A VISIT to a local grocery store during the recent Movement Control Order (MCO) made me realise that my days of playing with soil — weeding and planting — was a good idea after all.
Walking down the aisle, I was shocked to see shelves normally filled with fresh greens completely empty.
Those that did have vegetables were in a very sorry state. I guessed that it was probably due to logistical issues. With limited movement and road blocks, perhaps deliveries from farms had become a problem, I mused to myself.
Although logistical issues would eventually be solved when things return to near-normal, an article published in a local paper recently, which quoted International Strategy Institute (ISI) chairman Cheah Chyuan Yong, raised some concern.
It mentioned that food supplies in Malaysia might become insufficient in the coming months as many countries that we were importing from are cutting exports to feed their own nation. There’s also increased difficulty in producing food due to climate change.
Malaysia imported RM34.2 billion worth of food in 2018, of which, the amount of vegetables imported was valued at RM4.6 billion. Most of the food came from China, India, Thailand, Indonesia and New Zealand.
Perhaps it’s time for us to start producing our own fruits and vegetables. Not only do we need better nutrition in these challenging times, gardening can also be therapeutic, especially when we’re cooped up during the restricted movement period.
My passion for gardening only emerged a few years ago — much to my mum’s delight. She’s been trying to convert me into an urban gardener since young.
My gardening hobby started when it dawned on me that there’s too much food waste coming from my kitchen, and I must not contribute to Greenhouse gas emission when they rot in the landfill.
So I started composting my food waste. When I had all these good plant foods, I realised that I didn’t have plants to feed. So I decided to plant.
I’ve tried planting many things — herbs, vegetables and fruits. Sometimes, I fail miserably but after understanding more of the plants’ needs, my family and I have been able to reap a good, healthy and luscious harvest.
My plan is to have enough greens around the house to be able to do my daily cooking without having to purchase from the supermarket.
Here’s what I’ve learnt, especially about plants which are easy to grow and have around the house.
For those living in a house where space is limited, I’d recommend planting Brazilian spinach. It thrives well in sunlight, spreads very fast and can be planted in pots or on the ground.
Also known as “sisso spinach”, “sambu” or “samba lettuce”, it’s very easy to plant and propagate.
Shoving a Brazilian spinach stem into some soil will almost always result in new shoots growing. It does need regular trimming to thrive better and healthier.
Brazilian spinach is very versatile and tasty. It can be used raw in salads or cooked. It’s not as soft as the salad spinach we buy at the supermarket, but for me, it works.
I usually toss Brazilian spinach in my fried rice, replacing the usual sawi or kangkung.
For an easy vegetable dish when eating white rice, I’d boil them with some shallots, garlic and add an egg or two, and voila… a nice, healthy and appetising vegetable soup!
A few other herbs that are also versatile and handy to have in the garden are belalai gajah (also known as gendis among Malays or snake plant among Chinese) and pokok sambung nyawa (also known as longevity plant).
These herbs have a mild taste, making them ideal for adding into to a variety of dishes. They are also perennial plants, and are easy to take care of.
When it comes to planting fragrant herbs, daun kesum, daun pudina and daun kunyit are great choices as they’re easy to plant and can add flavour to dishes.
Daun kesum (or water-pepper, small smartweed, pygmy smartweed, spotted lady’s thumb) is traditionally used in local dishes such as asam laksa or asam pedas.
Once, I added it to my bak wan or cucur bawang instead of carrots or cabbage and, wow, the aroma brought my dish to another level!
Daun pudina (mint leaves) go well in salads and can be added to hot tea or cold lemon drinks to make them more appetising.
Daun kunyit (turmeric leaves), on the other hand, has a very nice aroma and can be used in dishes such as lemak cili padi, ikan bakar and rendang.
All of the above plants can be easily planted in a pot or plastic bottles anywhere, and they don’t require large areas. They can be placed at a balcony, window sill or even by the sink.
All you need are some pots, good soil, compost or fertiliser, and a pair of shears as these plants grow well when trimmed often.
MORE SPACE, MORE VARIETY
Those who have more space might wish to add to the variety.
I’d recommend planting lady’s fingers (also known as bendi or okra). They can be grown easily and fruit within a month or so.
Green beans are also quite easy to plant. The usual green beans are creepers and they need support.
However, there are also non-creeping varieties available, which are easier to handle and will be self-contained in the pot.
I also recommend planting moringa (also known as kacang kelo), mulberry and cassava (ubi kayu).
Moringa is today regarded as a “superfood” and has been claimed to have anti-diabetes and anti-cancer properties.
Moringa can be planted in a big pot and is low maintenance. The leaves are small and abundant.
Versatile, it can be added to any fried dishes, bakes, and patties for extra vitamins and nutrients. It’s great for families with children who are picky eaters.
As the leaves are small and the taste, mild, kids will probably not realise they’re eating them.
Another wonder plant is mulberries. Not only do they produce yummy berries all year round, the shoots are delicious when added as ulam or in sandwiches.
The plant grows fast so to get more berries, they need to be trimmed often.
Finally, I’d also recommend planting ubi kayu (or tapioca). Not only is it a delight to be able to eat homegrown ubi kayu rebus (boiled tapioca) with ikan kering or salted fish, its shoots are yummy in masak lemak, kerabu or as part of gado-gado.
This plant is a good “contingency” plant to have when you’ve run out of greens and have no time for grocery shopping.
The quality of soil will greatly affect how well our plants grow and how tasty they can be.
I’d recommend those planting their vegetables to do their own food waste composting as well.
There are many techniques to compost food waste. There’s the simple hole in the ground, mesh wire silo, bokashi technique or modern automated composter.
No matter where you live, there’s bound to be a composting technique suitable for you.
I believe everyone can plant and there’s no such thing as “a green thumb”. It’s all knowledge and nowadays there’s always good ol’ uncle Google to help you out with your questions.
I find consuming my own home-grown vegetables to be truly satisfying. Not only do they taste much better than the vegetables bought at supermarkets, it also makes me feel good because I know that I’m doing my part to feed the family the nutrition and goodness they deserve.
The writer is the deputy director of Mardi’s Livestock Science Research Centre; the head of MYSaveFood Network secretariat; and an urban gardener.
New Straits Times