Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Organic lemongrass – from market to garden

Here’s another plant that you can grow from what you buy in the market :)

Lemongrass, or Cymbopogon citratus, is used in cooking in Malaysia – though not as much as in Thailand. It gives a spicy lemony flavour to food, and anyone who tried Tom Yam (the Thai seafood dish) will recognise it. It’s called serai makan in Malay (literally ‘lemongrass eat’), distinguishing it from serai wangi (‘lemongrass fragrant’) or Cymbopogon nardus, from which citronella is extracted – it’s effective in keeping mosquitoes away, but is invasive.

WW just stuck two of the stems we got from the market into the ground; actually they had been in the fridge for some days – and I was dubious about whether they would grow. But after about a week one of them started to sprout

They prefer full sun, or light shade, and a loamy soil. After 12 days the second stem was growing too. They don’t smell of anything yet though.

Eventually, it can become a largish clump of ornamental grass – for the moment it will stay in the pot until we can decide what to do with it

Here are some tips for American gardeners who want to try it; and some more advice and well as recipes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Growing organic mint from cuttings - Update

Sorry for the long hiatus – got a lot on my plate at the moment…

Here’s an update on the organic mint cuttings. The ones I put in the water have failed miserably

there was one leaf valiantly hanging on when I took this photo, but it soon went too. Maybe I should have changed the water? Or used clean water originally? I dunno…

Anyway, for the other ones I planted most of them died, but some survived and are starting to grow :)

This pot is an experiment – it has no drainage (originally used for ‘water cabbage’ or Pistia stratiotes) – so it fills up with water. This is not good for mint in theory, which prefers drained soil, but I have put the pot in a place that does not get most of the rain, and empty it out after rain; I’m wondering whether, when there is enough mint growing, the plants will draw up and use the water – meaning it will not get waterlogged.

There’s a high chance that won’t work, so I moved some to another pot where it also seems to have taken root.

I had a sniff at the leaf the other day and it smells really fresh and nice! I can’t wait to have enough to be able to harvest and put some in my tea in the morning :)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tiger Orchid and Dragonfly

Just a short one. There will more pictures of the my parents-in-law's blossoming Tiger Orchid, or Rossioglossum grande later on, but the other night there were two dragonflies on it for some reason. And I found out that a flash at night can have a useful effect sometimes (the black background).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Growing organic mint from cuttings

Well, I love to have fresh mint tea, and some fresh mint can really improve some dishes, so I've been meaning to grow some for a while now. Typically I buy a bunch like this from the pasar malam (night market)

There are many types of mint, but I think this kind is spearmint, or Mentha spicata. It will cost about RM1.50 (apprx. 40 US cents), but the problem is that mint quickly wilts and goes mushy. No doubt it has also been sprayed with pesticides, etc.

I had been looking around for seeds or plants, and then someone told me that they are easy to grow from cuttings - so I did a quick Google and found this helpful guide (it's a pdf).

First, strip the stalks of the lower leaves (reduces water loss through transpiration apparently).

Secondly, plant in a pot - I just buried as much as I could in the soil as the roots will grow from the nodes where the leaves were.

Importantly, note that mint is very invasive - put it in a pot, or bottomless pot in the ground.

Apparently, you can also get the roots started in water (like here), so I'm trying that too.

It will be interesting to see the roots growing. I put some of my organic vermicompost in the water to supply nutrients.

It will take 2-3 weeks to get some results, will update then.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Harvesting organic vermicompost

I just harvested the organic vermicompost from my worm bin after leaving it for about eight weeks.

There’s a lot I have still to learn, but I’m not displeased with my first harvest – perhaps a kilo of vermicompost. It’s not all dry and in little pellets as it would be if you bought it (e.g. Worm Castings - 30lb), but that’s because they usually sieve it, and so on. I will spread it under my jasmine bush, the Rangoon creeper and use some to mix into the soil for some new plants.

Here’s a short film (three minutes) showing the process of removing the compost and restarting the worm bin.

There’s lots of information by more knowledgeable people out there of course. Virginia Cooperative Extension has a useful short guide here; and a PowerPoint here.

You can also locate vermicomposters near you at

I’ve seen this book recommended as well:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why do I garden?

I garden to take time off from a world where everything moves too fast; I garden to learn more about the earth I’m standing on.

This is for the Blotanical competition :) If I get one of the books, it's going to my mum in Belgium as it wouldn't be much use to me here in Malaysia...

Zingiberaceae in Laos (?)

This is another plant spotted on the sidewalk in Vientiane, Laos.

I can only guess at what it is – the reddish bamboo-like stalks reminded me of the Zingiberaceae (ginger) family, which is surprisingly large as I am finding out recently – there are more than 1300 species, and even turmeric is part of the ginger family (which I should have guessed, having seen fresh turmeric root on sale in the pasar malam (night market)).

This one attracted me because of the unusual dangling flower stems, which incidentally rather look like crimped hair. Because of this feature, I think that it is of the Globbeae (or Globba) genus.

And the flower was a very delicate, paper tissue-like pale pink.

The photos don't really do them justice, they were very nice :)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pennisetum in Laos

Just to continue on the ornamental grass theme – here is an example of how common they are (photo taken somewhere near Kasi, Laos). You can see the white heads spreading all along the field here.

Here is a closer shot of the right-hand side of the above scene. I think that they are of the Pennisetum genus, possibly the Pennisetum alopecuroides. Though I wasn’t close enough to be able to see them properly. They were growing pretty high I’d say – 5-6ft.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ornamental grass - Sunrise in Vang Vieng, Laos

(hope this post goes up, the previous one doesn't appear on the blog for some reason...)

I got up for the sunrise this morning, and managed to catch this photo of some ornamental grass (at least that's what it would be called in a garden setting, I suppose) with the sunrise.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Hibiscus in Laos

Well, I think they are hibiscus. What struck me first about this tree was that there seemed to be flowers of different colours on the same plant - but now I think of it, it's probably two plants intertwined.

Anyway, I thought it looked very nice :)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Lilies in Vientiane, Laos

I'm in Laos right now, so I'll try to post some photos of garden related things. I won't be able to look them up and give their proper names and all that though.

Here are three lovely lilies (? I think) I saw in some pots outside a small hotel. The photos don't really do them justice, their colours were so clear and sparkling they almost looked like artificial flowers.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Zephyr lily rapid growth

Well, I thought that it would take a lot longer, but after only four days, one of the Zephyr lilies has bloomed already :)

I measured it approximately, and it grew about 20 cm in four days! I’m impressed.

Maybe our vermicompost helped :)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Transplanting a Zephyr Lily

We got these flowers from our aunt in Pontian, and they have kept alive but not always thrived – with no help from Gambit as a puppy, who liked to dig up everything! They have got better recently and started to bloom more often.

I managed to identify the variety quickly in Plants for Tropical Landscapes, which is one of the books I have. It’s a good one as it has pictures for all the plants, and is organised according to categories – with basic information on each plant – preferred conditions, and growing pattern.

It grows very attractive flowers which last a long time when cut and put in water (by a long time I mean two days, which is maybe not so long when I think of it – but they keep their shape and colour nicely).

It’s a Zephyranthes candida; also known as Zephyr Lily, Fairy Lily or White Rain Lily. Like the Calathea Lutea it is also originally from South America. It’s an annual in the northern climes, but over here it grows all year round – we have it in a wide round pot, but I suspect it is not deep enough as the flowers/green stalks don’t stand up well. The book and others sites recommend light shade, which may explain why ours never grows that well – I think before it had too much shade, and now it may have too little, being in front of the house.

WW decided to transplant some to under the frangipani tree – maybe it will be better there although there is not so much shade there either. As you can see, they grow from bulbs.

Always water in transplanted plants well – as my mother taught me. WW also chops off the stalks to promote growth in the roots while it’s settling in.

It will hopefully add a burst of colour under the tree – further updates in a month or so, I guess :)

There are also different coloured varieties of this flower – Zephyranthes grandiflora (purple), and Zephyranthes citrina (yellow). I can imagine that mixing these up in a flower bed could be very nice.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Goa beans first harvest

Our latest kacang botol (goa beans, winged beans, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus) plant has started to produce (for photos of growth stages see this earlier post).

This was seven days ago

This was today

and this is what we got out of it

It's enough for one dish, and would sell in the local market for RM1-2 (USD 0.25-0.5), so it's not like we're saving loads of money, but... it's organic, it will taste better, it cost us nothing (the seeds are from previous plants) and it hasn't had to be grown elsewhere and transported here using fuel, etc. So overall, it's a net benefit to us and to our wonderful planet :)

Grow your own! :D If you want to buy Goa bean seeds, you can get them on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Calathea Lutea - bract and flower

I only knew that this was a kind of Calathea, and after much searching, I finally got the right one (tip – try Google Image instead of all the taxonomic databases!). It’s a Calathea lutea. There are some photos from a Malaysian here, and A Neotropical Savanna has some detailed information – apparently it is native to South/Central America (for example, Costa Rica), and the leafs can be used to cook tortillas in! Over here, banana, bamboo and pandanus leafs are often used to cook things in.

Apparently, this branch of the Marantaceae family are also known as ‘prayer plants’ because the leaves fold up at night. I never really noticed this, but now that it’s mentioned it makes sense, I’ll have to check it out though.

The red part of the ‘flower’ is a ‘bract’, and the little yellow flower is, well, a flower :)

They are useful as shade along the front fence and have no problem with direct sunlight – they are often used in landscaping around buildings and roads. Ours do need a lot of regular pruning to avoid unsightly dying and dead leaves. I reckon it probably needs a well fertilised soil, and will grow to about 1.5-2m – it spreads by rhizomes and has grown new clusters easily enough.

Oh and, by the way, meet Gambit :)

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Vermicomposting for organic compost

WW has kindly allowed me to take over one of her worm bins, and I fed them for the first time a couple of days ago. Vermicomposting is an easy way to turn your kitchen scraps into great organic compost. We made our own worm bins but, if you want a more fancy setup, the cheapest 'Worm factory' on Amazonis US$66.95, and they also sell wormsby the pound.

Another option is to check out to see if there's anyone in your area who will share some advice and worms with you.

This is how it looked at first - to the left mostly paper, and to the right the older section where the worms have been at work for some weeks

the worms are all hiding below the surface, as they don't like the light, but if you turn over the soil a bit you can see lots of them

You can feed worms any *vegetable* (no animal products - i.e. meat or dairy) waste, but onions, garlic, citrus and melon skins are to be avoided (the latter because of the high water content; also no oily, salty or cooked foods. We normally store up appropriate stuff in the freezer and add it in every few weeks or something - otherwise, the rest of the vegetable waste goes into the garden compost bin.

Layer it on the newer section, the worms will slowly migrate to that side as they finish up on the other side

On top, a layer of dry leafs (bamboo, in this case), and a little soil to help them digest. Covering it up well also prevents fruit flies and the like from becoming a nuisance.

Then, the bin goes back under the sink and the worms left alone to do their work :)

I'll be posting updates every two weeks or so, to see the changes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Growing Philippine lawn grass

Here are a few photos taken after we had started our attempt to reclaim the lawn. We cleared an area and laid down some sods of Philippine grass (as it’s called here) – it’s almost impossible to find grass seeds here for some reason.

I’m not sure what the exact name of the grass is, it seems to be some kind of Cynodon I think, because it creeps along the ground, propagating via stolons and rhizomes. But the Cynodon dactylon that is referred to most often also has ‘spikes’ sticking out with seeds, which this one doesn’t. This kind of grass is also called Bermuda grass, and is very common on golf courses from what I gather.

*Edit 09/04/09*: according to anonymous below, it's actually Zoysia matrella. Which makes sense, looking at the description. And I think that what I thought were weeds are in fact the "Inflorescence [which] is a short, terminal spikelike raceme with spikelets on short appressed pedicels."

The first photo is a few days after we laid it down. We split up the mats we had bought in order to save money by letting grow to take up the spaces. You can see a stolon creeping across here.

The disadvantage of this method is that there are lots of opportunities for weeds to grow - especially since you have added some nice new topsoil and fertiliser (don't you hate fertilising weeds!) and are watering diligently (not too much, but don't let it dry out).

Three days later: it's grown a small bit, but you can also see the weeds have popped up a lot faster. At this point, it's necessary to weed by hand regularly (ideally every day), just to stop the weeds taking hold.

Nineteen days later, you can see a distinct difference, with the gap getting smaller. The weeds are still there though. Eventually, the weeds have more and more difficulty competing with the grass, and become only an occasional annoyance.

Bermuda grass actually seen as a problem in many areas, as it is very difficult to get rid of – but quite frankly, that’s an advantage compared to the grass we had been advised to get initially. It was called Pearl Grass, and it died off slowly (another story for another post). I would recommend Philippine grass for tropical gardens - it grows well in the sun, does not suffer with too much water, and is very tough and resistant to encroachment by weeds.

If you’re looking for a book on lawns, The Impatient Gardener's Lawn Book seems to have some good reviews, and is not too pricy.