Aloe Aloe

I bought a couple and then a friend brought some over from his garden, then they multiplied and now I have a rather larger collection of Aloes. I'm not complaining, they look great with their sculptural shapes and the myriad of pups that they send out filling out the Gravel Garden nicely but I didn't anticipate their vigour. They have pretty much outgrown any pot or container that I put them in and look painfully crowded wherever they are in the border as they push up against their neighbours.

A serious lift and separate session is long overdue which I'm not looking forward to as one thing I have noticed about them is that they really don't like to be moved. They recover alright but spend a fair amount of time looking miserably discolored and not at all their perky selves. I'm not sure yet if I want to replant all of them if they are that vigorous. Perhaps I should thin them out and give them more room and pass some on to neighbours.

Another disappointment is the flowers. I see the flower spikes emerge with a blush of orange and then they wither and die off. Not all all like the spectacular racemes that I have seen images of. The internet is not giving me much information as to why this is happening. Is it too humid here and too damp with all the rain? Its certainly not affecting the plants who seem happy in the dry gravel mulched slope and pots that they inhabit. Must get to the bottom of this as I need a little more color here in the Gravel Garden.

What on the other hand is a tremendous resource is the gel that the leaves yield. There is near always one in my refrigerator on standby for minor cuts and itchies, I've used it to gel my hair and occasionally as an antiperspirant. The locals here make a drink with it and tell me its good for digestive issues. After a bout of gardening nothing beats a fridge cooled slice of aloe to soothe the battle wounds of tussling with weeds and scratchy plants.

The slight spotting and the flower shape indicates that these Aloes might be Aloe Massawana, see also this. It is certainly the only kind that I see here growing in gardens or available at the nurseries, and come to think of it I don't think I've seen it flower anywhere else.

Brutal Harvest

Its Durian season. Its the second one I've had to deal with and its brutal. As it gets into full swing, up to ten fruits fall a day with a crashing thud. The heavy spiked fruits can be lethal if they fall on you, as one nearly did the other day missing me by a few feet. There is a myth that they fall only at night. Not true, it can be at any time of the day or night.

First thing in the morning, I don a construction hat and head down into the orchard to pick whatever's fallen and keep an eye out through the day for more mainly because fruit lying around attracts thieves. I noticed this the first harvest when fruit I was pretty sure I had seen lying on the ground in the morning was no longer there in the evening. Then I saw the occasional chap climb over the wall to help himself. Durians are expensive nowadays so the temptation to indulge is sufficient to lead one to crime it seems.

After they fall, they don't last very long, no more than two days. I have to either shell them and keep the fruit in the fridge or freezer or they end up in the compost heap. I like durians but I don't love them so after a few days I've had my fill after which I just want to get rid of them. So everyday after that, I play Santa Claus calling in friends and neighbours to come help themselves. Most locals here love durians so the invitation elicits squeals of joy and by the end of each day all the durians go home with very appreciative folk.

I now pick them up and put them straight into a closed garbage can which helps but doesn't completely remove the heavy smell, some would say stench of the ripe fruit that fills the air. This year I've got a better handle on it than I did last year with a lot of ripe and overipe fruit around it was intense. This year, the Rambutans have decided to fruit at the same time and there's a lot of fallen fruit that decomposes adding another wine like odor to the mix.

Not all the trees fruit each time, this year the D24 is really good and there's a classic local or kampung variety that I really like -small fruit with just a few seeds but a nice flavor. Another couple of weeks of this and it'll be over, which I'm quite looking forward to.

White Corner

I have yet another 'section' in my garden that has endured a shuffling and reshuffling of items, starting life as a repository for 'undecideds' whilst I tinkered with the other sections. Gradually though an idea of sorts emerged and it is now my White Corner. It is literally a two sided corner with its main idea initiated by plants that I've inherited from my Dad's garden which include a white Jessamine, white Bougainvillea, white Gardenia Jasminoides, and an assortment of white vareigated foliage plants.

I inherited from the previous tenant a Wrightia Religiosa, pictured right and then went on to purchase Jasmine Multiflorum, pictured left, Clerodendrum Calamitosum,  and also Vallaris Glabra. Apart from the Bougainvillea - all the other white blooms are fragrant which is the other defining feature of this corner. Other non scented white flowers are Wrightia Antidysenterica and white Madagascar periwinkle both not doing terribly well which needs some looking into. Doing ok are white Ixora and Eucharis grandiflora.

This idea of scent has also informed some further development in this corner as I want that scent to 'envelop' the visitor to that corner, so I'm now trying, with the help of some recently purchased bamboo poles, to create an arbor of sorts for the Jasmine to clamber over. One side of this 'corner' is a bamboo fence that encloses a covered dining patio which also provides a vertical growing space.

The other side of this corner is a walled bed which contains more foliage elements - notably Acalypha Siamensis, a Strobilanthes Crispa and Syngonium Podophyllum all of whom started out rather modestly but have turned out to be quite thuggish. Not a bad thing as I need the space filled for now but it requires a fair amount of cutting back. Along with the white flowered weed Mikania micrantha at the back that helps to cover a wire fence, I'm looking to slowly displace them with other things as the bed matures. Except the Acalypha which I clipped into a ball shape and looks quite interesting.

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The Stranglers

Strangler figs are a common sight here, often found sprouting on the walls of abandoned buildings. Patrick Le Blanc has some photos of Ficus Religiosa doing exactly that on his inspiration page, as one source of his ideas for developing his renowned vertical gardens.

Here, we seem to see more Ficus Benjamina, which if left unsupervised will quickly wrap masonry with its vicious tentacles. We also see many trees in their murderous grip, the photo on the left being one taken after, when the deed is done. The strangler, seeds itself somewhere in the branches of the host tree, wrapping itself around its host until its own canopy along with its crushing tendrils kill it, replacing the tree that was once there. The photo is poignant as its a photo taken at my childhood home. Once there was a Cajeput tree there, a native to this region related to the Tea tree. Now, this giant unrecognizable Banyan, is the only thing left standing as the old house was also recently torn down.

In the empty plot that is adjacent to mine, what was once the property of a ballet school, there are some large Ficus Benjamina that I can see from my house and it represents something different altogether. It is the perch of hundreds of birds that frolic daily in its branches enjoying its regularly bounty of small berries. As urbanization continues to clear oases of natural vegetation like this one and the fauna that survive in it, it is is a joy to watch this vibrant hum of natural wild activity.

Something about the rampancy of how these trees grow speaks of the tropics and what I find is a huge challenge gardening here - how quickly things get out of hand. Suddenly before you know it there's a tree growing in the wall that you can no longer dislodge. There were a couple such trees growing on the outside of my southern wall which by the time I got round to checking, were huge.

I ripped them off, gouged out what I could of their insidous roots and dragged them back home. No mean feat as the larger of the two is about 12 feet tall. I shoved them into a couple of large pots and though they are complaining bitterly with a massive leaf drop, I'm hoping they'll get over it and I will have some badly needed instant shade for the dark verandah.

Looking at all the dropped leaves, I am reminded of the large Ficus benjamina I had in my rented London room a few decades ago, for which I paid a small fortune which would similarly drop all its leaves after a particularly bad spate of neglect but could be cajoled back to life after a little TLC. Back then I didn't even know that this popular houseplant was native to my home country where I am now and see these strange creatures everywhere.

Fern and Vine

I've started planting a corner of the large bed I started around the Dark Verandah and some random happenstances have turned out to be really quite delightful. Two of them are pictured above, a dark sweet potato vine and a black stemmed fern.

On visiting a friend's garden I managed to score a couple of lengths of the sweet potato vine - I've not seen it for sale in the nurseries. I put it at the base of the black bamboo I had recently transplanted. Sadly the black bamboo died- it only had a few leaves left to begin with when I transferred it there from the pot it was in. Then I notice one day that those few leaves had shrivelled, the vine below however was very much alive. Then one day connected the dots, why not let the vine travel up. Bam. I now have a dark sooty column thats already six or seven feet high creating a strong architectural shape in the border.

This particular fern often seeded itself in the plant pots at my dad's house. I allowed its own pot and discovered quite a large attractive fern, finely cut foliage, dark black stems and elegant fiddleheads dusted with white. I still find volunteers in the pots so I transferred them into the bed nestling them in with the black vine unsure if it might be too sunny. Not at all. Its thriving and getting quite big so I'm adding more as I find them to form a colony.

I've no idea what this fern is but I'm amassing a small collection of them by  finding them self seeded in walls around the property, in the monsoon drains, on my walks growing on the trunks of trees. The variety is quite amazing. I'm presuming they are all native as I really do want to try and keep this part of the garden native. The Sweet Potato vine isn't indigenous, with South American origins, but a little research tells me that they have been around in this part of the world for a long time like that other settler that seems almost local, the Chilli. In fact the locals commonly eat the sweet potato leaves as a vegetable which you don't see in the west.

The visual chemistry of this fern with the vine is quite spectacular as the dark vine trails underneath and behind it as it crawls upwards creating the perfect foil for the lacy foliage. The black stalks also echo the admittedly dead black bamboo ones. All in all, with some of the other interesting things going on around which I'll detail later like a purple leaved Persian Shield and some dark coleus, my Dark Verandah is coming along.

Compost Happens

At  the back of the house, there is a brick structure which I believe were destined to be dog kennels. Unfinished, the walls are about four foot high forming two bays with an open front that looked very much like compost heaps I had seen in a grander garden somewhere on my travels. Of course that is exactly how I have utilised them.

The windfall of having a structure that might as well have been purpose built for composting is additionally sweetened by a ridiculous amount of available organic material. The grass gets cut twice a month which is a couple of feet's worth in one of those bays. Then trimmings of sugar cane, banana and papaya trees and miscellaneous garden cuttings supplement the kitchen waste of coffee grounds, vegetables, fruit trimmings etc. The supply is prolific. I even have the choice of occasionally dragging a neighbours bag of grass or trimming from outside.

I don't even turn it. Days of hot dry sun and then soaking tropical thunderstorm make the decomposition process intense and it is year round. Once one bay is full, I start filling the next and halfway through, the first bay is composted and ready to be used.

I use the layer just above the compost that is not quite ready but has started to break down as a 'nourishing mulch' for the plant beds in the Potager which are closest to this heap. I might mix this with some dried leaves too. The compost I then use in the specific areas I'm planting or mixed with some top soil for potting. The compost is a rich dark chocolate cake which I just marvel at and harvest so to speak in roughly three month cycles. I can't quite believe how ridiculously easy this is now that I 've got into a groove with it.

I avoid putting weeds  in there although the grass cuttings may unintentionally include some and a friend advised against any kind of citrus that has bactericide properties that can slow down the process. Once while helping myself to some of that luscious dirt  with my hands I scooped up a gigantic grub, possibly a rhinocerous beetle. I don't ever do that anymore with my hands.

I also have an unofficial compost heap outside these bays, against one of the walls. Here I do put weeds and turf and twiggy branches that I can't be bothered to strip of their leaves but no kitchen stuff and I leave it for a longer time. I started doing this because I didn't really know what to do with all of that and discovered that after a year, it composted just the same, but with a little more woody bits that need to be sifted out.

I use this other compost when I'm planting a new bed, turning it in deeper so that there is less chance of weed material having any effect. My guess is that with a longer breakdown, it's less likely to happen. Although, I'm beginning to not worry so much about this as weeds from blown seed is so prolific that the real game is in making sure there's a good amount of mulch and some kind of weeding goes on before they get out of hand.

Its a good job that I do have this resource because the soil here is incredibly clayey. At first I followed the lead of the locals in leaving it that way, as plants seemd to do fairly well in their gardens but then they also do a lot of watering (that clay gets hard when its dry) and a lot of fertilizing. I have since learnt to manage better by reverting to a soil  mix that I've learnt with experience is pretty much an ideal growing medium - sandy loam.

Where there's Smoke

It rained today. An event that has acquired new meaning since we were shrouded with haze billowing in from the neighbouring Indonesian islands.  The dry weather that brought the haze finally gave way, thunder rumbled for hours as we waited with bated breath literally until the rain came and washed a week's suffering away. What was joyful relief  has now instilled a new found sense of gratitude every time it rains.

That week, the days began with an anxious checking of the air pollutant index to see with growing wariness the numbers escalate to unhealthy and then hazardous levels. The authorities warned everyone to stay at home with the air conditioning on and not go outside. I don't have air conditioning. I live in an older house in a less urbanised neighbourhood that's better ventilated and suited to living with just fans. The pictures above show a landscape with almost a dreamlike quality wrapped in mist except it wasn't mist it was acrid particulate smoke that you could smell and irritated your eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

New to this phenomenon, I navigated a sizeable learning curve trying to understand the problem I was dealing with and what I should do. The first discovery is that there are quite a few measurements for pollutants out there and both Malaysia's API and Singapore's PSI don't include PM2.5 which is the finer particulate that gets into your lungs and stays there. On learning this I became more vigilant about closing windows and doors. A few days later, the numbers started to go down aided by the intervention of cloud seeding and waterbombing and finally, it rained.

A casual mention on my facebook timeline alerted me to the effects of haze in the garden. A friend noted that leaves were turning yellow. Another friend echoed the same and I ran outside to see its effect on mine. Indeed, here and there I could see it too. The haze wasn't just choking us, it was doing the same to other living beings too. And not just flora, there was all the wildlife that can't stay inside in the air conditioning or put a mask on.

As the fires raged in indonesia, so did public opinion about who was to blame and whether adequate measures were being taken. Indonesian leaders deflected blame to the unscrupulous land clearing practises of Malaysian and Singaporean Palm oil companies situated in Indonesia. Singaporeans complained about the government's continued use of the PSI, accusing them of hiding the truth. In Malaysia there was such poorly disseminated information, that even a well intentioned Cabinet minister comically gave out 40,000 face masks that had no ability to protect the wearer from harmful effects.

Amidst  the din of all this, little analysis has been given to the real arsonist here, the spiralling demand for Palm oil based products. Demand for palm oil has doubled in the last thirteen years and is predicted to more than double again by 2030 and to triple by 2050 to keep up with the spiralling demand for more chocolates, cookies, cosmetics, air fresheners to name a few. This is the fire, that really needs to be put out.

Tropical Harvest

Doing some clearing up in the garden also means scoring a small bounty of produce. Enough even to share, so I walked over with some to my neighbour and on the way home foraged a couple more things that grow by the side of the road.

Looking at what I had in hand, I realized that this is all really quite different from my previous life as a gardener in the New York area. My tropical harvest is not only of different botanic material, but three years now living back home in the tropics, they are also the ingredients of a different cuisine and lifestyle.

Lets start bottom right where I have some Pandan leaves, Pandanus amaryllifolius, and some Cymbopogon nardus, Citronella grass. The Citronella, I have by accident. I bought what I thought was lemon grass from the farmers market and since some still had roots, I planted them in the garden. I always thought they looked a little different, the stalks have a brown skin that curls away. One day a friend came over, sniffed a leaf and said- that's Citronella.

I trim it when it gets untidy and braid it with the pandan leaves to use as an indoor freshener that also has insect repellant properties. The Pandan leaves are traditionally used for cooking, added for fragrance to coconut rice and also color to some local cakes, but I noticed some locals with a bunch tied into a knot under their car seat for these air freshening and repellant properties.

The Kaffir limes which I thought were not edible, except as marmalade, are in fact quite edible. I read this somewhere which said that left to mature on the tree, they are not as bitter. Indeed, its nomore than grapefruit bitter and there's an interesting perfumed flavor that echoes the leaves which are more commonly used in Tom Yam. Nice squeezed into a glass of cold water.

The other fruit is Averrhoa bilimbi, Blimbing, a cousin of the starfruit that is sharply sour. I've had it pickled with slices of lemon as a side or mixed with a sambal but I also like it sliced thinly as a sour note in a salad. This is one of the foraged items that grows on the trunk of a tree across the street.

The other foraged item is those pods on the top, Leucaena leucocephala, Petai Cina. The tiny seed inside is another great salad item, nutty with a slight pungency reminiscent of a popular vegetable here the much larger Petai, Parkia Speciosa which I don't quite like mainly because of its lingering after effects which you can read about in the link.

The bunch of greens are a mix of an edible weed, Asystasia gangetica or tropical violet, which cooks like spinach, some Thai Basil and Persicaria Capitata, more of a medicinal herb that's boiled to make a tonic drink but I use it as a salad green which has a slightly sour taste.

Fence Me In

Finally. I've done what I've been wanting to for ages - fenced in the area that borders the Dark Verandah. Should I, shouldn't I? I agonized over it for ages mainly because it was no mean feat to claim that rectangular border which is a fairly large area. A lot needed to be done to peel off the lawn, dig up the soil, fill it up with plants and then of course, fence it in.

The bamboo fencing is something I already knew about. I bought a few panels to screen in the side porch at a great price from a place that I bought all the dark ceramic pots for this verandah.  They were a great price because no one really appreciated their rustic beauty and lay in a few forlorn piles gathering dust for years. As I got closer to the decision of starting this project, I called them and asked for a price to take the whole lot. What they quoted was bananas, and so I acquired sixty panels of varying sizes and and the peeling and the digging commenced.

They sell single lengths of bamboo here, nine feet long, at the hardware store, wrapped in plastic to be used as washing lines or poles. Cut in half and stripped of the plastic, they became the the fence poles to wire these panels to. They are inexpensive enough to just hammer into the ground and not worry about their longevity. I did discover late into the process that  I really should have just left a few inches of plastic wrap before knocking them in and that would have delayed that process. Live and learn.

Serendipitously, I had exactly the number of panels I needed of the same type, sort of a double diamond pattern, for this area leaving, again serendipitously, exactly the right number of panels to enclose the potager area (a slightly wider bamboo was used here) and exactly enough to do something new - more about that later. What bloomin luck.

As far as the dark verandah goes, its doing exactly what I wanted it to do, screen off and make private a courtyard area, while still maintaing a sense of the garden beyond it. The porousness of the fence does that. The picture shows a gate opening of sorts which frames the trees in the orchard and enhances the distance of the fence at the end of the garden.

Now comes the trickier part of planting. I'm moving the black bamboos there, they really aren't doing in well in the pots they're in. The black stemmed Lady palm Rhapis Excelsa on the other hand is doing great in a pot and I decided I like the look of them so much I bought three more to put in the border. Two other kinds of palms that have a delicate look, bambooish even, have gone in, one in fact called a bamboo palm Chamaedorea Seifrizii, the other Chrysalidocarpus Lutescens or Areca palm. Those are the main structural elements that now need time to gain height , I put a deep, mulch of twigs and leaves to 'finish' it so to speak while I continue to add things as I find them. So far a couple of ferns and potentially a lot more, I'm just going to move them in as I find them seeding themselves in other areas of the garden.


Tropical Potager

The south western corner of my garden is 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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The Barrier Garden

For the love of a rose, the gardener becomes the slave of a thousand thorns. Turkish Proverb.

The house came with an old woody Pereskia Bleo in a pot. I was told this leafy cactus has a beautiful flower. Indeed it does, a Rose like flower even in bud form but its not for love of this rose that it has found a prominent place in my garden.

On the day I got the keys to the property I  discovered that it had been broken into. Thieves had climbed into the roof and stolen all the electrical wiring. Security became an issue and one suggestion was to plant Pereskia against the fence and this is how I was introduced to the concept of barrier gardening.

Having determined that the the roof was a vulnerable point of entry, I decided to mass some barrier plants around the side porch whose roof is easy to access from the slope on that side of the property. Besides the Pereskia, I had also inherited another unfriendly plant, a large spiney Euphorbia Lactea in a pot. Friends donated more thick stalks of Pereskia that were cut into lengths about a foot long and sticking these  into the ground along with the original plant and a few branches of the Euphorbia has resulted, one year later, in a formidable grove of thorns.

This area sort of  bookends the gravel garden so I also have Agaves, and Sanseverias growing in between. The couple of Euphorbia Milii I added, because of its pretty flowers, just hasn't done so well, so will soon be moving. The Pereskia on the other hand grows like a triffid now reaching six or seven feet. It's an awkward plant that topples over from its own weight and has required a fair amount of assisting to keep it tidy. Handling it however has been a painful learning experience.

Pereskia thorns break in your skin, and as I discovered, that can happen with a branch falling on or even brushing against you. The thorns also easily pierce leather gardening gloves. I learnt that these lingering barbs can turn infectious and require medical attention. On more than one occasion I have run into the house and pulled out a needle to retrieve one or more of these nasty things. Or, days later inspection of sore appendages lead inevitably to some domestic surgery.

I really avoid handling them at all now and if I do, I wrap a fabric shopping bag around it then pick it up with gloved hands. If I can avoid it at all, with the use of tools, sticks or whatever's at hand I will. Its a good thing that its easy cultivation provided a quick, effective and necessary security solution because its really not a lovable plant, although the orange flowers I'll admit are really quite pretty and the plant always blooming.

There is less issue with thorns with the Euphorbia Lactea  but the branches break off easily and there is toxic sap to deal with. Unfortunately since there is more space between them, some weeding is occasionally required and a stab and a dash to the sink to wash of the sap is part of that process. Thankfully both the Euphorbia and the Pereskia are growing in the slope thats behind a retaining wall so my dogs and visiting children are at much less risk of interacting with them.

A third inherited plant, a large potted Bougainvillea became another barrier plant. I don't love Bougainvilleas, they just seem at odds with the landscape here but despite this have become hugely popular, there's hardly a garden without one, which is perhaps another reason for my disinclination.  However, this plant was large and planted against a low boundary wall that was particularly vulnerable, quickly draped it with a protective cloak of thorns. Out of its pot and into the ground, its gotten monstrous pretty quickly. Taming it every couple of months has resulted in some nasty scratches.

How odd to have a gardening relationship with plants that one has little attachment to and are a little scared of even but find necessary to have in the garden at grave risk.

Lemons and Limes

The first time I went to Greece, it was in late spring and we arrived late on a stormy night. In the morning the storm had passed and I opened the balcony doors to a glorious view of a shimmering mediterranean sea and a powerful aroma that I did not recognize. I discovered that it was the blossom from a nearby lemon orchard. Many subsequent vacations in these islands later, where dinner almost every night was a grilled fish or a heap of battered Kalimari drenched in lemon juice  and its not difficult to understand that lemons, to me, are azure seas and the mediteranean.

When I came across a vendor at the night market here with boxes of lemons on sale, I asked him where they were from and he said 'Ipoh', a city towards the north of the country. I knew vaguely of Ipoh's reputation for Pomelos, a popular citrus fruit particularly around festive days so it sort of made sense, but local lemons? Didn't know there was such a thing. I bought some, they were inexpensive, somewhat greener, larger and not quite as pretty as supermarket lemons but they were juicy and made an excellent lemonade.

Small Kasturi Limes or Citrus microcarpa are a popular ingredient here, and the leaves of Kaffir Limes Citrus Hystrix  although synonomous with Thailand and Tom Yam are also used to flavor certain curries here and in Indonesia. Both are indigenous to this region and a little research reveals that the citrus genus is believed to have originated from South East Asia. My perceptions of citrus as a mediterranean thing are now being revised to a tropical thing.

My neighbour is a terrific jam maker. My discovery of this was a marmalade of hers made from kaffir limes, a lime too bitter to eat but goodness is it good as a marmalade. A couple of weeks ago she offered me a jar of a different marmalade, one she'd made from lemons from her brothers garden, a local type she said as well as some red citrus fruits from a bush in her garden. I was of course intrigued about these ingredients and she volunteered to not not only run home and get me some of the uncooked fruit but also a small plant of the red fruit. The longer lemon is pictured above in the top left corner, the rest are from the night market. The mystery plant is Limeberry  Triphasia Trifolia which is a Rutaceae related to citrus. With this in hand I now have a nice selection of citrus growing in the garden.

I have a mature lime tree in my yard, Citrus Microcarpa, that came with the house and provides a continous supply of fruit. I wait on orange that I bought unlabeled and planted a year ago to get going and my Kaffir lime has, incredously, fruited - see picture. I say incredulous because it has been slow growing and notoriously difficult and tempermental say local gardener friends. I also lucked out on finding a variegated form at the farmers market. I'm going to try growing the seed from both that longer lemon and the Ipoh lemon and am perusing a catalogue of Citrus to see what else I would like add to this expanding collection. Definitely the strange Buddha's hand, which I see occasionally for sale and I know the musk lime Citrofortunella Mitis grows well here as I have seen mature trees at a local fruit farm.

Gardening with citrus, who knew that would happen. I have small trees in the ground and in pots in the gravel garden which is looking, and we go full circle here, a little mediterranean-ish.


Garden Nocturne

Much can be done to a garden's design but there's little you can do about the views it enjoys. That belongs to the the luck of the draw. I'm lucky to have a couple of good ones in my garden, the one pictured above is interesting in that it only really 'works' at night.

Walking from the gate to the front door is a view of my six durian trees. The land is stepped with the house on  the upper step and the orchard on the lower one so the view is more of the upper part of the trees. In the daytime all this is visually busy, your eye doesn't really settle on any one place. When darkness falls however all this is cleaned up into a few shadowy tones and the inky silhouette of the trees trace the edge of the vast negative space that starts where they end. You are compulsed to look heavenward at a huge sky that on any given night could be anything from cobalt to a deep sapphire or fifty shades of gray.

The spell is more potent on nights with a full moon. In fact I'm very likely to come outside again and again, just to see what games of hide and seek are being played.  Occasionally there is also the dazzling sight of a cloudless night encrusted with stars.

This part of the garden is also where night creatures dwell. When the durian is in flower it is alive with bats who dart madly in the darkness, furious at work. On occasion I have seen the silhouette of a civet walk the top of the fence like a tightrope artist.  Beyond the fence and across the street is jungle from where sounds from even wilder nameless creatures sometimes carry on a still night.

Some nights my dog Dusun will bark at something that has, in his opinion breached our territory. I follow his gaze into the  darkness as he continues to berate the intruder. Eerie as that is, its happened enough times that I just acknowledge that it is something but not anything of great importance. 'Good boy' I tell him to communicate these two things.

Less sinister is the call of the nightjar, the hum of crickets the rat a tat of a moth bouncing off the porch light watched patiently by the geckos. Occasionally I see fireflies high in the trees or catch the perfumed drift of Tembusu blossoms from down the street or the Gardenia from just across.

Its usually at night that I water the potted bamboos and orchids on my porch and my other dog Pala takes this as her cue to burrow into her kapok bed. After which I go to padlock the gate and on returning to my front door take in that heavenly view one more time.

Sharp White

I've described some of the types of plants I have growing in the Gravel Garden but not the color scheme. You can see in the photo that accompanies that post that I have some orange Portulacea flowers and that is largely what I have gone for, warm sunset accent colors because they go so well with the color tones of the succulents. Orange is gorgeous with grayish foliage and I remember that red tassel flower looking spectacular against the blue green foliage.

Getting those colors in is still a work in progress with failures like the Portulacea - too messy. I tried a few orange flowered Kalanchoe, they just didn't like it there which is this garden's most challenging problem, a hostile, dry, hot environment. What has worked so far is some Euphorbia Milii including a dwarf variety and a potted Lantana. Both the Jartropha Podagrica, and Pereskia keep in constant bloom. Other constants are the berries of Ficus Deltoidea and occasionally the Duranta Erecta throws out these strings of orange beads.

What also works is adding the contrast of white and not necessarily flowers. I have variegated accents like the Agave Angustifolia Marginata with its white edges pictured above left. I also have a white striped Sansevieria Guineensis, pictured right, in the background. In the top right of that photo you also see some leaves of some Pineapple plants that I planted from some discarded crowns, their dusty white leaves in perfect harmony. In the foreground is an attention grabbing Euphorbia Lactea White ghost. It looks like its been dipped in a white glaze.

Speaking of white glazes, I'm on lookout for more white pots like the one pictured where the glaze is  imperfect as opposed to a clean opaque white which tends to have a colder cast. Also the brushed on quality seems to echo how the white  variegation is expressed in foliage.  I'm also thinking on other ways to get this white element into this space like some whitewashed outdoor furniture. I also like how the bleached look of driftwood would fit in quite nicely here, an idea sparked by seeing this in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay.

When I say 'sharp' white, I am really alluding to the fact that tending to a garden full of thorny plants is a new and painful experience. This in fact deserves a post of its own dedicated to this subject later but let me just say for now, ouch, is the operative word when weeding. Besides the straight forward stab that is likely from the agave, there's also the grazing of the spines on the pineapple leaves that, certainly for me, cause a mild allergic reaction. Wickedest of all is the Pereskia but I'll whine about that another time.


Ulam is an interesting local culinary concept of Malay origin that is somewhere between a herbal garnish a salad and a vegetable side or green, except raw. It's not as thoughtful as a salad. There's no chopping or tossing in a vinaigrette or even contemplating mixing it with other greens or ingredients. It's a generous if spartan handful of uncooked leaves that you add to your plate, as pictured above, and you're done.

On the right side of the plate is a fairly common ulam, Ulam Raja a type of Cosmos (Cosmos Caudatus ) and the lacy leaves have an aromatic herbal bite. The flavor is not unlike a herb like Parsley or Chervil,  or a strong flavored green like Arugula. The fish on my plate, rubbed with turmeric and fried could be interchangeable with a slice of fried tempeh or chicken similarly prepared. The curry gravy that flavors the rice is called assam pedas, a concoction fueled by chillies and tamarind that make for its literal meaning, sour hot. Some experience is required to make the combined choices on your plate find the right groove of pungent, spicy, savory and starchy.

Below it is Euodia redleyi from the citrus family which is not so common, in fact today is the first time I've tried it. It has a chalky slightly bitter flavor but also a light crunch. Besides herbacous greens, the tender young leaves of  certain shrubs and trees like this one or the Cashew nut tree are also used for ulam.

Pucuk Pegaga or Centella Asiatica, is another popular ulam green with a bitter tang. I used to buy this at the supermarket and then discovered that the version in the supermarket was in fact an aquatic plant Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. Centella Asiatica's leaves are more fan shaped and not so leathery. When I tracked this indigenous version down at a market stall, I asked the lady about the difference. She said the aquatic plant had longer stalks and was easy to cut and sell in bundles. The Centella has short stalks, usually including its roots and was not as tidy. The roots of course make it easy to press a few into pots and I've discovered an excellent ground cover that does double duty.

I'm determined to have a good selection of ulam growing in the garden. Apart from the nutritional punch of a handful of leafy greens, they are also usually imbued with medicinal properties. To be able to step outside, snatch up a some leaves and instantly have on your plate something aesthetically pleasing, nutritious and therapeutic is quite something.

Water Feature

When I went to buy the ceramic pots for the dark verandah with my friend and neighbour, she drew my attention to a large water pot (top left corner) with a purple water lily in it. She had wanted to buy it the last time she was there a year ago, and there it still was. I asked its price and it was a steal since it had a small crack. I asked if they would include the water lily and they agreed and so a water pot with a purple water lily in it came to be the focal point in the design of this corner of the garden.

I've seen a fair few water pots in my travels here. There were the ones in Malacca with LotusSagittaria Japonica and Colocasia. When I went to visit Rimba Ilmu botanic garden I took note of their interesting assortment of aquatic plants. There was also the gorgeous water pot at Rimbun Dahan with golden gardenias floating in it.

Apart from the water lily though,  I haven't really done much more than just add some penny wort and a couple of stalks of Pandanus that I've seen grow really well in water, in fact I pulled these two stalks out of a monsoon drain near where I live. This is largely because the  water lily is doing a rather spectacular job. It appears every day, often in a different place, sometimes there's two flowers. With the drab dark colors of the overall color scheme, the vivid purple blue flower provides a sharp accent. I believe it is a Nympaeae Nouchali or Blue Star Water Lily.

Then of course I needed to populate my water feature with some fish to avoid it becoming a mosquito breeding ground. I got four Golden Gourami who are thriving on whatever finds its way in there, including the ants that march up my bamboo that I apprehend and send to their watery fate. There are now more than four fish in there so life must be good in that aquatic haven.

What is it about about a water feature that garden visitors find so delightful? Is it the shimmer and ripple of shadows and reflections and the occasional dart of something below the surface that keeps the eye engaged. Or is it because it's an ecosystem or 'world' in it's own right rich with all kinds of detail that commands all our attention.

In any case the water feature is a big hit. As soon as a visitor enters the porch they head straight towards it and stare into it for a few minutes. I do it myself somedays, but in my case I am always incredulous that it never looks the same, everything seems to have moved around and I wonder if my fish are still alive  and then I catch a glimpse of one of them. And of course my neighbor who contends that the water pot is in fact hers makes a beeline straight for it whenever she visits.

Gravel Garden

On the other side of the house is a short, fairly steep slope that runs the boundary between my house and my neighbour's. It has a low containing wall and the centre section which runs parallel to the house flanks a concrete patio, part of which is porched with a corrugated roof.

There are trees in my neighbour's yard in the front and back that provide some shade to this slope, but that central part that runs alongside the house is a fully exposed harsh, dry terrain that gets sun almost all day.

Faced with this, two things sprang to mind. First, the story of how Beth Chatto used the rubble filled, thin dry soil around her house to her advantage to create her mediterranean garden (which incidentally is no more, although I did get to see it in person many years ago, it is now a scree garden). Second, as a corollary to the first, I saw an opportunity to grow the kind of things that I've long envied that thrive in California and South African gardens, namely cactus and succulents. Go see my inspiration pinboard.

Some backbreaking work went into improving the rock hard clay soil. A lot of sand, bags of compost from a friend who makes the stuff from oil palm waste and the gravel garden started to take shape. There were a lot of rocks on the property, that all got moved to this section. Then there were quite a few runs to the nurseries with some investment in some larger plants to get it all going. Finally the gravel mulch. I'll confess that my fussy designer sensibilities finds the gravel too blue of a cast but I'm hoping that with time it will age to a warmer hue, if not some further top dressing might be on the cards.

I inherited quite a few Sanseverias, so they were a shoe in, I added some more unusual ones like the Sanseveria Cylindrica in the foreground. I wanted some things to grow in there that ultimately would provide some shade to the patio and opted for citrus trees. I got a Mandarin, a Key Lime and a Kaffir Lime.  I'm hoping they remain fairly dwarfed, but might also do whatever that's going on in this photo.

All kinds of succulents like Aloes, Cactuses, Agaves and Euphorbias have found a home here as well as an assortment of Dracaenas that not only look right but also add a tropical or sub tropical feel. Some things failed miserably- I tried some bromeliads that got fried and the pretty orange Portulacae that you see in the pic just got really messy. What is doing spectacularly well are the Aloes, Euphorbia  and Cactuses that have almost doubled in size. There's more to tell of all the other choices that are also doing well, but I'll leave it at that for now to just get an establishing shot of this garden and also say that despite it's largely non native plant selection, it makes up for that by performing well as a low maintenance xeriscaped one.

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