Using coco chips in the garden

Coconut chips used as a layer of mulch will suppress weeds and keep the soil below moist.

Coconut chips used as a layer of mulch will suppress weeds and keep the soil below moist.

Our regular year-end rainy season seems to have ended, and the hot, dry period is about to hit us. It will get more pronounced in the next couple of months when the winds carry less and less moisture, and I’m already getting worried because I see how quickly the potted plants are drying out.

It’s not just solar heat that will have this effect; a combination of wind and warm air will extract moisture most effectively. So this is when I usually start turning my attention to things like self-watering pots and heavy mulching. Taking measures like these means I don’t have to be overly anxious if I’ve forgotten to water the plants. It also means that we save water as well.

Lately I’ve begun experimenting with coconut chips. These pieces of coconut husk act as organic sponges. My buddy Alexius uses them for his garden paths. Not only do they suppress weeds, they soak up and hold moisture when it rains, and over time will decompose and provide nutrients to the plants. I’ve been mixing them into the soil of my potted plants to help with water retention, and am still working out the ratio for that. Recently, when I transplanted some young plants into a mixed planting in a large pot, I pushed in a large piece of coconut chip below each plant. I figured the chips would help to keep the roots hydrated, as well as feed the plants as they composted over time. Well, from the way the plants are growing now, I’d say it has worked!

Healthy young plants that were transplanted with a big piece of coco chip below the roots to act as a "sponge".

Healthy young plants that were transplanted with a big piece of coco chip below the roots to act as a “sponge”.

Another way I use the coco chips is putting a layer at the bottom of potted plants to act as a barrier to keep the soil from escaping from the bottom of the pots. They also keep the moisture in, but I’ve found that this attracts ants to start nesting in the pots. I instinctively dislike seeing ants on my plants because they usually signify a pest problem, but I know that they also serve a purpose in the garden. However, the pest issue overshadows all else for me.

The final way I use the coco chips is as a layer of mulch. The only problem with this is that the chips are lightweight when dry, and will be blown away by wind, or will float to one side until they absorb water. So, you have to lay a decently thick layer and expect to lose some of it. My humble opinion is that they work best when in the soil.

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Sighting of a Drongo

The bird with a fish tail - the crow-billed drongo.

The bird with a fish tail – the crow-billed drongo.

Okay, I’m no expert on birds, so I may be wrong about the specific type of drongo, but I believe it was a crow-billed drongo that we saw perched on our curry leaf tree as it fed on the remains of a large grasshopper earlier today. It wasn’t a large bird – around the size of a bulbul or starling – and had a spotted lower body which at first made us wonder if it was a young female Asian Koel. What really piqued my curiosity, however, was the unusual shape of its tail, which looked like a fish’s tail to me, the way it was forked and turned outwards.

As I filmed it, I realised it was eating something. At first, I thought it was a small fish, because of the length and how the bird was tearing at it. Later, while reviewing my footage, I realised it was the lower abdomen of a large grasshopper.

That made me feel slightly better about not killing those large insects when I see them in the garden. Do you know that they make a literal buzz as they fly? Like any other gardener, I have the urge to chase and kill them because of the damage they can do to our plants, but if I did that, we wouldn’t have such interesting bird visitors here, would we?

The drongo alternately held the insect carcass with one foot as it pecked at it – at one point arching and jerking its whole body to yank out the innards – and tossed it upwards with its beak to chew on it. When it had consumed everything, it sat in the tree for a while before flying off.

It was only later that I was able to identify it and learn that there are four species of drongo here in Singapore. One is a resident while the others are migratory visitors. Ours was the latter (assuming I’ve identified it correctly!). What a lovely encounter!

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Chinese mustard greens – seed saving

The Chinese mustard green plant

The Chinese mustard green plant

Late last year, I attended a gardening workshop conducted by the Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise. One of the activities was to sow a potful of Chinese mustard greens with a faster growing partner. It meant that we had a nice memento that lasted for many weeks after the workshop, and in my typical manner, one mustard green plant was left long enough to flower and go to seed.

I like it when plants do that, because it means that the seeds produced are from a plant that has grown and thrived in our garden, and should be more resilient with the next generation (as long as they’re not GMO). So, I happily left the plant alone to let the seeds develop fully before harvesting them. This meant waiting for the pods to turn brown and dry out a little. After that, it was a matter of carefully removing the pods – and I say “carefully” because they could split open if dry enough, scattering precious tiny seeds – then bringing them to a safe place to harvest.

The flowers are tiny...

The flowers are tiny…

The pods formed after successful pollination (some are fuller than others)

The pods are formed after successful pollination (some are fuller than others)

Collect the seeds when the pods dry up

Collect the seeds after the pods dry up

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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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