The oddest year

Little did any of us know what 2020 would have in store for us when the year started. This global pandemic called Covid-19 made the entire world stop short in its tracks and pause. On one hand, we got a glimpse of what could be, if we reduced our footprint on the world – better air quality and nature bouncing back. On the other hand, it made us realise how dependent we are on modern technology.

Remember to prune mulberry plants hard after the harvest to ensure continuous fruiting.

Remember to prune mulberry plants hard after the harvest to ensure continuous fruiting.

When I began The Curious Gardener ten or so years ago, I had grand ideas of growing our own food – and we did grow some over the years, as you’ve seen on the blog. But, to sustain a flow of fresh veggies, you need to be consistent, sowing new seeds periodically, and nurturing your plants regularly. I certainly did not have the pleasure of the free time –  odd, considering that we had two months of lockdown, or the “Circuit Breaker” period here in Singapore, and are still in fact working most of the time from home. Instead, the time from April until now was spent adjusting to the new conditions, not just on the home front, but also professionally. Lots of businesses have been adversely affected by the current situation, and the company I am employed by worked hard to cope with the new conditions. I am grateful that we are still in business, but we have been working tirelessly for what feels like forever, and like all my colleagues, I am mentally and emotionally tired.

I imagined, when the lockdown began, that being at home, I would have time to do more things in the garden. However, when I wasn’t working, there were other things to do, like look for new sources of necessities, since many of my fellow citizens went into full “kiasu” mode and bulk-bought things, creating a shortage for the rest of the country. Thankfully, that situation has since eased, and I think we are settling in to the new “normal”.

It’s not a comfortable normal for me yet. I still have to remind myself to wear a mask when leaving the house, because we’ve been cautiously staying home unless there’s something that we absolutely have to go out to do. We miss the freedom of being able to wander freely and visit family and friends. However, not all people are careful about social distancing and wearing masks. So, we play it safe and stay home.

You have to be extremely patient when growing pineapples. We've waited about 2 years since the last harvest.

You have to be extremely patient when growing pineapples. We’ve waited about 2 years since the last harvest.

With the end of the year looming, I suddenly realised that I had an entire year’s worth of leave to clear. I happily planned it so I had a whole stretch of long weekends until the end of this awful year. When the first of such weekends rolled around, I took great pleasure in not touching my computer all day. Instead, I finally began catching up on chores. I did some clearing in the garden (it is even more jungle-like now!) and when it rained in the afternoon, I switched to household chores. I felt so good that evening – tired, but happy.

One nice thing that came out of this odd year is the new national movement, Gardening with Edibles, that launched in June. Singaporeans are finally being encouraged to grow edible plants at home! I hope this means a change for those who have been growing their plants outside their flats and properties. The old protocol was to have their plants removed. It was like Christmas when NParks announced that free seeds would be sent to “interested members of the public”. When the seeds began to be delivered, everyone excitedly compared what they got, and arranged to share excess seeds. I received long bean and kai lan seeds. Given the way things have been, it should be no surprise that I haven’t sown them yet. But, now that things are reaching a more even keel for me, the interest and energy to continue growing things is coming back. It’s not that I haven’t grown anything this year; I just didn’t have the spark to write about it until now.

Bananas from a plant from our old neighbour.

Bananas on a plant from our old neighbour. The plant is about 6 metres tall!

We have enjoyed seasons of mulberries and bittergourds, and recently, thanks to my clearing efforts, sweet potatoes as well. There are bananas and a couple of pineapples on the way, probably ready early next year. My biggest disappointment were the brinjal plants that grew and flowered, but did not bear any fruits. I’ll try again, because we really enjoy the taste of those green brinjals. I just hope that my seeds are still viable. There are some that I forgot to store in the fridge, and I’m tempted to just throw them into pots and see what happens, as my friend the Novice Gardener used to do, because she had several surprises when seeds she didn’t hold hope for germinated en masse. However, I still have a range of seeds in the fridge that ought to still have life in them. And I should use the seeds from the Gardening with Edibles, too. It looks like besides clearing the garden, I’ll also be busy creating trellises and growing areas. It’s good to have my gardening mojo back!

© 2020 All rights reserved.


New year, new resolutions

Overripe bittergourds - such a pretty colour!

Overripe bittergourds – such a pretty colour!

2019 was a challenging year for me. There were so many things to juggle that I just didn’t have it in me to do much in the garden, as therapeutic as gardening may be. However, as the year came to an end, and I looked back at how little I did in the garden and here on the blog, I eked out a bit of determination to get the ball rolling again.

We had a nice visit with our dear friend “Mother Weed” where we all caught up with each other, and had the inevitable seed exchange session. Despite the family nickname, their garden is neat and orderly – unlike ours, which is still leaning towards being a bird haven.

The recent festive season also included the usual visits to friends’ and relatives’ homes, where I was inspired with a touch of greenness – envy in this case – by the plants and gardens that we saw.

Periwinkle seedlings from my aunt, given during a stroll through her garden.

Periwinkle seedlings from my aunt, given during a stroll through her garden.

As part of my new year resolutions, I started sowing seeds once more. The longing to walk through the garden and harvest what we are going to eat has hit me again. Oh don’t get me wrong – we have some plants that supply us, particularly the small bittergourds. However, I miss the old staples of cucumbers, long beans and okra. Those were the best veggies that we had grown.

On top of that, I need to check the viability of some of my seeds. There were a few packs that I forgot to store in the fridge because I thought I would sow them soon after getting them, then forgot about them. Keeping seeds in the fridge prolongs their lifespan by months, and maybe years; leaving them out in our heat and humidity doesn’t do them any favours. I’m so tempted to go around the garden just scattering them wantonly, because if we have to have plants that grow like weeds, it would be so much nicer if they were useful, edible to human plants – unlike the many plants that I shall rant about in another post. However, I’m fairly certain that the birds would have fun consuming the seeds before they had a chance to grow, so I’ll have to do the civilised thing and germinate them indoors first. It’s amazing what birds eat these days. I think they are so desperate for any kind of food that they’ll try anything they find.

Familiar seed sprouts - cucumber on the left, okra on the right.

Familiar seed sprouts – cucumber on the left, okra on the right.

I was also a little shocked to realise that this year marks the beginning of the second decade of The Curious Gardener. Yes, I’ve been blogging here for ten years! I certainly did not anticipate how long I’d be writing, but it has been enjoyable sharing my experiences and meeting some of you, so I hope to continue a bit longer. Hence the resolution to get a bit more active as the Curious Gardener once again. So here’s wishing each of you a bountiful and fruitful year in this new decade!

© 2020 All rights reserved.


Seed viability testing can be fun

mung beans germinating

Mung beans beginning to germinate…

I remember one of my gardening buddies, Novice Gardener, sharing a story about throwing a bunch of old seeds in a pot and expecting them to compost down because they were old. Instead, many of them germinated, and she had to hustle to separate the many seedlings.

I found myself in a similar situation recently when I decided to test a pack of mung beans that was almost two years old. Like my buddy, I didn’t expect them to have life left in them, so I took a couple of handfuls of beans and soaked them in a cup. To my surprise, they began to germinate within two days, so I put them in a larger container filled with perlite to continue soaking. I chose perlite because it’s a light medium that I thought would be easy to extract seedlings from when it was time to transplant them.

At this point, I still thought that the germination rate would be low. Oh boy, was I wrong!

mung beans germinating in perlite

Serious germination beginning – little did I know that this was just the tip of the iceberg!

By the next day, the top layer of perlite began to erupt with little bean sprouts. There were so many that they displaced the perlite, so much so that the area surrounding the container of sprouts looked like it had snowed – there was so much white perlite drifting around in the breeze!

little forest of mung bean sprouts

The little forest of bean sprouts. I did not expect this…

After that, it was plain madness. I think the entire two handfuls of beans germinated, and like beans like to do, they grew at an amazing pace!

too many mung bean plants clustered in a small space

I cannot believe these grew to this stage in less than a week!

By the end of the week, I had to quickly choose different spots to plant out the little jungle of mung bean plants. I wasn’t concerned if they survived or not, because whichever the case, they would add fertility to the soil. Well, because of the hot weather that we’ve had over the last several weeks, not all of the plants survived. However, those that did are now maturing, and we’re seeing the first bean pods growing now.

mung bean pods

Mung bean pods forming. Next generation beans, here we come!

It makes me so happy to see things grow from seed to harvest! It makes seed viability testing so satisfying!

© 2019 All rights reserved.


Growing from saved seeds doesn’t always work out

red zinnia flower

The red zinnia flower that became the apple of my eye.

Some months ago, I went on a little flower-buying binge. One of the plants that had caught my eye was the zinnia. If you recall, I once grew that flowering plant years ago, and it had fascinated me because the composite flower was so visually interesting. Like nature, it “went out of season” with me after a while, so when I saw it at the nursery, I decided to buy a couple of plants – one red and one yellow, because the colours were so vibrant.

Don't these red zinnias look gorgeous in a cluster?

Don’t these red zinnias look gorgeous in a cluster?

When I got home and spent more time with the plants, it wasn’t long before I fell head over heels in love with the red version of the plant. The way the red contrasted with the yellow centre was just too gorgeous. The yellow was pretty, but the entire flower was yellow – and it seemed to attract more pests than the red one (think of yellow sticky insect traps…). I was determined to keep growing red zinnias, so when the first flower had passed its prime, I left it to form seeds.

zinnia seedlings growing in cups

A little forest of zinnia seedlings

I harvested the seeds when the flower head started drying up, and was delighted to get some fully formed, hard brown seeds. I planted them, and then because I hate to waste anything, I threw in the less matured seeds to mulch the ones I had sown. Guess what? A lot of them also germinated! I had a little forest of seedlings, and I planted them out.

Second generation zinnia flower - looks very much like the parent

Second generation zinnia flower – looks very much like the parent

That’s when things got “interesting”. Some of the plants were a bit weedy – the stems were long and curly, like they were starved for light (which they weren’t) – and they just didn’t grow into strong plants. Those that did grow looked nice and strong like the parent plant. Then they formed buds, and things again got interesting…

slightly malformed zinnia flower

The flower on this plant didn’t form properly – the cluster of yellow flowers is smaller and not arranged in a ring, like the parent’s

I call this the pom-pom zinnia flower - it has way too many outer petals, and no disc flowers in the centre!

I call this the pom-pom zinnia flower – it has way too many outer petals, and no disc flowers in the centre!

mutant zinnia flower

There’s only one thing to call this – a mutant zinnia flower! It had no outer petals, and didn’t form proper disc flowers in the centre. How bizarre!

Lessons learned from this experience – use the best seeds and be firm in discarding the rest. Although the second generation of seeds should be acclimatised to our garden, the quality of plant cannot be guaranteed. It was an interesting experiment, though!

© 2019 All rights reserved.