Tree-picking: Jackfruits

There is an old jackfruit tree in my backyard which came with the house. It is about 2 and a half stories tall with large branches that encroach towards the kitchen, and into the 2nd level bathroom. Jackfruits take 5-6 years to bear fruit and are most productive after 15 years, given the height, girth of the tree and its fruiting abilities I suppose the one in my yard is at least 30 years old.

Since the history of my estate goes back at least 50 years this tree must’ve been planted by its early homeowners. Another interesting fact is that the Singapore Land Authority / Nparks owns all the large trees within the estate (even those within our private premises/gardens). This being the case, we cannot cut down or trim the trees without their permission. The jackfruit tree thus stands as an (almost) untouched relic, lording over the inhabitants of the home.

Wolf in sheep’s clothes?

The keen eyed reader may have noticed something suspicious by now. What I’ve called a “jackfruit” doesn’t look entirely like one. For those who frequent the wet markets, you may have come across a fruit, similar to jackfruit, called the cempedak. Alittle more about this fruit (from the National Library’s webpage):

Cempedak (Artocarpus integer), also spelt “chempedak”, is a tropical fruit from the Moraceae family. It can be found in Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Cempedak is similar to the jackfruit in appearance as well as in the way the fruit is used.  The cultivated species was believed to have come from bangkong, a wild variety of cempedak”“.

More on the (supposed “wild”) bangkong and cempedak:

The bangkong fruit is harvested only for its seeds while the fleshy part (bland testing) is not eaten. It is an important part of the Orang Asli diet, especially when they go hunting for days in the forest. It also provides emergency food rations for rural villages. Wild crop relatives like bangkong are also really important as a genetic resource for plant breeders.

The lack of aroma and taste in the bangkong fruit led Corner to hypothesise that cempedak was domesticated from bangkong. However, another tropical botanist, Richard B. Primack, thought differently. He had found cempedak growing in the most remote forests of Sarawak, a Malaysian state on Borneo Island. From this he surmised that cempedak and bangkong originated separately from each other.”

My experience with ripe cempedak is that it has incredibly sweet, custardy flesh that taste akin to jackfruit but with a honey-like heaviness. It also has notes of durian, custard apple and pineapple.

The reason why I (and my friend Chunwai) suspected that the tree had cempadak genes was because of its small long, oblong shape with a “waist” in the middle of the fruit. The spikes on the fruit’s outer skin are also dull and not as sharp as those traditionally found on jackfruits.

Cross-breeding of plants within the Moraceae family (consisting of amongst others – jackfruit, breadfruit, cempedak and bangkong) is extremely common and I am convinced this “jackfruit” is in fact a jackfruit-cempedak hybrid.

But for the purposes of this article and simplicity, we will just refer to this plant as a jackfruit.

When are jackfruits ripe?

Few things to look out for:

  • Seasons – jackfruit harvest season is September to January
  • Smell – tree ripened fruits give off a strong sweet smell
  • Sight – the fruits on our tree turn slightly greenish-yellow when ripe and have black/brown “spots” on the skin, the peduncle (the stem of the fruit connecting it to the tree branch will usually turn fully brown)
  • Touch – the fruit is slightly soft to the touch and will “give” when pressed (as opposed to being firm and hard)

A lesson I’ve learnt with the jackfruit tree in the backyard is not to judge a fruit by its size, smaller fruits can also be ripe if they meet the above-mentioned requirements.

How to harvest jackfruits?

To harvest a ripe jackfruit, you will need an oiled knife and (if the fruit is high in the canopy) a long pole. The oil prevents the white fruit sap from sticking to the knife and allows for easy cutting.

Be very careful when harvesting jackfruits as they are heavy (weighing anywhere between 3kg to 20kg) and can leave you with a serious injury if it falls on you. This was the case with our roof which has dents / holes in them due to the falling fruits.

Here are some lovely pictures taken by my friend Kalya of our harvesting:

Once you have your jackfruit, start by cutting it into two halves again with an oiled knife. If your “jackfruit” is a cempadek hybrid like mine, then oil your hands and dig into the fruit’s rags (which are the stringy bits between the flesh) and pull out the fleshy fruit pods, cutting into the fruit where necessary. I found it useful to cut away the white middle “core” of the jackfruit before pulling out the pods.

How to eat jackfruit?

Jackfruit flesh, seeds and rags are edible, for extremely young jackfruits just peel off the skin with a knife and the whole fruit can be boiled as a starch. The sweet flesh can be added into curries, salads, or desserts and the seeds can be toasted or boiled. They taste like macadamia nuts.

*I would like to thank my wonderful neighbours for lending me their clothing pole to poke down some jackfruits. Hopefully as the final fruits of 2020 ripen, we will have enough to share them (if the squirrels don’t get to them first).

Best,

J.

Balcony herb garden

Happy new year friends!

Today I’m going to share about my balcony garden set-up, for those who are also growing in small spaces – this one is for you.

As some of you may know, I moved into a house along Holland Village awhile ago. It has two patches of garden in the front/back yard and my room came with a street-view balcony.

Admittedly, since I was pre-occupied with the move and settling in proper, I didn’t do much with the balcony until the end of 2020. My intention was always to set up the area with some nice chairs and plants to have an al fresco dining experience – I’ve seen this done in countries like England and Europe where the weather is more forgiving. Thankfully, since I’ve only began establishing the garden in the later part of 2020, I’ve been spared much of the heat given that temperatures have dropped to 21 Degrees from Christmas and the way into the new year.

The estate that I’m currently in is a lot older than my previous one, consequently the street trees are much larger and play host to all sorts of animals. In my short time here, Ive seen flocks of Pied Imperial Pigeons, Asian Glossy Starlings, invasive tree frogs and even civet cats all witnessed from the comforts of my balcony. My housemate often jokes that its like National Geographic, and indeed I wanted to set up the balcony so that I could spend more time observing the happenings at my corner of the street.

In this regard, I do have to thank members of Nature Society and the good people of Instagram for identifying these animals for me.

Another thing which inspired the move to grow a tiny garden were the horrific prices of fresh herbs in the supermarkets near my house, costing anywhere between S$5.00 for a packet of fresh mint from Australia or S$3.00 for those from our neighbouring countries. The first week I moved in, I paid as much money for the herbs (mint, coriander, dill) as I did for the core ingredients (tomatoes, white onion, tortilla) in tacos! Admittedly herbs are more perishable and do not take well to transportation and fridge storage (explaining the high price), which is all the more why I felt compelled to grow them at home.

The Balcony

The balcony is a small 3 m by 1.5 m space which my landlords had covered with turf grass.

I bought landscape cover (S$10), fairy lights (S$15) and silver tassel (S$4) as decorative items for the reels, couldn’t find any pot hangers nearby for sale so I attempted to tie the pots to the reels using cotton and plastic string in what, perhaps was, one of the worst gardening decisions I’ve ever made. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. Instead save yourself the trouble and make a visit to World Farm where you can get steel pot hangers for S$12 each.

After fixing the pot-hanger crisis, I went back to my original garden and carried with me, bags of soil, rectangular pots, smaller pots of odd sizes and most importantly, plant cuttings/seedlings. Laksa, mint, marigold, culantro, basil, chilli – all the essential ingredients to a hearty asian stew. Then, I scurried to the wet market and bought dozens of red shallots (for growing my own spring onion – because that would cost an obscene S$1.50 in the supermarket), gotu kola, organic rosemary and thyme for rooting.

The 2 weeks of acquiring the cuttings and seedlings, rooting them and potting them went by like a blur but it felt good getting my hands dirty again. If anything, my experience setting up the balcony garden has shown me that even caring for 20 pots of small herbaceous plants keeps the hobbyist interest alive.

The balcony gets plenty of strong morning / early afternoon sun from 7am to 1pm, this coupled with the persistent rains that have been sweeping past the island have resulted in quick foliage and root growth for the herbs. Unfortunately, the sun is not strong enough for the healthy growth of fruiting edibles such as pumpkins, gourds, eggplants or okras (which need strong afternoon sun) neither would it be an efficient use of space to grow those plants. With herbs, you can use almost every part of the plant, as opposed to fruiting edibles which you harvest only for the fruit.

A benefit of balcony gardening is that you can grow Mediterranean herbs like lavender, rosemary, thyme and oregano. In Singapore, these herbs have to be grown in extremely loose and sandy soil under the correct light conditions. Growing them in small pots (as I do) promotes the fast drainage of water from the soil and prevents root rot.

The pride of my garden are the organic thymes (pictured above) which I’ve grown through cuttings, I water them only once every 4 days and they have started to sprout new leaves. They are aesthetically pleasing plants with almost feathery-like olive green branches, extremely fuss-free and pleasant to keep as you can brush your hands past them and they will beam back at you with their warm earthy fragrance. Their counter-parts, the rosemaries, on the other hand are known to incite fear in most tropical gardeners, and for that reason I personally find them less approachable albeit misunderstood.

As an aside, I’ve somehow found myself with more rosemary than I need for the year (very typical of me), and as such, I’ve offered them for sale on site at $8 per pot, orders can be put through Facebook or Instagram (linked to this blog).

3 weeks after the first pot was installed in my garden, things are starting to come together (picture taken before Christmas 2020):

(Pictures taken today, 9 January 2020):

Above is the view from my room.

If you’re wondering what those reddish pink bulbs are (at right-bottom), they are Hao cai tao (red carrot tops). They are grown during Chinese New Year for good luck . “cai tao” which means radish top, sounds similar to the Chinese term for a lucky charm.

Whilst the plants are growing relatively well, I know that it is not at its best yet. New gardens always take a certain amount of time to fully regulate and establish themselves. At the start, you can expect slow growth and plant death because the soil has not been built up. As soil health improves and the plants get used to your space, you may subsequently experience a quick exponential growth spurts.

Balcony gardens are also an effective way of creating a closed loop food system, to build your soil you could compost food waste from your kitchen and use that to fertilise your plants. My partner and I recently purchased a coffee machine and have been trialing it, needless-to-say, much of the “badly” frothed milk and used coffee grounds have gone into the pots. For apartment gardening, you may also consider bokashi composting, although I have not tried it myself.

So far, we have harvested culantro, ghost peppers, spring onions, thyme and mints from the humble balcony space. Below is a picture of herb infused water (pineapple mints and thyme):

Well, that concludes the setting-up of the balcony garden with more updates to come! Thank you for tuning in.

Best,

J.

Growing Japanese Summer Corn in Singapore

Sometime mid-August this year, I scheduled a visit to Kyoto for the annual summer pottery festival and cormorant fishing at Arashiyama. I also wanted to revisit the farming towns along Lake Biwa and try the summer fish that I heard so much about. Enroute up from Kyoto to Lake Biwa, we passed by fields after fields of rice plantations and stopped at a trout farm by the mountains for lunch. These farming practices are a testament to the pristine waters of the Shiga Prefecture.

Since we were visiting the area, I couldn’t pass up a chance to explore the Omihachiman canals. The canals, also known as hachiman-bori used to be an old merchant’s quarter and is known as japan’s Venice. There are many small shops that line the canal.

As mentioned above, Shiga prefecture is known for its quality agricultural produce, since I visited during the summer months when fruits and vegetables are at their peak I made it a point to go to a local farmer’s market. The one we visited is called ‘Omi Green Farmer’s Market’ located near Bakery&Cafe KiKi where we got our morning bread and coffee.

As you can tell the Market was very busy and it sold all sorts of rare and interesting produce like arab okras (small and stubby cousins of the green ladys fingers we have in Singapore, pictured below), white egg plants, pink mushrooms, blue potatoes and a huge variety of pumpkins and squash, some of which are ornamental.

On your right, you can see a man holding what appears to be a stalk of corn that has been cut down with the ear still intact. The cut ends were still moist and white, this clearly evinced the freshness of the corn. Some of you may be familiar with Hokkaido White Corn, popularised by its sweet fruit-like kernels that can be eaten raw (and are sometimes served in high end restaurants as a dessert), but the ones sold at this market were yellow.

I reproduce an extract of an article from Japan Times about corn in Japanese culture:

Sweet corn was first grown domestically in Hokkaido in the 1900s, when the northern island underwent large-scale development as farmland, but it didn’t become widely popular until the 1950s and ’60s. Hokkaido still dominates domestic corn production. Sweet corn is now a familiar and popular vegetable around the country, and fresh corn is a welcome fixture during the summer.

While purists prefer it to be simply boiled in salt water, a very Japanese way of cooking corn on the cob is to boil it briefly and then grill it while brushing the surface with soy sauce or a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and sugar. The nutty, salty flavor of the burned soy sauce is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the corn, and the smell as it cooks is irresistible. Grilled corn on the cob is a regular item at summertime festivals and barbecues.

by Makiko Itoh

Whilst my pops and I were able to try the grilled Japanese summer corn at the farmers market, I was curious to grow the yellow variety in my garden. Thankfully, I only had to go to the florist section to find an array of vegetable seeds, including yellow Japanese corn.

HOW TO GROW YELLOW JAPANESE SUMMER CORN

First, plant the seeds in moist loamy soil, that is 3:2:1 of potting soil, compost and rice husk/perlite.

Corn needs at least 4-5 KG of soil and a big pot to grow well.

For reference, I planted my seeds on 14 August in my large vegepod which has a depth of about 30cm.

Relying on whats recorded in my notebook:

By 19 August the corn was 8cm tall; by 23 August it hit 12 cm, on 8 September it was 25 cm, finally reaching 50-60cm by 21 September.

At this stage, the tassels started to grow.

The tassels are the male flowers on the top of the corn stalk that produce pollen. In corn plantations, wind pollination is sufficient for the pollen to reach the female part of the corn (ie the silk).

However, if you are growing corn at a housing corridor, rooftop garden or small-scale in a community garden/farm you will need to manually pollinate for fruit.

From my experience and research, I discovered that the tassels (male part) usually appear 3-4 days before the silk on the ear (female part). Once the tassels appear they will start producing pollen, each branch of tassel will open at different times (staggered blooming for the male corn flowers). Corn pollen is viable for 6 days if stored properly.

HOW TO STORE CORN POLLEN

With the above timelines in mind, you may now appreciate why corn pollen needs to be collected each time the tassels bloom (because the female sexual organs only appear 3-4 days later). That said, as pictured above, I collected the pollen, dried them in a cool breezy area for 1 hour and stored them in my freezer.

When the silk finally appeared, I carefully sprinkled the stored pollen over all of the silk ensuring that the male gametes are captured. This is an easy step as corn silk is “sticky” and pollen will adhere to it easily.

I then repeated this process 3 times over a span of 3 days.

This picture was taken on 8 October, you can see how well the kernels have developed but this ear of corn is not ready for harvesting.

WHEN TO HARVEST CORN

Sliced corn and corn ‘milk’

Knowing when to harvest your corn is extremely important. Pre-mature harvesting of the ear will yield tough and fibrous kernels that are not good for eating. Here are three ways to tell whether your corn is ripe:

  1. The silk has turned brown or black – the dying back of the silk indicates that pollination has been complete and the kernels are forming;
  2. The kernels are rounded and not pointed at the tip;
  3. The kernels fill the gaps on the cob and give the ear a ‘full’ appearance;
  4. If you press open one kernel it should produce a milky white substance, ‘corn milk’.

WARNING: when the corn becomes ripe, it gives of a sweet smell that attracts many insects and birds, protect your corn by wrapping it with plastic.

Continuing from above, I harvested this batch of corn on 17 October – approximately 2 months after I sowed the seeds.

I was extremely satisfied with this cycle. Not only did the kernels form (almost) completely around the cob, they were also succulent and sweet. Just like the Hokkaido white corn. If I had to give a taste analogy, Id say its akin to a crunchy star apple/milk fruit with a “beany” aftertaste.

I am now moving on to growing multicoloured gem corns. Hopefully they are as successful as this little experiment.

Till then,

J.