Growing stuff on hot concrete – gardening in tropical Penang – December 2012 summary

I have been trying to grow vegetables and fruit in my urban environment for a year and a half, now, starting in May 2011.  So, it’s the tropics – everything grows like weeds, right? Couldn’t be easier growing things?! Er, no.

And why not? For several reasons, I think. I am trying to grow many things that are not really suitable for this environment,  I am trying to grow them in pots and not the ground, and it’s too hot and too sunny for them.

So, what follows is a re-edit and amalgamation of many of my earlier blogs on this topic, and addition of new material. It supercedes all previous blogs in the series.

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.

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 – September 2011 photo

December 2012

December 2012

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.  But some, such as tomatoes, did survive and fruit, although they weren’t very productive plants.

For the successful ones, often at first the  plants would flower, and then the flowers would drop off, with no fruit forming. Later, they flower, and fruit form, but then drop off before they fully grow.  Then later they would form fruit, and mature, and from then on the plants produce.

So, here is what worked, and what didn’t:

ANTS: 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.

BITTER GOURD: 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.

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 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.

BLUE PEA FLOWER:
One of the few successes I have had is growing the blue pea flower. This is because, different from most things I have tried to grow, I got the seeds from a neighbour’s plant, so I was growing in the same environment.

blue flower

The flowers can be used to make detox tea:

flowers, picked

flowers, picked and dried

blue pea flower tea

When you squeeze some lemon juice into the tea it becomes purple, as shown below:

blue pea flower tea on left; blue pea flower with lemon on right

Or it can be used to make blue rice, which is rather attractive:

Or, it can be used to improve the soil, as it is a legume and fixes nitrogen in the soil. I use it as a companion plant with my passion fruit vines.  It is a very woody vine, so it provides excellent support for the passion fruit, too.

How to grow:

find the plant

pick the mature pod

get the seeds from the pod

Plant seeds in potting mix and transplant into a larger pot or the ground when the seedlings are an inch or two high.  So far it seems to grow at any time of year.

BOUGAINVILLEA: A bit of a mystery to me. We bought a few pots from a friend a couple of years ago. None have died. I have repotted most of them. Sometimes they thrive, sometimes they appear strained.  I’ve moved them around and kept them in various conditions, and at the moment they seem happy in more of less full sun.

happy bougainvillea in various colours

happy bougainvillea in various colours

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.

The cabbages are growing slowly, and hearts are starting to form on some, but the best one was attacked in the heart by a bird it seems, so I had to put netting over to protect them.  Now I am afraid the best cabbage will become infected or attacked by something else.

The cabbages struggled on for months, with me moving the pots to different positions to see if they thrived anywhere, but they didn’t.  Cabbage caterpillars and moths attacked them. This blog covers that. The cabbages gradually died – root rot from rain, mainly.  The numbers dwindled from 30 down to about eight.  In the end I planted them in my small rooftop garden, but this didn’t help, so in the end I had to terminate them.  A lot of effort and almost total failure, although I could occasionally salvage a few cabbage hearts, and thy were delicious.

cabbage after germination – November 2nd, 2011

February 15th – the biggest and smallest from those seeds

CAPE GOOSEBERRY: Another of the few successes I have had is growing 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.  Later they have grown fruit – smallish but delicious.

cape gooseberry with small flowers

How to grow:
find the plant
pick the mature pod
get the seeds from the pod

Plant seeds in potting mix and transplant into a larger pot or the ground when the seedlings are an inch or two high.

The plant doesn’t like to be pruned.

a ripe cape gooseberry

the plant is growing from the pot at the top

Just waiting for the fruit to mature – when the pod turns yellow and the outer part, dry.

CARROT: The seeds germinated and I had many seedlings, but many months later the carrots are still tiny. In the end only two survived, but while the foliage grew, the carrots didn’t.

carrots

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.  Any time of year seems OK, so far.

chillies – teaspoon to show size

COMPOST: You can buy a composter in KL, but it is expensive and they also don’t deliver.  So I just put a rubbish bin with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage into the garden, with the lid on. The vegetation, vegetable and fruit waste go in, and as it breaks down the liquid drains into the soil, so it is not smelly. When it is full ands has broken down to an extent I just tip it onto the soil, and cover it with soil.  It’s not the best method, but it works and is easy.  I use the same kind og rubbish bin as shown in the rain water collection section.

CUTTINGS: 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.

GREEN VEGETABLE:
Another of the few successes I have had is growing what seems to be called green vegetable if you buy it at the supermarket. This is because, different from most things I have tried to grow, I also got it from a neighbour, so I was growing in the same environment. In this case I made cuttings.

As you can see, it looks just like some greenery. But if you prune the plant, strip the leaves off by simply running your hand down the branch or stem, and then fry, boil or steam the leaves you have a vegetable resembling spinach in taste. It was one of the staples of my neighbour’s diet, as she was growing quite a lot.

So, if you can track down this plant, take some cuttings, dip the ends into rooting hormone, and then put them into some water and let them grow roots. Pay them little attention while they are doing this, as they seem to prefer neglect. Once they have developed roots plant them. I grow in sun or semi-shade.

When they grow bigger you can cut them back and harvest the leaves. It’s a perennial, but I have no idea how long its lifespan is. Once they are established they grow quite quickly, so you can have a constant source of fresh vegetable, depending on how many plants you grow.

HEAT:  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.

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. Keeping them in semi shade has enabled them to grow bright green foliage, but they are not flowering or fruiting.  I’ll try them in more sun soon.

MEALY BUGS: See section on ants.  But here are some photos of them on cherry tomato plants.

2012-12-07 14.00.44s

mealy bugs

mealy bugs

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

As previously mentioned I grow mung beans with passion fruit as a companion plant.  Then I harvest the mung beans – some to replant, and some I sprout and eat.  Now birds have discovered them and eat them, leaving the empty pods on the plants.  I don’t think the birds are really doing anything useful in the garden – perhaps eating bugs, but I can’t tell. I put netting to protect the mung beans, and that worked. Maybe I should buy a hanging cat face from Daiso to scare the birds away. Recently instead I am growing another legume instead – the blue flower pea, as a companion plant for passionfruit.

OKRA: Absolutely no luck so far germinating them in the planter box or in seed pots.

PAPAYA: 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 sow 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.   It seems any time is the right time.

baby papaya – they germinate and grow so easily

PASSIONFRUIT: 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), 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%. (Recently instead I am growing another legume instead – the blue flower pea, as a companion plant for passionfruit.) 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. You seem to be able to germinate seeds anytime, and plants will grow to perhaps 6″ to 9″, and then just stay the same, depending on the time of year.

From about October (2011) my plants suddenly started growing quickly. First flower mid February (2012), first fruit – two days after flowering. But then the immature fruit soon dropped. This continued for a while, with flowers dropping, or fruit dropping while still tiny.  Then by late May / early June fruit were growing to full size, and ripening.  Then it was a dry season for a couple of months, and not much more flowering and fruiting, then during the wet season again a lot more growth of the vines, and a lot more flowers and fruit. It seems they grow and prepare to flower and fruit during the two wet seasons, and you harvest the fruit after the wet seasons.

passion fruit plants 19th, November 2011 with mock orange to left

flower starting to form

passion fruit flower

Passion fruit December 2012

Passion fruit December 2012

RATS:

Penang has food for sale everywhere – legal and illegal stalls, coffee shops, restaurants, markets, grocery stalls, supermarkets… Between them food is for sale almost everywhere, 24 hours a day. So rats live nearby. And when it rains heavily, or especially when it floods, rats can be seen scuttling around. They look for a new place to live.

Unfortunately, after flooding a rat usually finds my garden. It visits at night when I am asleep and wreaks havoc on the garden. This time it found the only four cherry tomatoes I was growing and which were almost ripe, and ate them. It seemed to attack the cabbage hearts. And it destroyed several cape gooseberry plants that had some immature fruit growing on them in order to use the foliage for a nest. And some seeds I planted were dug up.

And from experience it turns out to be only one rat each time this happens. I try to have a rat unfriendly habitat, but this is not enough. I have tried several methods to catch the rat:

Poison, which I don’t like because birds or even a cat might also eat it, and besides it didn’t work.

Sticky mats, which supposedly will trap the rat as it scuttles over it. It could catch birds, though, and mostly likely, me. (It did.) I didn’t catch the rat, though.

Conventional rat trap with bar that comes down and traps creature when it takes the bait. Could catch birds. It usually catches my thumb when I try to set it. But the rat took the food and didn’t get trapped.

Finally the only effective way is a cage with an open door, and food hanging inside, which, when the animal enters and the food is touched, it springs the trap and the door closes. If put out at night it won’t catch a bird, is too small for a cat, and doesn’t harm the creature. It costs about RM11 from a hardware store.

rat trap cage

The most humane way to kill the rat seems to be to simply put the whole trap in a full bucket of water. Apparently it is illegal to transport rats. If you set it free it will just come back.

I heard that Malaysia used to have a bounty of RM1 for each rat handed in to the government, as a way to eliminate rats. Of course, some people just created rat breeding businesses so they had plenty of rats to hand in.

RAIN WATER:

I like to collect the rain water and water by hand. It’s probably better for the plants. Our water pressure can be low, and so watering the plants can be slow, so actually watering with rain water is faster. I rigged up this simple system. A reasonable rain shower gives me enough water for two non-rainy days for this garden.

One rubbish bin, one paint container, one bucket

One rubbish bin, one paint container, one bucket

SEASONS: 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.

SEASONS – SOWING TIME: 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.

SNAILS:  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. In the last few months I have seen very few.

micro snail with tea spoon

SQUARE FOOT GARDENINGSquare 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.

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 2011 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

tomatoes

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 2012 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. The outcome was that I planted some in my planter box, and three of them grew quite spindly, but keep on giving fruit (December 2012) now and then, and they are delicious.  Two continue to grow in a pot and also produce tomatoes sometimes.  I have kept a few for seeds, on the theory that these plants grew under these conditions, so perhaps their offspring will too.

cherry tomatoes – biggest and smallest from same seeds. Germinated early January, now 15th February, 2012

Cherry tomatoes December 2012

Cherry tomatoes December 2012

7 comments

  1. Hello there. Your blog write-ups are really quite encouraging… growing vegetables etc is no easy feat in this kind of weather. Excellent job! I read with interest about the long planter boxes you have/ had. You said they were manufactured in Ipoh. Do you know who the manufacturer is? I’m looking for some, it would seem they are not popular in this country!

      1. Thanks! Will try that. If they are in ipoh, I’ll pick them up myself as my base is here when I’m in Malaysia. In case you’re curious, the reference to Ipoh is way up at the top of this blog, in the paragraph just above the first photo.

    1. In Georgetown itself I am not sure. But you can often buy seeds from nurseries. I’ve also noticed them in Ace hardware store in Queensbay Mall. Sometimes you can grow plants from the seeds in vegetables or fruit you buy. e.g. pumpkin, bitter gourd, papaya…

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