What do you get when you add MCO and Retirement together? Gardening. I was never a gardening person, just because I couldn’t differentiate one leaf type from another and I had found it hard to squat with my then overweight frame but I have since lost a few kgs (read my happy journey of weight loss here https://newswav.com/A2108_iwRbRA?s=A_11c2Kox or just type my name in the Newswav search field). But now gardening is a joy. I had a plant that was given by a good friend, Viv, when I moved into this new place. Somehow it grew very well with little care. After 2 years when I had some free time to finally tend to it, I called Viv to ask her the name of the plant – turmeric, she said.  Duh! For 2 years there were so many unharvested turmeric roots below the soil! That was how good my plant recognition was then, but now, ahem! I am quite an expert (for some familiar ones only though). Thus when I started to walk with my morning kakis who are experts in plants, fertilizers, cuttings, I found myself immersed in gardening lingo for that part of the morning. Each time, when someone has cuttings/seedlings to give, invariably I will stretch out my hands out of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) rather than pure interest in gardening. In the end, my garden had a myriad of assorted vegetables, herbs, and flowering plants without any thought of garden aesthetic. All I remembered about plants was the vague fact from my Form 5 Biology class that chlorophyll is the pigment responsible for photosynthesis in plants. But what is the use of trivial facts when my walking mates are producing yummy green vegetables and beautiful plants?

I cannot cite academic references of the benefits of gardening, just because I have not done any thorough research. But through social interactions with friends and colleagues, I can cite the benefits they gain.

Benefits of Gardening

  1. Stress Reliever. My ex-colleague, Carol, is a weekend gardener and it is her time to distress from her heavy responsibilities at work. Many a time, she will happily drive all the way from Straits Quay and present us with a bountiful bagful of her juicy fragrant Calamansi limes which my husband gratefully uses as his homemade isotonic concoction for his hiking trips.
  2. An activity to pass the time while sitting out waiting for the Covid virus to die off. Many of my friends including myself are happily making their gardens come alive with bartered plants and vegetable seeds. Becoming an expert in Gardening and eating fresh organic vegetables – that’s me.

Things To Consider before Starting a Garden

Fertilizers – do you want to use chemical or organic fertilizers?

Pots – with the closure of garden nurseries, I found myself checking out cloth bags and polythene bags which come in various sizes. I prefer the non-woven cloth bags to the regular ceramic pots as they are lighter and have handles which make it easier to shove it around and move about for a novice like me who cannot decide where the best location for the plants to thrive. Also, they do not retain water, thus preventing root rot.

Seedlings – free and plentiful if you are willing to open your mouth to ask or barter trade for other items. I tend to gravitate towards growing vegetables, just because it is a nice gift when you do not know what to give to family and friends. Organic items are always welcomed.

Garden Tools – it’s not necessary to have fancy ones, but of course the more varied you have, the easier your garden tasks.

Pest/Bugs – check out YouTube, garden blogs on how to get rid of them.

I thought I would let my vegetation be chemical-free, so excitedly I bought 3 trash bins that doubled up as compost bins. YouTube has many videos about composting and I learned about the different types of materials needed for composting – brown (newspaper, egg cartons, brown bags) and green (kitchen wastes, grass clippings) and the proportion needed (2:1), and to add water once a week to help optimize the composting by the microbes via increasing the level of moisture especially in our hot weather, otherwise, the composting will slow down to a crawl. Later I had to add commercial fertilizers as my household did not generate enough compost to feed the vegetables. I had to remember not to over-fertilize. I designed a schedule for every Sunday to remember to fertilize the plants. Sometimes enthusiasm gets the better of me, and I will add in too much. When the poor plant died, my helper asked what I did to it. I simply mumbled, “Nothing, not enough water” and sheepishly walked away. I learned that soil needs to be rejuvenated by adding compost or topsoil. I have always thrown away my lawn clippings. But now, with better knowledge on hand, I let the lawn clippings dry out and used it as mulch which is essentially a covering around a plant to enrich and insulate the soil. Recently a walker friend, Siew Eng bought a big bag of dried chicken poop so I guess my garden is pretty organically fertilized for now.

Gardening is purely trial and error. It’s good to not trust all that you read, as some plant growing conditions are different in different locations. And speaking about trust – once I bought a packet of seeds commercially labelled as cucumber. After planting for some time, a long hardy hairy vegetation sprouted from one of the vines. Google lens told me it was Opu. To get the local name, my fitness role model Goay Hoon dropped by to help me id the plant in Hokkien – “Mao Gua” she proudly announced, “It’s one of my favourite vegetables!”  “Oh, that’s great, here you can have it”, so said I since I didn’t even know how to cook it. Hoon had great people skills, the next day, I was gifted a big delicious portion of the “Mao Gua”  with generous amounts of prawns and fragrant dried shrimps mixed with soft, tender glass noodles (mung bean vermicelli) so that I will know how to cook it in the future. 🙂 . Ah ha, so that’s how it tastes like! Another walker, Alice, sent over a big plate of her special stir-fried “Mao Gua” –a  dried version with glass noodles, prawns, meat and a beaten egg and since then, that recipe has become our favourite Saturday dinner – a meal by itself –  till our garden “Mao Gua” ran dry. Like an excited small kid, I looked forward to harvesting the “Mao Gua” because it became a ritual to weigh and measure them. Just for the record, AEON was selling them at $5.6 per kg. My harvest averaged 1.6 – 2kg with some lengths longer than my Nike US Size 11 running shoe.

Dry Stir-Fried Mao Gua with Glass Noodles, Shrimps and
meat -Courtesy from Alice

Nike Shoe Size 11 and Mao Gua Weight and Length

Most of my harvest was given away to family, friends, and neighbors. To market my home-grown hairy gourd, I researched its benefits and found that it contains rich amounts of Vitamins B and C. 

Some days it feels like I have struck a jackpot. The seeds of the Crunchy Frenchie capsicum that I bought for salad incredulously survived while my walking mate’s ones dried out.

My Frenchy Crunchy Capsicums

Initially, when I took home seeds and cuttings from friends, I thought that all I needed to do was bury them in the soil and water them faithfully every day, and magically, they will grow and blossom. But no, gardening requires time – plants need fertilizers to ensure they are well-nourished, they need to be rid of pests that feast on them, and they need the addition of top-up soil. It can be pretty addictive.

After some time, I had to decide if I was going to focus on planting flowering colourful plants or mere organic vegetables. I mean after all, I had only so much of garden space. I decided then, I might as well go full swing into growing vegetables since resources (time, money, and space) are limited. I had a beautiful rose plant that I had carted home from KL, which my sister Tuan had gifted me, and it had grown into a bushy nice colorful rose plant. That’s about one of the 2 non-vegetable plants that I cared for very well.

Currently, I am rooting for my small fig tree with an initial 2 small leaves given by my ex-colleague, Bee Yeok, to produce fruits. Initially, I felt a little pressure building up when I first took it home. Generally, I feel sad to see plants wither away, so I was indeed relieved to be able to take a photo of it with more than 10 leaves and WhatsApp it over to the plant’s Mummy. Figs are heavy feeders, so Google tells me. Note: heavy feeder refers to a plant type that requires more nutrients than the average plant. So I faithfully put in compost and cricket crusts and any organic fertilizers. Am keeping my fingers crossed and waiting for it to fruit.

My Fig tree growing so healthily.
Broccoli – waiting for the bloom.
Kale in non-woven fabric growth pot

My Kale is growing so healthily that every now and then, I proudly post the photos to the originator, Doreen. The young leaves are tender and have a sweet texture to them when eaten raw by themselves. I don’t think I will ever have enough to make pesto since the leaves are quickly consumed before they ever hit puberty. It is a heavy feeder too, but it is my favorite plant, so I give it the most organic fertilizers that I can find at home. (Read: favoritism).

My Cilantro grown from seeds – still needs fattening up

Gardening expanded my general knowledge considerably. I learned that cilantro “uan-suinn or khin-chye in Hokkien” refers to the plant’s leaves and stems, and coriander is the dried seeds used to spice up recipes or to grow the cilantro. Growing cilantro requires you to gently break the coriander seeds into two, soak the seeds overnight for 2 days (remember to change the water as it can get murky), and then plant them in the soil. They like the morning sun but not the hot afternoon sun, so my porch is a perfect home for them. I learned a new word “bolting” –where it means the plants will go to seed and grow again for the next round. So as you can see, with just gardening, I added 3 new words to my linguistic collection of vocabulary on top of having a steady supply of this tasty herb growing in my garden.

I learned that certain plants thrived in certain parts of the garden due to the sun so sometimes I have to keep lugging the plants around for the best location. You have to choose a location that has the right conditions needed for the type of plants you want to grow. My laksa mint leaves, my sawtooth coriander thrive healthily in the planter box, and the eggplants and the pineapple love the hot sun. Sometimes it is a struggle to decide whether to plant honeydew that can be harvested in 3 months or annual plants like pineapple that takes a year or more to bear a single fruit. I remind myself, it is teaching me delayed gratification in this time of the pandemic. I was at a neighbor’s house, Swee In, and was excited to see honeydews and courgette hanging by her homemade trellis (a framework of light wooden or metal bars to support fruit trees or climbing plants.) Courgette and Zucchini refer to the same thing, the former is in French, the latter is a common term among American English-speaking countries. So in my usual FOMO fashion, I happily took home both seeds. Unfortunately, the courgette seeds didn’t make it to see the light of day but I am happy to be able to harvest a honeydew just enough for 2 persons. 

My honey dew – I harvested a tad bit early, It was crunchy but not
sweet enough. Now waiting for my next harvest.

I keep a little notebook (not the electronic one, but the paper ones) with notes on the key points of the vegetables that I planted, noting whether it needs more nitrogen or more sunlight or other variables. These points were summarized from watching various YouTube videos about the care of the plants. My notebook also records the dates of the plants I planted so that I can estimate when I should harvest them.  I learned about aphids and slugs and the natural ways to kill the bugs using wood vinegar. A great method of manually hunting the flies and Mexican beetles down is by preparing a large enough rectangle container filled with detergent water and quickly swatting the pest from the leaves into the container. The satisfaction of getting the pests into the container is similar to experiencing the sheer joy and ecstasy of bowling a perfect strike. I know it is an utterly disgusting analogy but you get the drift. I learned that bees are needed for pollination. Before my gardening 101 lessons, I used to swat the bees away for fear of them flying into my home and hiding behind the curtains, ready to pounce and sting the house residents. Now, they are my dear friends. I learned that certain plants require cross-pollination, and certain ones are self-pollination. I learned to trim and prune the leaves and not leave them unkempt. I started to make CalPhos by breaking eggshells into small pieces, frying them till brown, and then mix with 5 times the volume of vinegar, keep it for 20 days and dilute 1 tablespoon of filtered liquid with 4 liters of water. This process produces calcium and phosphate compounds that are soluble in water that plants can happily absorb through the roots (notes from my manual notebook).

My CalPhos in the making – bubbles of calcium and phosphate compounds

I learned that it is a good practice to give away cuttings to friends and neighbours. A good friend Joanne gave me a cutting of her hydrangea years ago. It thrived and I generously and proudly gave cuttings away. But one day, my own hydrangea strangely died – all of them. So I had to get them back from friends and now it is thriving away. As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around. Don’t worry Joanne, the plant is now alive and kicking – same DNA and everything.

Just because my garden started to flourish and show results, I became the benefactor of many a dying plant from my siblings. My brother Yeong brought over his aloe vera plant where the leaves had turned yellow and asked to be rescued. Numerous times, my sister Suan will also send over many seedlings that her friends gave her for me to plant. Sometimes I have to decline and remind her, that I only have a small garden, not a farm. 🙂

Much as I am irked by the MCO lockdown, I am grateful that because of it, I have passed with honors my Gardening 101 level (Self-Assessment and Self-Certification).

Phaik Gek Cheah is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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Cheah Phaik Gek
Author: Cheah Phaik Gek

My hobbies: playing the guitar, listening, talking and of course, writing.