Quickie In The Garden
There is no better time to start your own edible garden than during a global health crisis. i.e. Now!!! You’re at home a lot more, access to fresh produce is becoming increasingly limited (apologies for sounding alarmist, this isn’t exactly the case in Singapore but… it could be!), or maybe you’re just looking for a feel-good activity to navigate these anxious times.
Here is a list of some vegetables to get you started. They are quick growing and relatively easy to look after.
1. Sweet potato leaves
One of our lovely neighbors left a bag of these by our vegetable patch early last year and we’ve never looked back since. They are so easy to propagate by stem cuttings and now we have an abundance of them, growing them as ground cover wherever we can.
I usually cut part of the vine off whenever I harvest – as opposed to just picking leaves off. After picking the nicer leaves off for cooking, I save the vines and cut them into pieces that are about 15cm long with at least 3 or 4 nodes before sticking them in some water.
Once they start to root, which usually happens within a couple of days, they are pretty much ready to go back into the ground. I’ve personally never grown them in containers but I’d go for something shallow (at least 15cm) and wide if you’re growing them for just their leaves.
We usually have them stir-fried with chopped garlic or with sambal belacan if we’re in the mood for something spicy. You can also just add them to soups. Yknow, like, if you’ve stocked up on lots of Maggi mee – just throw some sweet potato leaves in to up the nutritional value of an otherwise empty meal. They are a great source of antioxidant, vitamin C, vitamin A, niacin, and folic acid. And when compared to other leafy greens, possess more dietary fibre and nutrients.
Other leafy greens to try: kang kong, bok choy, amaranth, Brazilian spinach
Having a box of fresh salad greens growing on your balcony is the new Prada bag. That’s what I’m telling myself anyway. We aren’t in the habit of consuming raw salads as whole meals so having just a couple of boxes growing salad greens is more than enough for us to put together a side salad for a family of 5 twice a week.
There are many different kinds of salad greens to grow but I prefer to stick to a crunchy, neutral-tasting lettuce and then build up the flavours of my salad using the other herbs and flowers I have growing: ulam raja shoots (slightly bitter mango aftertaste), roselle shoots (citrusy), laksa leaves, basil, parsley, mints, marigold flowers, blue butterfly pea flowers, etc.
Salad greens do better in cooler climates and tend to taste bitter and even start to bolt when under heat stress, so try to keep them out of direct afternoon sun as much as possible. Morning sun is perfect for them.
Other salad greens to try: kale – I’ve seen many people have huge success with it but whenever I’ve tried, mine tends to get very leggy and ends up flopping all over the place making a right mess.
Good ol’ trusty beans. Again, so many varieties but my favourite by a long shot are purple long beans. Eat the rainbow, amirite?! They’re reliable, delicious, and so versatile in the kitchen. The only catch, they’re a climbing vine so you have to factor in a trellis or some sort of fence when choosing a location for them.
Compared to leafy vegetables (~40 days to harvest), it will be a little longer before you’re able to eat the beans of your labour (~60 days to harvest). You can expect your vine to put out a steady flow of beans over a month. For our family of 5 we usually have at least 3 vines going at any one time and then do succession sowing each month. Well, in theory, that’s what’s meant to happen but I always forget. (And I’m a bit lazy.)
As with any fruiting plant, they need to be growing in rich soil to be at their best. We mostly use our homemade compost, which gets them by. However, if you plan to grow your beans in containers, you may want to look into purchasing fertilizer. Try to go non-chemical and look out for something with an NPK ratio like 5-10-10. Nitrogen (N) promotes healthy green leaves and stems, which is beside the point in this instance. Phosphorus (P) promotes strong roots and potassium (K) conditions the whole plant, helping it to bear fruit and resist disease.
Other fruiting vegetables to try: winged beans – I LOVE them, and the ones you get at the market are just never as fresh or tender. For us, they haven’t been as productive as the purple long beans even though they put out lots of flowers. Bitter gourd – super easy to grow and super low maintenance.
4. Green onions
I discovered this by accident when one of our store-bought onions started to sprout after sitting in a basket in the kitchen for too long. I buried the bulb and more shoots of green started to emerge. To harvest, simply cut near the base and more will grow right back. Once chopped, they make a nice garnish for anything.
Other kitchen-scrap vegetables to try re-growing: coriander, lemongrass – just be sure they still have their roots intact.
For those looking to mix things up in the kitchen, I implore you to have a go at these scarlet globe radishes! My mother-in-law gave these seeds to us when she visited and I wasn’t convinced myself that they’d sprout here in the tropics, but here we are! This isn’t something I eat regularly and probably have only ever had it at some fancy restaurant – where they’d give you like, a thin slice in your salad – but sometimes it’s nice to grow something you’re not familiar with.
Don’t be fooled by how tiny and innocent they look because they actually pack a real punch. As for their tops, which are edible as well, they have a slightly coarse texture and don’t work well in salads unless they’re young and very small. They can be cooked like any other green, but you’ll want to use young and tender leaves there too. Apparently, the greens are more nutritious than the roots. We chopped ours up with some basil, garlic, and butter. Then spread it on bread and stuck in the toaster oven for a bit.
At the end of the day, when deciding what to grow in your edible garden, think about the vegetable and fruit that you enjoy eating and start there. Then consider the conditions in your growing area and how much time/energy you’re willing to put in, and things should slowly start falling into place. Go on then!