Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – episode 2

This post supercedes, “Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – episode 1”, and has additional information – in italics.

It’s the tropics – everything grows like weeds, right? Couldn’t be easier growing things?! Er, no.

The easy way is to see what your neighbours are growing in pots, and just grow the same. But with the exception of bougainvillea and a couple more, I had more interesting plants in mind. And I want mostly things I can eat. Oh, and everything should be organic. I want to be able to grow food – and I know it would be much cheaper and easier just to buy it at an organic shop. Following is my experience from May 2011.

I have no ground as everywhere is paved, so apart from a 30 square foot raised brick bed I had made on a concrete slab, everything else I have to grow in pots. And I move the pots around if I think the plants will be happier with more / less shade, cover, etc. I painted the concrete floor, walls and planter box with a special white paint that reflects the heat – it is manufactured in Ipoh and they deliver. This means I can walk on the floor and not burn my feet, the plants are cooler, and the house is cooler.

30 square foot planter box, shade cloth and lattice

I’d buy local seeds, sow them, and absolutely nothing would germinate. Even in my raised bed, nothing would germinate. I would compost the fruit and vegetable remains, and then put the compost in my raised bed. And from this little seedlings appeared. I would nurture them, and they’d grow to about 1″ or 2″ tall, and then they’d wilt and die.

LESSON 1. It’s too hot. I put up a pergola with lattice, and put shade cloth over the top of the garden bed. Pots could also be shaded. I put another layer of shade cloth directly over the raised bed for the hottest part of the day. And then I watered frequently to keep it all cooler. Doing the same kind of thing with seeds in seed pots brought some success – carrots, cabbages, cherry tomatoes… Shade cloth, watering to keep cool.

So now I had some plants growing up from my compost. I often did not know what they were, and neither did the nursery man.

LESSON 2. People tell you there are no seasons and you can sow seeds / plant plants anytime. I don’t believe it. Passionfruit I grew from seed became about 9″ high and then stopped growing for months – then suddenly around October they took off and grew rapidly all over the lattice. Now, mid-February, I have had one flower, and a fruit is now growing. I have 20 plants, so I hope many more will follow. Similar experience with other plants – the time of year makes a difference.

LESSON 3. Talking about passion fruit – if you want to grow the vines, all you have to do is buy the fruit at the market or even Tesco recently (buah markisa – hooray, I can count from 1 to 5 in Malay and I know the word for passionfruit), and then save some of the seeds. Just have them dry on a dish. If you wish you can rinse them with water to remove the clingy pulpy stuff (sorry, technical language). While at Tesco, or an organic shop, buy mung beans – other legumes that can sprout may also work for you. Then put a seed or two in tiny pots, along with a couple of mung beans. The mung beans will increase the success rate of germination from about 15% to about 90%. Once they have grown enough, repot, and repot until in a pot of at least 12″ diameter. Full Malaysian sun seems to be OK once they are 9″ high or so. This is where I am up to now. More info as I observe it.

I tried many seeds in the raised bed – okura, tomato, carrot…. Nothing germinated. But one day these incredibly strong seeds appeared to germinate – and so quickly – bitter gourd. I had tried sowing them in this spot, but they also could have come from the compost as I had bought the vegetable at Tesco, eaten them and composted the seeds. Of course, at this time I had no idea what they were. They are climbers, and eventually they took over the entire pergola. They fruited like crazy for two months, and I cooked them, froze them, juiced them, and eventually cut down the vines and composted them once their lifespan was complete. The biggest success so far.

BITTER GOURD RECIPE FOR DUMMIES: Even I could do this. Cut in half along the fruit and remove seeds. (You can save these if you wish). Then cut into 1/4″ slices. Heat a frypan, put in olive oil (and later butter if you wish) and then bitter gourd. When reasonably soft, throw in three eggs per person, and remove from heat before eggs cook too much. Can add chilli and pepper.

LESSON 4. Seed sowing times/months I have had success with. As mentioned above, although I have been told you can grow anything anytime, this has not been my experience. You may be successful at other times, but so far this is my experience:

  • Bitter Gourd. Sowed seeds in mid-August in planter box, mid September fruit started to appear on vine, 2nd October harvested first bitter gourd. I had three vines. Thereafter the fruit produced copiously for about two months. You can pick green, like the locals, or wait until it turns yellow and it is sweeter.

bitter gourd on vine

  • Cabbage. At the end of September I sowed Gardenic cabbage seeds. Nothing germinated. On 28th October I sowed Copenhagen cabbage seeds, and they germinated in about three days. A few days later I transplanted them to pots, and a few weeks later some of them to bigger pots. They seem to prefer shade. They were growing very slowly. However, since mid-February they have been growing more quickly.  Mrs Tropical Expat told me she saw on a blog that cabbages like to be on top of a mound, and they won’t grow well if they are not, so I did this also around mid-February. The weather has been cooler than usual, and there has been more rain than usual.  There are now quite a few cabbages that are reasonably large, but none are near ready to harvest.

cabbage after germination - November 2nd

February 15th - the biggest and smallest from those seeds

  • Cape Gooseberry. I grew these from seeds of fruit I bought in Tesco. I planted them later in pots, and they have grown well in full sun, and flowered, but later the flower falls.  So no fruit so far.  I will have to research if they do not fruit soon.

cape gooseberry with small flowers

  • Carrot. The seeds germinated and I had many seedlings, but many months later the carrots are still tiny.  Not a success.


  • Chilli. My chillies just grew out of the compost. I have a bigger and a smaller variety.  I just pick the chillies when they are ready, and the plants produce more. I have also successfully transplanted chilli seedlings to pots.  It took a while before they produced fruit, but eventually they did.  So next time I will just either put seeds into compost or ferment a bit first and put into potting mix.

chillies - teaspoon to show size

  • Lentils. Seeds seem to germinate any time, and grow until about 12″ high, quite weak and spindly looking, and then wilt and die. I gave up after three tries.
  • Lime trees. I bought two lime trees at the nursery about nine months ago, and have repotted twice.  But they are still around the same size.  I have tried full sun, and semi shade, but haven’t seen much difference.  They flower, produce small limes, and at times create new shoots and leaves.  So far I don’t know what to do to help them grow.
  • Mung Beans. They germinate after only one or two days in the ground, grow quickly, and then flower, and produce pods with mung beans in them. All quite fast. I simply use them as a companion plant for passion fruit as they hugely increase the germination rate of passion fruit seeds, and help them grow well. Mung beans are great for sprouting and eating in salads, but it is far too much work to grow the volume you need, and even organic mung beans are very cheap to buy.

mung bean plants with seeds growing with passion fruit

  • Okra. Absolutely no luck so far germinating them in the planter box or in seed pots.
  • Papaya. Very easy. it seems any time is the right time. See Lesson 5.
  • Passion fruit. Can germinate seeds anytime, and plants will grow to perhaps 6″ to 9″, and then just stay the same. But from about October my plants suddenly started growing quickly. First flower mid February, first fruit – two days after flowering. But then the immature fruit soon dropped.  It may just be too early yet for the plant. More flowers are appearing, and some are dropping.

passion fruit plants 19th, November with mock orange to left

flower starting to form

passion fruit flower

  • Tomato. My holy grail. Most days I eat some. I love tomatoes, and started growing them first when I was a child. But is it too hot in Penang to grow them? No, but it is difficult, and so far the crops are very sparse. I tried sowing tomato seeds – both from packets I bought and seeds from tomatoes I had bought in Tesco. None germinated. But plants did come up in the planter box from the compost, which I discovered in late August. I nurtured those plants, transplanted some into pots and some I spread throughout the planter box. The plants in the planter box grew much faster and produced better tomatoes. The tomatoes were not so big, but they were delicious. By late November I was picking tomatoes at the rate of about 4 a day. After a couple of weeks the fruit flies discovered them. So I wiped each baby tomato that appeared with white vinegar on a tissue – and had no more problems with the fruit flies. I had tried spraying the tomatoes with vinegar, but it was killing the plants from the overspray onto the leaves. Cheap vinegar is fine.

tomato plants


  • Cherry tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes may be easier, grow happily in pots – and they are much less bothered by pests. Early January germinated cherry tomato seeds from some cherry tomatoes. Now, in mid-March about 30% of the 20 odd seedlings are growing well, and others not.  Something is attacking the top of some of the plants – perhaps birds, or even snails.  Then the plant has to grow a new main stem.

cherry tomatoes - biggest and smallest from same seeds. Germinated early January, now 15th Feb.

LESSON 5. The closest I have to 100% success, no matter what you do, is papaya. But papaya in a pot, so possibly no fruit, unless you eventually put them into the ground, or find a miniature variety. I just compost the seeds from any papaya I buy at the market or Tesco; or just save the seeds, wash and sew them. And up come papaya seedlings. Repot during/ after rain or when cool. I like them as decoration, anyway, but am hoping for fruit one day. I also have three in my planter box that are 10 feet / 3m high. So far little fruit grow, but the trees shed them and they don’t grow to maturity. Also, papaya need both male and female plants to fruit. Apparently with several plants, I have at least one male. Growing just one papaya, unless your neighbours have trees too, will mean it’s unlikely to fruit.

baby papaya - they germinate and grow so easily

LESSON 6. Ants. They appear everywhere, but they are mostly small ones.  You can talk to them and tell them to go somewhere else – sometimes they listen and go, but mostly they come back. They quickly move away dead insects they find, and are usually not a problem if they don’t get in the house.  However, they can be a nuisance when they get together with mealy bugs. Ants eat the sweet excrement of mealy bugs, so what they do is carry the mealy bugs to the top of plants, and kind of farm them.  But the mealy bugs damage and kill the plants.  They are kind of white globs.  I usually remove them with a wet tissue, unless it is a bad infestation, and then I cut the affected area off and throw it away – not into the compost. I don’t want ants on the ground, so occasionally wash the concrete with dishwashing detergent, which kills them.

LESSON 7. Square foot gardening   & pots. Square foot gardening sounds great, but I haven’t managed it here because almost nothing grows where I want it to.  However, using pots it kind of similar – you fit the pot size to the plant(s), although you may start small and repot as the plant grows. And I can move pots to try to find the position the plants like, and as the sun’s path changes during the year I can also move the plants appropriately.

LESSON 8. Snails. I have either so-called Penang snails, which are small cone-shaped snails, or micro snails.  I think both have come from the compost I have bought.  Usually I look for them and get them out of the garden, but if it looks like there are too many to collect and rain is coming I use snail bait.  With cabbages I just look for eaten leaves – small holes in them. Then I search on the cabbage or soil and find a micro snail, usually.

micro snail with tea spoon


LESSON 9. Cuttings. Mrs. Tropical Expat got some cuttings of Malaysian basil from a neighbour. She used some rooting hormone, and then put them in a little water and promptly forgot about them.  When she remembered them she found the water almost evaporated – but the cuttings had long strong roots as they searched desperately for water. These are still thriving in my garden and the leaves are useful for toppings on salads or homemade pizza. I don’t know if this approach will always work, but perhaps being cavalier this time did.

LESSON 10. Compost. TBA


    1. Hello. Yes. If you drive along Kelawei Road in the direction of Tanjung Bungah, past Gurney Plaza to the major traffic lights, turn left into Jalan Bagan Jermal, and first left again. Go straight until you reach a right hand bend in the road. On the left is an entrance into a nursery. The lady in the straw hat is quite knowledgeable.

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