10 themes from our Edible Garden, Season #2

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Our new edible garden exudes the glory of life and the hot excitement of new possibilities.

This is not mere sentimentalism. 

Let me be clear. I am planting this garden not as a hobby or just so we can enjoy organic vegetables.

I am planting it primarily for 2 reasons – so we can feed ourselves and have a meaningful place for the children to explore and play.

As Roo turned 14 months it just didn’t seem right to allow the green space behind our house to be overgrown by lalang when it could be used to feed our family of six, all of whom (one child excepted) have a voracious appetite.

Also, our edible garden is not merely a place for play. I hope that as the children explore and as they watch me, they will inherit a love of biological diversity and develop an interest in agroecology and grow in their love for environmental care.

Great expectations?

Before I started the garden, I had almost zero knowledge about growing anything. I didn’t know what kind of soil was necessary or even how to plant a seed.

Since putting my hand to the plough (pun intended) I have become more aware of growing things and plant life around me. I am growing in knowledge of so many new things that I never did before such as soil fertility and food and nutritional security. By allowing our kids to help me in the garden, I hope they will grow along with me in these areas and build an inheritance to share with future generations.

Let me share another 10 themes in the second phase of planting our edible garden. Season #2 can only be described as a flurry of activity, with lots of back-breaking, rewarding work.

 

1. Every vegetable that we harvest is a reason to thank God who makes all things possible.

Our bumper crop of okra continued this season. 

Every other day I harvested at least 8 lady fingers and we saw no end to garlic okra stir fries, okra fried with ground cumin, mustard seeds and curry leaves, and the occasional fish curry.

31 July 2015
31 July 2015

I did begin to wonder when we might stop eating okra, but a brief recollection of escalating prices everywhere made me ever so thankful we could simply step out into our garden and pluck pesticide-free vegetables to cook for lunch and dinner!

Life with 4 kids (2 of whom still homeschooling) did also mean that I couldn’t keep up quickly enough with the green bounty, but we harvested both young and old spinach nevertheless and made pots of delicious soup with them.

10 August 2015
10 August 2015

Delightfully, I also discovered a bitter gourd plant growing wild on the slope where I had chucked some compost. Across Season #2 and #3, it provided us with so much bitter gourd that I lost track and didn’t feel too badly when we failed to rescue some from pests.

 

2. Garden play ranges from mildly benign to downright delightful … and sometimes hair-raising.

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

I can’t help but wonder what goes on in their minds as they wander about. There’s obviously a lot of observation and reflection happening.

Look at the passion fruit wall trellis with copious vines but no fruit! 

On days I’m busy working in the garden and the older kids are busy with homework, our younger two are sometimes garden playmates and get up to all kinds of things.

Like sand play.

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

Oh, but what’s that in my baby’s hair?

25 August 2015
25 August 2015

What’s that musical triangle doing there? 

2 September 2015
2 September 2015

Thank you Piglet, for homemade pot pourri “Just for Mama”. (I did point out certain plants, to make sure they wouldn’t get slashed!) These painstaking cuttings were dried in the sun and stored fondly in a mason jar in our kitchen as a keepsake.

2 September 2015
2 September 2015

 

3. An edible garden is a lovely place to relax and unwind.

One afternoon after morning school I decided to go outside for a breather. We set out our DIY garden table and the kids had fun with sand play while I sat and sipped hot tea. It was so nice, we did that almost every day for a couple of weeks.

On one of those days I lingered outside for longer and enjoyed the scene instead of rushing on to the usual dinner prep. 

And discovered this. 

13 August 2015
13 August 2015

Lamb had captured it in the Family Bug Jar and left it on the table next to my mug. I gazed at it for a long time and thought of all the leaves it had been feasting on, but it was a wonderful and beautiful creature nonetheless!

Somehow, appreciating nature energises me to deal with anything thereafter – poop on the floor, crying children, nap busters, you name it.

 

4. Discovering vegetables that grow wild out of nowhere makes me think of our loving Creator God who can make all things new.

In August I discovered these veggie plants growing wild near the top of the slope beyond the flat garden adjacent to the patio.

19 August 2015. (L-R) Pumpkin, round brinjal, bitter gourd
19 August 2015. (L-R) Pumpkin, round brinjal, bitter gourd

Before these had sprung up, nothing seemed capable of growing on the slope except some grass. There were mostly weeds. Banana trees had failed.

The plants had probably sprung up from seeds in the compost that had fallen there but I do believe it was God who made them grow considering the infertile condition of the land. 

 

5. Remarkable things can happen if we’re determined enough to change.

After finding our wild veggies, our edible garden development took a completely new turn.

The discovery made me realise, finally, that I could and should do something to the long slope to make it suitable for planting. My parents had mentioned this way back but with pregnancy and more babies and homeschooling and no domestic help, the idea had rolled off like water on a duck’s back. I had other things to keep up with.

Now, Roo was only 20 months old but I knew that if I waited any longer nothing would happen. I was taking a break from freelance jobs after 3 months of ill health to recover and focus on the demands of family and community projects so this was the perfect time to invest a few weeks on developing the slope, before I got tied up with future work projects again.

I also knew, after listening to advice from my mother and doing some research, that in order to grow anything successfully on a gradient I had to terrace the slope and make raised beds to prevent soil nutrients from being washed downwards.

It seemed like a whole lot of work I didn’t feel prepared for, but I decided to take the plunge and go straight for it.

 

6. A passionate vision to be able feed one’s family within a narrow budget can make a Mama do, well … crazy things.

The idea that this green space could make us self-sufficient to a certain extent got me. It really got me. Cutting down our grocery bill was an attractive possibility that I intended to turn into reality.

So one hot Wednesday afternoon while Roo napped, I left the three older kids to their own work and indoor play, grabbed an old cangkul (hoe) and hammer, and built my first wooden terraced garden bed.

2 September 2015
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden bed #1

As mentioned in this earlier post, my parents had lots of unused hard wood to spare. A few days before, Sweet Man had helped me cut as many pieces as I needed according to the length I’d measured, and they were just right. 

It took a lot of huffing and puffing, lugging heavy pieces of wood down the slope and raising them into place. I had to get the positioning right and it wasn’t so simple driving the 3-ft length rebar into the ground. Using a hefty hammer made the job a lot easier but the bars kept going in at the wrong angle!

I started building a second bed the same day. 

2 September 2015
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden bed #2

The slope is rather steep as you can see from this side view. And see how quickly the pumpkin vines grew, sprawling over the edge of Bed #1.

Sweet Man had plans to build some steps leading to the bottom but he had his plate full right then so it was a lot of climbing, careful treading and some inadvertent sliding downhill!

2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1 and #2
2 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1 and #2

Trying to dig into the hard ground to terrace the slope was another story. Lessons learned – make sure there’s a bottle of drinking water nearby and straighten up often to avoid backache! But really, there was no avoiding backache especially with this kind of work.

The sweat flowed and the muscles ached and the reality of the Bible verse, “Break up your fallow ground” (Hosea 10:12; Jeremiah 4:3), came constantly to mind.

It isn’t easy to break up all our wrong habits and clear our heart of weeds in order for our hearts to grow and bear abundant fruit. If we want to truly live, and live meaningfully, we need to take the time – and energy – to dig deep and work at the less tangible things of Life, the secret inner matters of the heart.

All too soon, Roo awoke from her nap and my mother helped me get her. Together, we all sowed a new spinach bed at the top of the garden. It was a nice and easy way to end a hard afternoon’s work.

On Friday that same week (4 September), I completed the second bed and 3 days later was amply rewarded by our first round brinjal. What a brilliant colour!

7 September 2015
7 September 2015

 

7. Taking the easy way out and ignoring issues that can hinder plant growth isn’t a great idea.

The same day I completed the second bed, I loosened the soil in it. I saw a lot of clay and numerous rocks and old rusty nails that the house builder had dumped onto the slope instead of disposing of them in a proper manner. Ugh!

I had hoped to complete the job quickly but when unexpected things like this arise, you can either deal with them immediately to ensure a good return of investment or take short cuts and pay the price later.

The older two kids wore gloves and helped me collect as many nails as we could find. We also collected small rocks of all shapes and sizes and put them at the side of the fence for Sweet Man to use in building the garden steps later. Waste not!

The kids wanted to play a game with the old nails but I put my foot down. Rusty nails aren’t suitable playthings!

 

8. Making occasional trips to a good supplier of gardening material and buying in bulk is the best use of time and energy.

I had to amend the soil with suitable nutrients and matter before planting so the next day I went to Sungai Buloh with my mother to buy sacks of chicken dung, cocopeat and rice hulls while Sweet Man babysat the kids.

These items are so much cheaper compared to buying in limited amounts and I was glad I had prepared some storage space for them when we reorganised the garden patio a few months earlier.

You may have wondered why Sweet Man wasn’t putting any “work” into all the aforementioned, but actually I hadn’t wanted him to get too involved. I had gotten tired of being the “Finger Gardener” for all the years I was either pregnant or having a wee nursing babe latched on, meaning he was doing almost all of the garden work and I had only to point a finger and say what I hoped would get done!

 

9. Building a trellis is a lot of fun!

9 September. It was the day my mother had come over to help and give the kids Chinese lessons, so I didn’t have to worry about Roo waking up from her afternoon nap and having to attend to her personally.

I transplanted pandan, lemon and lemon grass plants on the edge of the slope. 

9 September 2015. (T-B) Pandan, lemon, lemongrass
9 September 2015. (T-B) Pandan, lemon, lemongrass

I then started constructing a bamboo trellis in the second bed intending to plant french beans. With his homework all done, Lamb was determined to help and it was a fantastic opportunity for some really special mama-son bonding.

My 7 year old farmer in the making!

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

We drove the bamboo pieces in about 1.5-ft deep using a hammer.

And were rewarded that very day with a delicious bitter gourd!

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

That same evening, I also made my first batch of bokashi bran to prepare to start bokashi composting, which I’ll share about in a future post.

9 September 2015
9 September 2015

 

10. Things do get easier when you get the hang of things.

A week after the second bed was completed, I started making a third bed intending to plant sweet potatoes and more okra. 

I had a good rhythm going by now and terracing the slope didn’t seem as difficult as when I’d first started.

Our third bed!

10 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1, #2 and #3
10 September 2015. Wooden terraced garden beds #1, #2 and #3

I stood at the bottom of the slope and looked up at all the work that had been done and reflected on all of God’s blessings that we had experienced in this short season that enabled this to happen.

And I thought to myself, “This is just the beginning.” 

It was the beginning of even better things to come. 

 

 

Upcoming post: Edible Garden, Season #3 (Sept–Dec 2015) – soil amendment, transplanting seedlings, making natural pesticide, homemade fertiliser (fish amino acid and bokashi tea), cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, a fourth bed and more trellises.

For more updates on our garden-to-table project, homeschooling, natural living, motherhood, faith, and more, follow along via Facebook.

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8 themes from our Edible Garden, Season #1 (2015)

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She fingers a baby okra, then looks at me. It’s in her eyes, the question, “Can I pluck this?”

Questions and answers, touching and feeling, being and doing – our garden brings all of these to life with intensity and joy and lots of sweat and muck.

For someone who probably holds the record for killing the most money plants due to neglect, the renaissance of our garden project is huge. After I got pregnant with Roo in 2013 our vegetable garden quickly became overgrown with weeds.

It was an eyesore that I had to constantly avert my eyes from but I became hopeful again when Roo turned 14 months old last February, had started walking and the older children could help watch her a little more.

Growing our edible garden again has evoked several consistent themes. Here are some of them:

1. Starting something new is always hard.

In February 2015, we started pak choy and spinach seedlings. Sweet Man and I then spent a couple of days getting rid of weeds, repositioning our vegetable bed frames and double digging to loosen the hardened soil. We hadn’t done this kind of work in a long time, so our muscles paid the price!

During the rest of the month we were busy with Chinese New Year celebrations. In that time, we let the beds rest and covered them with tarp to allow the remaining weeds to die off.

Meanwhile, our seedlings were growing ….

8 March
8 March 2015

2. Getting hands-on help and advice from someone experienced is invaluable.

In March, I dug a bed along the left wall with the intention of planting passion fruit and flowers to enliven the area.

My mother brought me a young passion fruit tree and I dug a huge hole for it in the left corner of the flower bed.

8 March 2015. Passion fruit
8 March 2015. Passion fruit

My mother is an avid gardener who grew up in the Cameron Highlands and her own mother had a thriving and successful vegetable garden. Watching Puppy, Lamb and Piglet learning from their Po Po (grandmother) how to transplant spinach and pak choy seedlings was something special. They also sowed okra seeds directly into the soil.

Everyone loved going barefoot and getting their hands in!

9 March 2015. Everyone loved going barefoot and getting their hands in!
9 March 2015

3. The human baby comes first before the garden baby.

With all the tarp off, the threat of weeds was a constant challenge.

There is no way you can keep a wee toddler out of the garden especially when you want to be there, and she is still nursing every few hours.

Roo was always about and sometimes I had to nurse with her on one side and weed with the other hand. Other days I had to just sit back and let those weeds grow.

These blossoms inspired and kept me going

17 March 2015. These blossoms inspired and kept me going
17 March 2015

 

4. When everything is happening at once, the garden has to wait.

By the end of March, okra, smooth-leaved spinach, Malabar spinach, water convolvulus (kangkung) and sweet potato leaves were growing fast. Unfortunately our family was hit by a cold bug that plagued us for three long months. Four cycles of colds!

With everyone taking it in turns getting sick, including myself, I didn’t have the time or energy to harvest veggies regularly.

Weeds overtook the garden paths.

But our incapacity is a blessing in other ways. It forces us to sit back and remember our complete dependence on God. It also keeps us focused on the essentials.

So April was a busy month saying no to garden work and keeping up with other ongoing things – chores, homeschooling, Puppy’s 9th birthday, Easter preparations, school Sports Day, and community projects at church.

14 April. The battle of trying to grow grass instead of weeds! 
14 April 2015. The battle of trying to grow grass instead of weeds!

 

5. Taking up gardening means learning all kinds of new skills, like carpentry!

The fast-growing passion fruit vine desperately needed a trellis to climb on, so despite still having a cold I had to figure out how to build a suitable structure for it.

And how to do it with a sick, snotty little Roo clinging to me.

18 April 2015. “Thou shalt not work, Mama … until I nap.”
18 April 2015. “Thou shalt not work, Mama … until I nap.”

We got these pieces of good quality hard wood from my parents. They had some unused ones to spare, so one evening we went over to their house with a hand saw and Sweet Man cut all the pieces we needed.

He also very patiently taught me how to use a hammer and nails, having a good laugh every now and then.

Four year old Piglet helped me varnish the trellis with food-grade mineral oil while Roo napped and he asked me questions about the Virgin Birth, of all the topics in the world!

21 April 2015. 4 year old Piglet helped me varnish the trellis with food-grade mineral oil while Roo napped and he asked me questions about the Virgin Birth, of all the topics in the world!
21 April 2015 

Sweet Man drilled holes and helped me screw in the trellis the next day. It’s positioned at the side of the garden to avoid sheltering other vegetables from direct sunlight and where we hope the passion fruit will eventually hide our neighbour’s ugly extension.

22 April 2015. Sweet Man drilled holes and helped me screw in the trellis the same day. It’s positioned where we hope the passion fruit will eventually hide our neighbour’s ugly extension, and keep to one side of the garden to avoid sheltering other vegetables from direct sunlight.
22 April 2015 

I realised the passion fruit needed a bit more help to climb and so had to string twine in between the bars. It would have been easier if we’d done it before installation. Live and learn!

You could also say we learned another new skill by aiming and throwing a stringed pebble just at the right place and weaving twine in and out of the trellis. The kids loved the challenge.

23 April 2015
23 April 2015

Meanwhile, the Malabar spinach and kangkung were doing well.

malabar spinach and water convolvulus

Malabar spinach is a fast-growing vegetable and an excellent source of protein, niacin, vitamin B6 and phosphorus. It also provides us with dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese. 

Kangkung (or water convolvulus) is also full of nutritional goodness: A 100g serving contains water (90%), protein (3%), fibre (3%), fat (0.9%), carbohydrate (4.3%), minerals (2%), nicotinamide (0.6mg), riboflavin (120mg), vitamin C (137mg) and vitamin E (11mg). 

We love both as a quick stir-fry. I’m sure many nutrients are lost in the cooking process so we try to eat as much as possible over both lunch and dinner.

 

6. Planting flowers in an edible garden definitely makes the whole project more pleasing to the eye.

My mother had a significant hand in establishing this lovely flower bed to disguise the old railing that separates the flat garden from the slope beyond. Thank you, as always, Ma.

7 May 2015
7 May 2015

And thank you, Roo baby and Piglet for helping me water the blossoms. I always need more than two hands!

watering the garden

 

7. When veggies really start growing, it can be hard to keep up.

Okra and spinach, exactly 2 months after planting. Don’t they look wild!

7 May 2015 
7 May 2015

Overgrown sweet potato leaves, Malabar spinach, kangkung and more okra. We always have an overabundance of sweet potato leaves. They grow so quickly we can eat a stir-fry twice a week and hardly see a difference in what’s left.

7 May 2015
7 May 2015

Ma brought me a lemon plant! I planted this on the slope, next to the fence.

7 May 2015
7 May 2015

Oh no! What’s this bug attacking the okra?? The two boys began an intense hobby of bug-catching. We now have a designated Bug Jar for all varieties of captured devils.

7 May 2015
7 May 2015

I also started hunting for an effective natural pesticide recipe which I’ll share in a future post.

 

8. A good harvest is a good motivation to persevere.

15 May 2015. We were still suffering from that nasty cold that began end-March and I wondered when it would ever end.

Besides keeping up with the house, children, and mid-year exams for Puppy and Lamb, I also had new challenges – sorting and storing all the disorganised garden tools and general equipment and repainting the peeling awning above. If the kids were going to be out there more often, we needed to keep it child-friendly.

With those projects underway, grass eventually grew over the bare patches of the lawn.

In mid-May, the okra started flowering. By the end of June, we had so much okra to harvest I didn’t need to buy any.

3 July 2015
3 July 2015

The bumper crop of okra was an encouragement for me to see what could finally become of the messy backyard – an edible garden and outdoor green space for the whole family to relax and play.

Related post: 10 Themes from our Edible Garden, Season #2 (July-September 2015).

For more updates on our garden-to-table project, homeschooling, natural living, motherhood, faith, and more, follow along via Facebook.

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