Monday, 24 December 2012

Kacang Bendi (Okra)

Okra which is also known as lady's fingers or kacang bendi with its botanical name of Abelmoschus esculentus is a vegetable that can be cooked in many ways and is a popular addition in curries locally.

There are two varieties that I plant at the farm: the green okra and the red okra.  The skin of the red okra turns to light green when it is cooked so you wouldn't know that it had red skin.  I planted this plant from seeds and it takes about 3-5 days to germinate.  From seedlings to maturity when it starts to flower takes about 60 days.

A healthy plant grows to look like a shrub with beautiful yellow flowers with a purple center.  The leaves are also a beautiful shape.  At the farm, I have planted this both in the outside ground as well as in a container.  As with many plants, it requires a soil mixture that moistens well as well as provide for good drainage.  I find that a soil mixture which also contains some sand as well as organic matter and low level of clay matter works well. 

Since it can be planted in containers, for home gardeners, you can plant this in large pots and will be a beautiful addition to your home landscape.  Do not let the soil to dry out as it does not do well when the soil is left to dry to days so check the moisture of the soil to water.  I find that it needs at least 8 hours of sun so if you plan to plant it at home, either a landed property or apartment, as long as it gets this amount of sunshine, it can do well,  It also can be planted in direct sunlight - in fact it does best in full sunshine during the day.  The plant can grow up to 2m tall but the height growth can be controlled by pinching off the tip of the plant to encourage it to "bush-out".

Once the flower blooms, it takes about 2-3 days before the "fruit" begins to form.  From then, the bean matures within 3-4 days.  The bean is best eaten when the tip of the fruit is firm and easy to break off.  If the tip just bends or is difficult to break off, this means that the bean will be hard and results in a stringy bean when cooked.  That is why, often, you will see people testing the tip of the bean when they are selecting the bean for purchase.

Okra is a popular health food due to its high fiber, citamin C, and folate  content. Okra is also known for being high in antioxidants. Okra is also a good source of calcium and potassium.

In Malaysia, the beans are cooked in several ways: it can be blanched and eaten with sambal belacan, deep fried with a tempura batter, it can be sliced and cooked with either chillies or soy sauce, stuffed with fish "cake" and cooked in hot water, or in curry or dalca dishes.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Walking through the farm

I am often asked what I have at the farm and it takes a while to describe what the farm is like.  As they say, pictures say 1000 words so this article will take you through some of the "inhabitants" of the farm. 
To start with, since I do spend a lot of time at the farm and sometimes I do not feel like driving home, so it is essential to have some "home" conforts.  The house is still a work in progress - there are still some details to be completed but my priority is the farm operations.

The first category is the water-based element.  I rear red tilapia, lampam and keli within the 24-hours in-flow/out-flow ponds.  Since the water source is from the river at the source, other types of river fish have also entered the pond.

Of course to accompany the water-based "animals", I need to have land-based ones too so I have my kampung chicken.  Some of them are forest chicken descendants so they can fly a distance of about 10-15m.

There are so many types of fruits available in Malaysia but they don't just grow well everywhere.  So we have selected some - taking into consideration the soil type, water and naturally, what the farmer likes :). 

We have about 10 types of bananas at the farm, water apple, rambutan, mangosteen, longan, jackfruit, cenoedak, soursop and many others.  Being in the Hulu Langat area, we also have 1 mature durian and have planted new ones from seeds.

Herbs are part of the Malay tradition and I am often amazed at how good it is for you.  It is my hobby to have a collection of herbs and I am often on the lookout for more to add to my collection.  It also works great as a landscaping addition.  Herbs are versatile - therapeutic, seasoning or condiment, tea, salad - so many ways to use them.

Since I do Sunday morning market, I need produce to sell, amongst them vegetables.  They also flower so it adds color to the farm. 

Some are planted in open air and some are planted in the greenhouse.  Some day, I may add another greenhouse.

There are so many varieties of vegetables, some climb and some crawl :).

So what is in store for the future - I have a few ideas - you will just have to wait and see :)

The Challenge of Growing Tomatoes

When I was living in U.S,, during the summer months I was often able to buy fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes and there were infinitely much better tasting than the regular store-bought ones. I have always found growing tomatoes to be a real challenge, not only from the weather aspects but also insects and bugs seem to love them.  I have tried planting them a few times and from each time, there were lessons learnt.  Due to the weather, I bought some tomato seeds that were labelled to be "tropical-friendly".  I used a high organic soil mixture with some sand content to seed the tomatoes.  Since I wanted to be able to move around my seedlings, I seeded them in polybags.  This also enabled me to keep it weed-free much easier. 

After about 3 days, they began sprouting.  I find that to ensure good root growth and healthy seedlings, it was important to ensure moist and not soggy soil condition.  A key item to remember, good root growth is essential as it is the point of entry for the nutrients that the plant needs.  So, if your plant has poor root growth, this will limit its ability to absorb the nutrients from you fertilizers.  When it was about 6"tall or approximately 10 cm, I transplanted into large polybags.  As the plant grew, more roots grew from the bottom level of the stem so I periodically added additional soil mixture to cover it which is 50% soil and 50% organic compost.  In order to accomodate this, when I transplanted them into larger polybags, I did not plant the seedling high but at about mid-level, allowing me the room to add additional soil in the future.

The tomato plants require support or else the plant will fall over as it does have a "soft" plant stem.  My plan is to retain these plants in a polybag throughout its cycle so whatever mechanism that I use had to continue to enable me to weed easily as well as move it when necessary.  I settled for creating "tube" fences from 2"x2" metal fence material.  These tube fences can be re-used when this set of plants die so I felt it was a good investment - both of time and money.

As my cats love to keep me company as I work in my greenhouse, this also help to keep the plants  from being sat-on or knocked-over.  As the plants grow, I would help the plant along by assisting the branches to ease their way through the slots, keeping it balanced.  After about 2 months, I had to add a stake to provide additional support as well as weave string along the stems as the weight of the tomatoes weighed the stem causing it to "fold" down, reducing the nutrients necessary to the growth on the stem.

To keep the pests away, I use a serai wangi mixture to act as a pest repellent, spraying one a week on the whole plant.  The plants are watered daily, in the morning mainly to prevent the formation of moss on the soil and also to ensure that it has sufficient water to prevent the plant from wilting.  After approximately 8 weeks, the plants began to flower at the upper part of the plant, producing several yellow flowers per stem.

Within 1 week, the flower had fully bloomed and dried out followed by the formation of the "baby" fruits.  The average height where the fruits began to form was 1m so I was glad that my tubes were high enough to be able to provide the necessary support for the fruits.  You can see the changes on the growth of the fruits daily and every morning that I am at the farm, this is the first plant that I check.  I fertilize the plants about every week, using organic fertilizer, which will further decompose within the soil providing the necessary nutrients to the plant.  I find the timing of the application of organic fertilizer is different from chemical fertilizers which dissolves in water immediately.  I check the root exposure level of the plant regularly and top up the soil as necessary.  It is important to keep the soil moist but not soggy or the stem of the plant will rot at the base, killing the plant.

I decided to experiment - I have some plants in the greenhouse and some outside.  I find that they grow as well outside as inside and that as long as I kept the pests aways, it was fine.  I placed the outside plants with a east facing so that it received lots of sunshine in the morning but shaded from the late afternoon side.  As I had planted it in polybags, it was essential to watch the moisture content of the soil - if it dries out, the quality of the fruit will drop.  I continue to spray it with an organic pest repellent weekly and it is now on a fortnightly fertilization schedule.  The pest will attack the plant stem, leaves as well as the fruit so it is important to watch out for them.  At the farm, the main pests are aphids, ants and caterpillars.

It took about 2 weeks for the tomato to ripen to a nice red-vermillion color from when it formed.  The average time from seeding to actually being able to taste the first fruit was 10 weeks. 
Nutritionally, it is a great source of vitamin A, C and K as well as Manganese and Potassium.  It is also very low on Sodium.  It is a good source for Vitamin E and Bs.  Being chemical pesticide free, I just needed to rinse of any dust and dive into it.  One thing I can say, it definitely tastes infinitely better being fresh off the vine :).  Personally, I prefer to have this raw: in a tossed salad, chopped up and mix with cilantro, olive oil and salt or blended as a cold "soup" - either of these ways preserves the nutritional value of the tomatoes best.
Now that this batch is producing fruits, it is time to start seeding the next batch.  The work continues......

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Being A Small Farmer Part 5 - Growing Vegetables

In line with having an integrated farm, one of the key items is vegetables.  I selected the vegetables based on what I like.  Inherently, if you select what you like, then you would tend to pay more attention and I do believe this is true.  I have taken the route of planting most of my vegetables in polybags for two main reasons: (1) ease of weeds control and (2) to ensure that the vegetables get the fertilizer and not washed away or consumed by weeds.  The starting place is my greenhouse, where all the seeds get sown which is then transplanted and placed either within the greenhouse or outside.  What did I select?

To start with, I selected long green beans.  This is a versatile vegetable - you can eat it raw or cooked.  So naturally, going natural removes the worry of those pesky chemicals.  I started with sowing the seeds, in the greenhouse, which sprouted in about 3 days.  After allowing it to grow to about 10cm, I transplanted them into a polybag and placed them outside under its trellis.  The lesson I learnt from the first time that I planted this was that the chickens love to scratch around the plant, often uprooting it hence I didn't get much yield from it.  This time around, there are in polybags with the "tube" fence to prevent them from getting to the plant on sitting on it.  This plant is a climber so having a trellis structure is key to its growth.  The soil mixture that I use has a high organic content to it.  I sprinkle organic fertilizer fortnightly in circle with a radius of  about 6cm from the base of the plant.  I am fortunate that the farm is located in an area where there is good rainfall and since it was placed outside, I haven't had to water it, leaving the rain to provide the water.
It took about 40 days before it started to flower.  The flower and shoots are susceptible to a pesky black insect similar to aphids which will cause it to be destroyed.  My ally in this is the kerengga, those biting red insects.  Normally, I would try to get rid of them as they tend to bite you but in this instance, I allow them to roam freely thereby keeping the pests at bay.  The only problem is they like to make their "houses" with the larger leaves and to discourage them, I remove the leaves that they use to make their houses.  This serves a dual purpose - it enables me to control the population of the kerengga as well as well as encouraging new shoots.  I often snack on the green beans as I am doing maintenance the plants - picking them and munching on it without worrying about washing it.  The yield this time is also much better than my first attempt and we did manage to have some for sale at the Sunday morning market and it was gone very fast.

Another favorite vegetable of mine is the cabbage and it too can be eaten raw or cooked.  With the cabbage, one must be patient as it does take a lot longer compared to other vegetables before harvest.  However, I think it is well worth the wait.  It took about 5 days before it started to sprout and took about 3 weeks to grow to about 6 cm.  At this size, with at least four leaves, I transplanted them into polybags.  As with all my vegetables, the soil mixture has a high organic content to it.

I monitor the soil moisture and water it once or twice a day depending on the weather with pure uncontaminated river water.  I am still waiting for my cabbage to mature and be ready for harvest.  According to the seed label, it takes 75-80 days from transplanting, which means it will take about 96 - 101 days before harvest.  As the plant grows wide, It seems to be growing well and it is now about 40 days from transplant.  I do enjoy looking at the plant as it looks like a beatuiful big green flower.  This vegetable will remain in the greenhouse until it is ready to enable me to manage its pest control.  Those insects and caterpillars love munching on them and I find that with weekly serai wangi and water mixture spray, it keeps those pests away.  I am looking forward to eating it and I am not sure if any will make it to the Sunday morning market.  I guess I will have to plant lots more :).