Sometimes the days pass in a blur. I think of the rhythm and intensity of being with children 24/7. Perhaps it seems more intense, now that we have stopped our once-a-week part-time domestic help. Yet, the bathrooms and floors have never been cleaner since we ditched half-past-six shoddy cleaning by an outsider. And we have learned something more about unifying as a family to plug the gaps and finding pleasure in simple things.
Roo. You helped me wash the rice today, standing tiptoe and giggling when we were done. And then, out in the garden, you carried the rice water in a green pail and watered the plants so carefully. I love watching you learn how to feed our soil with good things. From your work table, numbering colourful counters out loud, you recognise the smell of bokashi tea even as it drifts out of the kitchen while I’m emptying the bokashi bin. I hear you exclaim, “Bokashi!” The word sounds like heavenly music when you say it.
Piglet. We can do magic with blocks, can’t we? We built our very own farmhouse, complete with a barn and nearby lake. Wild deer live among the tall trees on our land, including swinging monkeys and birds that visit our farm every day. You planned it all out as seriously as you fold the laundry every evening at chore time. Remember that morning when it rained and you stayed home from school because of a cold? You helped me re-pot a little brinjal plant and wouldn’t let a little drizzle stop you from harvesting kangkung.
Lamb. “How was your day?” you ask me regularly enough. Sometimes, I think you see my feelings more clearly than I’m aware of them. You’ve been trying to memorise those complicated drum beats, but returning to piano playing with a short, simple duet with me has rejuvenated our music lessons at home. Laughing over a jolly piece played together after dinner clean-up is a lovely way to bring the evening to a close.
Puppy. You watched the garlic pips grow roots in water, our first experiment at planting garlic. I’m hoping we get some gigantic bulbs and reduce our spending at the market since we eat so much of it. You’re old enough now to understand more about why we watch our budget closely, and you don’t seem to mind a bit not having as much as your other friends do. I’m glad to see you take over washing your own bathroom with a good attitude. Your diligence warms my heart.
We did very little work on our vegetable garden the past six months, mostly allowing the frequent torrential rains to water it. The season was heavy enough with a book writing project to complete within a narrow deadline while the children had adjustments to make in a new school year. We also had a major roof and ceiling repair job to contend with before and after the Chinese New Year.
I’m glad to say I’ve learned a lot through attempting to write my first book (still in the production oven) and living with the children in a confined, bordered up space at home. We, especially my sanity, were saved to a great measure by rolls and rolls of tarpaulin sheets that we hung from the ceiling to block up the staircase and sticking to our usual home routine while dusty renovation and painting works took place upstairs.
For the children, it was an exciting season of camping out on mattresses in the living room and showering in a small toilet downstairs with the traditional bucket, scoop, and hot water boiled on the stove. As for me, I have learned more about dust management, the beauty of cling-wrapped furniture, resilience, and thankfulness. Pack up the entire house and take one day at a time if you’re living in during major repair works – that’s what I’d recommend to anyone who takes on a similar experience.
After the house was put in order again, it was time to clear the forest that had overtaken the garden, mostly unruly sweet potato plants and crawling kangkung. These were too old to harvest to eat. The okra plants had gone past the best of their growing cycle so I dug them out. The ulam raja had seeded itself in many places and we collected those for a hearty salad with a chili-belacan dip on the side. We also managed to save spinach seeds from old plants. Best of all was a surprise harvest of ginger and some grubby white sweet potatoes that we made into hot soups for tea time. There were also mulberries, sweet papayas, and some long brinjal that survived despite the neglect, including five winter melons from two vines that had sprung up wild from the compost. Since then we’ve enjoyed plenty of hot melon soup on dry and rainy evenings alike, and I figure it’s about time I learned a new way of cooking melon!
After clearing unwanted plants, I opted to improve the planting beds with a good heaping of horse manure, some chicken dung, coffee grounds, and burned rice hulls. I also decided to till more perlite and cocopeat into the soil to provide better aeration, drainage, and sufficient water retention. Enriching garden soil feels somewhat like mixing ingredients to make a gigantic cake. I couldn’t help thinking of cake frosting when topping up the beds with a generous covering of dried leaves.
We’ll wait a few months to allow all the organic matter to decompose properly before planting again. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some tips on what we can do in the garden in a season of waiting like this.
1. Experiment and make the best of what you have.
Happily, my mother brought me a bucket of compost from her own garden and some cucumber seedlings she had to spare. We planted those, as well as some cuttings of Japanese spinach and Brazilian spinach into the shadier bed against the wall. Our cucumber plants supplied a mediocre harvest under the blazing sun on the slope beyond, so I’m hoping they’ll thrive better in this new location. I’ve also constructed a new trellis for them so that the vines have more room to climb and breathe. The reality is that there is still so much for me to learn as a novice gardener. I am reliant predominantly on internet research and the simple practice of lots of trial and error.
2. Enjoy simple garden activities with the children.
It can be a little hair-raising trying to save ripening vegetables from being plucked or young plants from being pulled up by a three-year-old while one’s back is turned. So in a season when there’s not much growing in the beds, I’ve come to appreciate easy activities that Roo can do, such as hunting for snails on wet mornings, trimming a wild garden hedge with a child scissors, exploring different textures like dry flower seeds saved for planting or the hairy feel of a melon vine. She’s loved spreading mulch over beds and around young seedlings and watering established plants (supervision still necessary to avoid over-watering and ensure seedlings are approached tenderly). Roo is always excited about everything I show her, from saving papaya seeds to watching a worm wriggle itself desperately back into soil I’ve just dug into. These are simple things that teach her something valuable about botany and science that an indoor classroom can barely replicate. As we spend time in the garden every day, I’m hoping that her positive experience with nature will cultivate an ongoing love for the natural world and a desire to protect it.
3. Fill the waiting with good things.
In the time it takes to build up a good supply of finished compost and resting the garden sufficiently, there is so much else that requires our attention. Meals to cook. Lessons to supervise. Pets to tend to. Games to enjoy. Outdoor pursuits and family traditions of music playing and devotions before bedtime. There are also ongoing home and community projects. Of course, this season of waiting to plant again also provides more opportunities to linger in solitude and quiet reflection, something I treasure especially more during Holy Week. We have been occupied with preparations for Good Friday and Easter, and I think I have benefited greatly from deliberately making personal space to fast and connect in a deeper way with God, my thoughts and emotions. After six months of intense work and a home renovation, this kind of space provides room for much needed rest and restoration.