QN: I want to set up an edible garden, how do I start?
ANS: Few things you’ll need to consider in the planning stage: (i) how much space do you have (ii) how much sunlight do you get (iii) what is the purpose of your edible garden / how much do you intend to harvest from your garden every month.
It is possible to grow enough vegetables (excluding meats, carbs, fruits) for one person in a 3m by 5m space, assuming you fully utilise the area and get full sun on all days of the year. If you do get full sun, you will be able to grow crops like corn, beans, pumpkin, leafy vegetables (Kang kong, bak Choy etc). If your area is partially shaded, or gets less than 6 hours of full sunlight a day, you may consider growing more shade tolerant plants such as bayam, Malabar spinach, Brazilian spinach, ginger, mint, basil, mugwort, sorrels, sweet potato, shiso.
As a beginner Gardener, you may wish to purchase good quality gardening equipment that will last you several years. The basics (apart from pots, soil, fertiliser etc) are a pair of secateurs, a metal spade, factory grade / cotton gloves, seedling trays, shade netting for those who have full sun and a weighing scale. The weighing scale helps you answer the third most important question which is – what do you want to get out of your garden. When I first started my rooftop garden, I was collecting all sorts of plants (palms, carnivorous plants which I still have to-date, edible plants, flowering ornamentals) the lack of a running theme made the garden very messy and disorganised. Further, I found that I was struggling to keep up with their care requirements. Specialising in certain plants helps you hone your skills in cultivating that specific family of crops / ornamentals and after a few cycles (if you are growing annuals) you will become an expert in growing that particular genus. For homestead gardeners like myself, who religiously weigh their produce, the weighing scale is a great way to help you keep track of your progress and set goals for future cycles based on your needs.
Personally, I try to grow 2 pumpkins / big gourds every month, 2kg cucumber / fruiting vegetables, 3 kg of leafy vegetables.
QN: I’ve got seeds, how do I sow them?
ANS: In general, seeds should be planted at a depth of two times the width, or diameter, of the seed. For example, if you have a seed that’s about 1/16 inch thick, it should be planted about 1/8 inch deep. Large bean seeds, which can be up to 1/2 inch wide, may need to be planted an inch deep.
QN: I’ve got plants, how do I save seeds?
ANS: My personal practice is to save seeds from the first fruits that have set on the plants. This is to ensure that you collect the best quality seeds as the plant will direct all of its initial energy into those pods.
Only collect seeds from plants that are not hybrids, ie open-pollinated organic non-GMO crops. Open pollinated varieties, aka OPs, are like dog breeds; they will retain their distinct characteristics as long as they are mated with an individual of the same breed. This means, with a little care and planning, the seeds you produce will be true-to-type, keeping their distinct traits generation after generation as long as they do not cross-pollinate with other varieties of the same species. Hybrids will not give you consistent or true to form fruits that match the parent fruit.
Saving seeds is as simple as letting the fruiting pod dry out. In plants like dill, moringa, carrots, beans this means to allow the fruit pod to turn brown and dry on the stem. In plants like gourds or cucumbers, this usually means to allow them to turn red / orange / yellow in colour and for the vine to die back. For herbs like basils, you can easily check the peduncles when the flowers become brown for seeds, make sure to put a small netted bag over the peduncle to collect any falling seeds. For exploding seed pods like balsam, usually the trick is to notice a large swelling in the fruit and a significant colour change from green to yellow for example. Thats when you have to net the pod if you want to collect seeds.
QN: The plants I buy from the nursery always end up dying, what should I do?
In summary, you’re either choosing the wrong plants to grow or your not doing enough research into your growing methods.
The plants you purchase from the nursery are sometimes grown in countries / climates which are significantly different from Singapore. You therefore cannot expect them to last long in your balcony or your garden space. In this case, the problem is the type of plants you are buying.
Other than that, a word of advice is to do your research into how to care for plants before purchasing them. As a seasoned gardener, I’ve killed many of the same plants before and each time I will go onto google and youtube to learn from other gardeners their tips on how to grow that particular plant. Research and keen observation is necessary to be a good gardener, farming / gardening is not a stroke of luck or the result of a green thumb.
My favourite channels to watch and learn from are as follows:
Youtube – ‘Asian Garden 2 Table’, ‘MI Gardener’, ‘Charles at Old Alabama Gardener’, ‘Learn Organic Gardening at GrowingYourGreens’, ‘Spring Hill Farms’.
But nothing beats a visit to the library: Level 11, Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at National Library and the library of Botany and Horticulture at Singapore Botanic Gardens are my go-to resources for free wifi, comfy seats and an amazing book collection.
Most importantly, notice your plants. Visit farms, private and community gardens to observe how healthy plants look, take pictures and notes to set the standard for your own plants. In Singapore, many of us grew up not knowing how beans, gourd, or fruiting plants look, let alone what healthy plants are like. Hence, you will need to visit several good gardens and plots before you can set up your own space.
QN: My plants are always attacked by pests what should I do?
First of all, pests usually come when plant health is bad. The first thing you need to consider is ‘how can I improve my plant’s health’, fertilise them every month – provide compost – ensure that you add in green matter to decompose – check if there is life in your soil ie, earthworms, centipedes, beetles etc.
To deal with the secondary problem of insects:
Spider mites – soak completely in water for 30 minutes or use a power hose to spray down all affected leaves.
Root mealybugs – throw away the affected soil, soak roots in castile soap and water (1 part is to 15 parts).
Mealybugs – spray with castile soap and water (1 part is to 15 parts) until they dry up / fall off. Prune your plants, make sure there is good air circulation between the branches so wind can pass through and it is not humid at the centre of the plant.
Root nematodes – plant marigolds, search for nematode resistant plant seeds, use neem cake.
Snails – beer traps (fill a cup with beer leave it in the garden and the snails will get drunk and die in the cup [Donoghue v Stevenson])
QN: What kind of fertilisers should I use?
Depends on what you are growing your edibles for:
Growing for leaves – get high nitrogen fertiliser (alternative: coffee ground 4 tbsp per gallon pot)
Growing for fruits / flowers – get high phosphorus / potassium fertilisers (alternative: one fish head [not joking] and 2 banana peels buried into ground per gallon pot)
Always supplement with eggshells, epsom salt.
I fertilise all my edible plants every 3 weeks with goat manure / chicken poo, compost. Kitchen scraps go into worm towers and we let the earthworms deal with it.
QN: What are some of the edible flowers I can grow in my garden?
Start with the easy ones such as blue pea, torenia, Spanish needle, balsam before proceeding onto the more difficult plants such as cucumbers, pumpkins, roses.
QN: What are some of the pollinator plants I can grow in my garden that are easy to maintain?
Simple answer would be weeds. Thinking about it logically, pollinators are largely insects. Insects form the largest part of the animal kingdom. They therefore need the most amount of food that grows easily and is readily available – ie. weeds. If you want to start a simple pollinator garden, invest in Chinese violet, wild passionfruit, skunk vine, Spanish needle, balsams, lantana. For a more detailed guide, refer to Npark’s amazing list of plants to grow for butterflies: https://www.nparks.gov.sg/gardening/gardening-resources/what-to-grow/butterfly-attracting-plants click on the green hyperlinks.
QN: Why do you sell edible flowers and how do we use / consume them?
I started selling edible flowers because there was a lack in market supply for them and I wanted to showcase native / tropical flowers. Sometimes, edible flowers although edible are just meant for display, ie to be taken off before eating because they are unpleasant to eat such as the purple globe amaranth which is used in teas but when eaten raw is very straw-like and tough. Other flowers like hibiscus, pumpkin, ixora, blue pea, Tonkin jasmine can be used as a vegetable in stir-fry, tempura-ed or eaten in salad. The more colourful soft-petaled flowers like torenias, can be pressed into pastas or put into jellies or even into Vietnamese rice rolls.
QN: How do you plan for small space gardening?
There are three layers of space available to every Gardener, sub-surface, ground level and vertical gardening. sub-surface gardening means using the space below the ground to grow produce such as peanuts, carrots, radish. Ground level crops are usually those like leafy vegetables / herbs that have shallow roots or ground covers like pumpkins, squash, purslane, mint, basils. Vertical gardening can include plants like cucumbers, beans, corn, etc. Utilise all space areas. For example, inter-space marigolds / basils with pumpkins as ground crops and plant some corn or beans in the same patch. However, space them apart to allow sun to penetrate to the ground, pumpkins need a lot of light.
You can easily search online for good companion plants which can be grown together. In this regard, my suggestion would also be to plant strong pungent smelling herbs like cuban oregano with tomatoes / cucumbers (to mask the smell against pests). Whenever you pull up your sweet fruiting plants like watermelon you may notice a sweet smell from the roots and broken leaves. Pests smell this too and they will come to attack the plant when you prune it or when it is bruised. Hence, you need to plant pest resistant plants to hide the smell.
QN: What is your favourite plant?
Has to be gourds and cucumbers, I’m trying to shake off the ‘cucumber’ curse which is the strange inability to spot the first ripe cucumber fruit until its too old (and has set seeds). Happens to me all the time. But theres really nothing like seeing a gourd / cuke vine cover your canopy and have little fruits hanging down, its a really magical feeling. Now that we’ve all got more time on our hands we are finally trying seeds for snake gourds and wax gourds which are huge and not as cute but with 12 people in my family we could really use the vegetables. Im also trying to find seeds for the elusive apple gourd. Any search suggestions welcome: email@example.com
As an aside, I’ve also been asked if I’ve tried epazote. Dysphania ambrosioides, formerly Chenopodium ambrosioides, known as wormseed, Jesuit’s tea, Mexican-tea, payqu, mastruz, or herba sanctæ Mariæ, is an annual or short-lived perennial herb native to Central America, South America, and southern Mexico. Epazote has a somewhat pungent flavor profile and is described by many as “medicinal.” It has notes of oregano, anise, citrus, mint, and even tar or creosote. The most flavor is provided by the fresh leaves and stems, and older leaves have a stronger flavor. Its used in a lot of Mexican cooking but unfortunately I have not tried it.
QN: Fermentation – how do you do it ; why do you do it ; surprised you haven’t died from it.
When you grow produce, you often have too much of it and need to store your bumper crop somehow. So rather than allowing it to decompose in your compost pile, you ferment it (ie. good decomposing). Organic produce (or plants generally) also has a lot of yeast (which is why all your supermarket fruits and vegetables are covered in fungicides or pesticides to prevent moulding / yeast formation), which is great for kickstarting fermentation. Add two and two together- this explains why farmers ferment stuff so much.
A lot depends on what you’re actually fermenting. Broadly, from what I know in the tropics people use three things to start the fermentation process, (1) banana leaves, (2) sea hibiscus leaves, (3) rice straws. So if you want to ferment beans wrap them in sea hibiscus leaves, if you want to ferment shrimp/fish cakes or cacao wrap them in banana leaves. This is a very general statement (not intended to be an actual recipe). When I was working at a farm, I used to get white radish leaves and radish body, cut and put them into a jar add sugar and clean water, salt chilli, fish sauce, pepper and voila! fermented radish but the problem I had with this mixture was that it turned sour very quickly (in the literal sense) the yeast consumed the sugars too fast. As the fermented mix was ‘alive’ the sugars were continuously being eaten and the yeast kept reproducing and eventually dying, so a layer of white yeast can be seen in the jar. Which I think is completely fine I used to just have it in porridge, but obviously not for the faint hearted.
If you want to try fermenting your own produce in jars, here are some tips: use only organic produce, wash produce gently, use sterilised jar, add lots of sugar to start fermentation process just use white sugar dont use fancy stuff like gula melaka or honey because it always ends up tasting weird (and not in a wonderful edible way), let the mixture air, the mixture should NOT smell bad (either super fruity, yeasty alittle salty/sour but never bad).
Keep those questions coming guys!