The Occasional Gardener: Ideas + Aesthetics + Inspiration from the Garden

A Tropical Potager


I'm currently working on transforming an area in the south western corner of my garden into a Potager of sorts and by that I mean an area that combines edibles and ornamentals... and more. 'More' because I want it to also reflect not just culinary but also medicinal and ethnobotanical uses that plants here possess given the favorable year round tropical growing conditions and also the diverse cultural influences in this region.

We have spice trees, plants that are used to make baskets and mats, medicinal plants, leaves that are used as wrappers to cook food and line plates and the list continues. The challenge here is more about having these ideas represented without them being overwhelming or scattered and ultimately also look for a real modern day relevance specifically for me as I interact with this garden resource on a daily basis.

Aesthetically, I want it unruly and somewhat romantic in the tradition of cottage gardens which is at odds with the local perception for a kitchen or 'useful' garden which tends to be starkly practical. I also struggled with what this might look like, cottage gardens iconically being English or cool temperate until I went to the Singapore Garden Festival last year and saw one exhibit combining shrubs and small trees mixed with lemon grass and herbaceous flowers, ie tropical plants but put together in a cottage garden way. Seeing the layering and the contrast of textures with local plants was an 'ok, I got it' moment.

The actual site has provided some limitations and challenges. It is situated close to the septic field, so any kind of tree is out of the question as the roots will cause havoc. The soil was almost pure clay so I dug up sizeable borders, edged them with concrete bricks and filled them with a loamier mix of better topsoil (from another part of the garden), compost and sand. The remaining space I lined with old newspapers and laid a few inches of gravel. This concrete brick edging and gravel is also a strategy to contrast its geometric order with a more 'exuberant' planting inside those borders

Part of this garden is shaded by my neighbour's tree but most of it is open to all day sun. To have taller elements that casts some essential shade for lowing growing plants I am opting for shallow rooted but large herbaceous plants like bananas, papayas and some members of the ginger family. Another is to have trees in pots that I can place in the border and in other strategic areas.  I am amassing a small collection of interesting specimens, so far I have a clove tree, a cashew nut tree and a tamarind tree. In the picture, the feathery foliage in the foreground is Tamarind and to the right the red tinged leaves are Clove.

For edibles I have herbs: cuban sage, lemon grass, Pandanus, parsley, and three kinds of basil thai, italian and holy. I also have water convulvus and a variety of other local greens that really require another post to detail. Since I also have another section of the garden destined to be more for vegetables, I'm keeping the selection here 'prettier'. I have some seed packets of red amaranth and four angle bean for example that also have pretty flowers and leaves that will soon be deployed.

Then there's medicinal. I have Andrographis Paniculatafor immune issues, Persicaria Capitata for digestive issues and Rue for bruises and sprains. I also have Citronella and citronella smelling Geranium for mosquito deterrents whose leaves I also trim and bring indoors to add to baskets of potpourri.

For flowers, I have a few that I've yet to identify that were begged off the lady down the street who has them growing outside her property, one identifiable one is a yellow flowered Pavonia Spinifex. Occasionally I find something at the farmers market or at a local nursery like the burgundy leaved Celosia pictured above.

More details later, just a quick sketch for now to describe the key elements of this garden.

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