monsoon season in it’s own dust and started getting rain more regularly. Somehow, it seems much longer than a month. The dry, withering lawn is green once more – although it’ll be another month or so before I consider it “lush” – and the only areas of brown are patches of earth where the grass hasn’t grown back yet. Or where the dogs have… well, never mind. :P

The break in the weather brought out my desire to start playing with the packets of seeds that I’d been holding on to. Why did I choose to wait? Because of how my snap beans were behaving – flowering and aborting for over a month. I figured the weather wasn’t right yet. But, once that changed, so did my plans.

As you know, my whim right now is for vegetables, and I’d accumulated a nice variety of seeds – Marigold and Torenia flowers and lots of veggies – long purple and round green brinjals (eggplant), chilli, pepper paprika, loofah, cucumber, tomato, hairy basil, okra, long beans and sweet corn. It was time to start my little veggie “family”.

3-week old sweet corn plant. Doesn't it look like long grass?

I was most excited about the sweet corn, so that was planted first. I wanted to stagger the harvest, so I decided to plant three to four plants every other week or so. The seeds sprouted well and the older lot is over 20cm high now. I had to mark the spot of each plant with a short stick to remind everyone, including myself, not to touch them, because they really, really look like grass, and I have an uncontrollable urge to weed them out! I can’t wait for them to grow even bigger so that I can stop thinking that…

And marking where you’ve planted seeds is so very crucial. I had planted three loofah seeds along the fence, thinking they’d take about a week to sprout. On day four, someone went around with a weed-whacker and beheaded one of the little sprouts that were already 5cm high! I had no idea that those little fellas would grow so vigorously! Anyway, I’ve decided to stick with two plants for now because I’m not sure if I’ll really enjoy eating the fruit. At the very least, I suppose I’ll end up with some natural scrubbies… :D The plants are about 15cm high now and busily extending tendrils for support. I’ve been directing them towards the chain-link fence and then they should be on their way.

Loofah vine at 2 weeks

One little problem, though – the seed leaves of one of the loofah plants developed some weird, squiggly marks that a GCS Forumer said were the work of leaf miners. I’ve removed the offensive leaves and have my fingers crossed that the plant won’t be affected by the miners. Talk about your alien invasion… :(

The long beans germinated with no problems. Beans seem inclined to vigorous growth. I set up a trellis for them using 6-foot bamboo sticks in the A-frame setup, and the most advanced plant has already wound it’s way to the top of it’s pole. One seedling was a bit sickly, so I had to get rid of it and plant a new seed in it’s place. I didn’t enjoy that at all. Culling is not my thing; I’m more inclined to let all my plants just grow and be happy. :(

Blissful okra after an afternoon rain shower.

The okra plants – or ladies fingers, as we call ‘em here – grew with no problems. All five seeds that I sowed in a pot grew cheerfully, and once established, I transplanted them to a prepared plot where they’re thriving right now. Less than 8 weeks to harvest! (fingers crossed)

The pepper paprika put up one, maybe two sprouting seedlings. I say maybe because I’m not sure of the second seedling will survive. They seem to be quite fragile and can die out after a day or so, which has happened twice already. They’re slow growing, compared to the okra and loofah, but I’ve definitely got my eye on them…

I’ve had 50-50 success with the cucumbers. Only half the seeds sprouted where I’d sowed them at the base of another prepared trellis. After waiting more than a week since the first seeds sprouted, I decided to re-sow seeds at the vacant trellis legs. I’d really like to have one plant growing up each trellis support, and by George, I will have that! There are still several seeds left in the packet, so I’ll keep trying until I run out of them…

Cucumber sprout. Aren't the seed leaves shaped uncannily like a cucumber?

Now the rest of the seeds that I planted in pots are playing hide-and-seek with me. Interestingly, they seem to be the plants with smaller seeds – namely the brinjals, chilli, tomato and basil for the veggies, and the marigold and Torenia flowers. Man, those seeds for the Torenia were microscopic! It might as well have been powder in the packet! Anyway it’s been more than 3 weeks and I’ve gone through two rounds of sowing seeds. Nothing’s showed up except for one tomato, one marigold and a couple of chilli seedlings that died off after a couple of days. I’ll lay a bet that the seeds are just waiting for me to stop peering down into the pots several times a day before they all decide to simultaneously sprout! Isn’t that what happens when you watch a pot of water on the stove? It only starts to boil when you turn away… Hopefully those naughty seeds will miss me and burst into activity. Nothing makes my day more than seeing my plants thriving!

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Baby Bean grows up

Ah, Baby Bean has grown up, and has cousins and siblings – I can’t tell which unless I trace the vines from the roots, and there are 8 of them! So let’s just call them relatives, and leave it at that. Here are a couple of shots for the family album:

This kind of gives a new meaning to the term "family tree"... Spot the cousins/siblings? There are two of them.

I'm guessing this is the largest it'll grow, but for curiosity's sake, I'm going to leave this one on the vine to grow as big as possible, and so I can get more seeds later. It's also the only one this size, and I prefer to eat more than one bean at a time, so I'll just wait for the rest that are growing at the same pace before I harvest them... :|

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Seed dispersal, nature’s way

Bittergourd vine (I hope!) growing out of my pot of Dracaena Surculosa

I was out taking a look at my plants one evening when I noticed a different plant growing in my big pot of Japanese Bamboo (Dracaena Surculosa). It had obviously sprouted within the last few days, because the two halves of the seed bean it had grown from were still attached to the stem.

This particular pot of Jap bamboo tends to have lots of “visitors”. The big pot sits just under the edge of our mango tree canopy, and it’s bushy enough to attract birds to perch on it frequently. There are always lots of weeds and uninvited plants growing in it that have to be extracted.

However, this time, something made me pause. Maybe it was my new “inner veggie gardener” telling me to hold on for a minute. I took a photo of the 15cm high vine, and posted it on the GCS forum to see if anyone could identify it. In less than 2 hours, as many people said it looked like a bittergourd plant.

In fact, a couple of days later, I showed it to my mum. Surprising us both, she blurted, “That’s periak” – the Malay name for bittergourd. Seeing the plant had triggered memories of her childhood, when they had grown the veggie.

A sprouting palm tree at the base of my bean trellis. It could have been deposited by a bird, or dropped by the palm tree nearby.

Now I know that no person planted that seed there, so it had to have been “deposited” by one of our feathered visitors. Not wanting to transplant and shock the plant, I redirected it so the tendrils found the fencing around my new compost pit, next to the pot. Yup, I had to break that self-imposed rule about not growing an edible creeper there, but it was either do that or let it smother the Japanese bamboo.

This made me look into how birds help plants to disperse their seeds. We have an established curry leaf tree that produces clusters of berries. The birds love the berries, and we subsequently have lots of little curry leaf trees sprouting in the ground below wherever the birds perch to poop. The same goes for the berries of palm trees. Thanks to the birds, we’ve had several different varieties of palm trees growing here at one time or another.

Curry leaf plant sprouting from the crevice of a brick next to the fence - obviously deposited there by a bird, because there's NO parent plant that close!

My initial assumption was that birds only dispersed seeds by pooping them, but research taught me that they also regurgitate them. Urk. Their digestive systems can’t process hard things like, oh, the exoskeletons of insects, undigested bones, hairs and feathers, so they eventually spit them out in a process known as pellet casting. Good to know, huh? :|

But on to other dispersal methods…

Lighter and/or hooked seeds can hitch a ride on creatures that feed on them or simply pass by. Or they can be spread via wind, water or explosive action on the plant’s part. (Here, I get the image of a drawing of the balsam plant in my head, thanks to old school books…) But then, that’s how my Peacock trees disperse their seeds – another reason we have lots of them sprouting all over the garden, too.

Dispersal is just Nature’s way of conducting a lucky draw – and for people like me, it’s an exciting event, because I never know what’s going to start growing in the garden until I see it!

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Fruit-eating birds in Singapore gardens

One of the things I like about having a variety of plants in a garden is watching the variety of birds that are attracted to the different plants. In many cases, I didn’t realize that certain plants had any draw for birds, but once you get a camera and are on the lookout for new victims, you notice much, much more…

Black-naped oriole - so named for the black band that goes right around the neck - feasting on a mango

Fruit trees are natural bird magnets. Within the neighbourhood, we have mango, jambu (water apple), rambutan and papaya as the most common fruit trees. Then there are berry-producing trees such as the curry leaf and palm trees.

Black-naped orioles, mynahs, starlings and bulbuls are our most common fruit-eating feathered visitors. They indulge in all the fruit offerings they can find.

Asian Koels have also established themselves here in recent years. They’re the irritating ones that cry out in that VERY LOUD, ascending-the-scale cry early in the mornings (and sporadically during the day). Koels aren’t very discreet birds – they hop noisily through trees and occasionally don’t care that you’re clicking away with the camera below them.

Male Asian Koel eating the berries of a palm tree. I had a good laugh because he was so intent on feeding while leaning downwards that he nearly fell out of the tree! Only a flurry of fluttering wings and scrambling feet kept him from falling down. And I know it was a “him” because the females are similarly red-eyed but beautifully spotted.

One unusual visitor was a flameback woodpecker that I noticed in a neighbour’s rambutan tree. Unfortunately, that particular neighbour lives several houses away, and a camera zoom can only do so much. I wish I could do a CSI photo clean-up, but this isn’t Hollywood. You can sort of make out the woodpecker hanging off the rambutan, though. Sort of. I hope to get a better photo of the flameback one day – they’re probably the most unusual birds I’ve seen locally so far.

Common flameback woodpecker hanging off a red rambutan fruit.

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