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.

Garden-to-Stove: Green Cincau

In recent weeks, I’ve finally found the time to re-create my favourite foods from my travels. One of them is green cincau.

I knew that green cincau existed because a few gardeners in Malaysia would share photos in the Facebook groups of the dessert. In 2018, I acquired a few cuttings and started growing them in my garden as ornamentals. They remind me of vanilla orchid vines with thick green stems and firm succulent leaves. However, before Covid-19, I was suffering from something I term “gardener’s curse” and barely bothered to harvest and cook from my garden (despite growing lots of edible crops). So the vines went pretty much untouched for 2 years until I was scrolling through my albums and found a photo of the green cincau I had at a rooftop restaurant in Vietnam (Saigon):

I recall being slightly unimpressed by this rendition of the dessert, as there were too many trapped air bubbles in the cincau jelly giving it a strange plasticy / spongy mouth-feel. I understand that not many people might empathise with me on this, probably because this dessert is quite uncommon overseas and definitely here in Singapore. But essentially, when cincau leaves are blended with water they produce a slimy substance that can be set into a jelly in the fridge. The texture is like seaweed based agar agar, except slightly softer and it has a mild taste of wheatgrass. Of course, traditionally the cincau leaves are hand pressed and worked into a paste that is then introduced to water. This minimises the number of air bubbles in the cincau jelly and avoids the spongy texture. However, modern day cooks tend to just use a blender to blend the cincau leaves with water, thus trapping a lot of tiny air bubbles within the mixture. One way to remove said bubbles, is to tap them out of the mixture after you’ve put it into the mould.

To make green cincau jelly, you need:

Ingredients

  1. 100 cincau leaves (Cyclea barbata)
  2. 2.5 litres of warm water
  3. Cloth strainer or muslin cloth
  4. Wooden setting mould or a baking pan with a flat bottom

Method

Wash the cincau leaves, then blend it with the water in a blender. Alternatively, you could crush the cincau leaves with your hands until it breaks apart and releases its slimy texture. After which you would start to introduce the water.

Once that is done, use the cloth strainer to remove the chunky fibrous leaf bits in the mixture and press out the clear green jelly (pictured above).

Pour into a mould for setting in the fridge, leave for 4-6 hours.

Remove from fridge and cut into cubes or use a spoon to scoop the jelly into a bowl.

Ladle over some cold coconut milk and gula melaka (palm sugar) or add sugar syrup over the jelly to serve.

I made this dessert for my first garden guest in 3 months, who is a Business Times photographer. He was so kind to meet me in the early AM before work, so I made it a point to prepare a cooling dessert for him. He mentioned he really enjoyed eating it and suggested that I put up some of the jelly up for sale. Unfortunately, green cincau jelly has a tendency to “shrink” the longer it is kept in the fridge and if kept for too long it starts to produce a brownish purple water. For that reason, authentic fresh jelly cannot be commercially sold.

For the benefit of those wanting to try this dessert, I know there are a few home gardeners selling cincau leaves on Carousell or Shopee (little suspect, so please do your due diligence before purchasing). And there are some nice write-ups by Prof Wong on green cincau on the Nparks platform as well as an article on black cincao which is notably made from completely different plants, https://tropicalgardener.wordpress.com/2010/12/07/introducing-the-cincau-plant-mesona/

I have plans to start releasing small plants or batches of leaves so that more locals can try to make this wonderful food!

Always,

J.