Friday, 27 February 2015

Round purple beauties: Aubergines

Another versatile vegetable fruit is the round purple aubergine.  This plant is a perennia and can be propagated from seeds.  I use dried seeds as this allows me to select the seeds that I feel will germinate and produce strong plants.  What is my criteria? Simple, they have to feel hard and have a nice yellow colour to them.  If the seeds feels "crispy", then they will probably not germinate or produce strong plants.  I seed them in small polybags filled with organic soil mixture.  From my experience, it germinates between 7-10 days.  During this period before you see any leaves, it needs to be kept moist but not soggy wet.
Once it germinates, I will wait until 4 leaves have appeared before transplanting them to either a big poly bag - at least 12" in diameter or into the ground.  Planting in polybags requires more care and attention to water and soil content than in the ground.  The leaves feel velvety and have very tiny hairs which can cause you to have an allergic reaction if you inhale it - to me sometimes I experience a sinus reaction to it so I prefer to plant them in outdoor open areas so I have less chances of inhaling them.

It takes about 2 months before they start to flower, producing lovely small purple flowers. At this point, the plant is about 18" or 0.5m tall, so it is a nice small shrub-like plant.  By keeping it pruned, you can have a nice bushy shrub.  So, if you want to have an edible garden but yet want a flower garden, this plant may be an option.  Allow a diameter of 2' or around 0.5-0.7m at the base of the plant clear of other vegetation. If you want to plant a row of them, space them about 1m or 3' apart as this will allow the plant to bush out.
At the farm, we use a liquid mixture of fermented cow dung, organic matter and vermicompost to fertilise them and they seem to love it, producing lots of flowers.  We started fertilising them fortnightly starting from 1 week after transplanting.  It is important to have strong, sturdy plants as the fruits can be quite heavy, weighing 300-500gm.  As with many fruiting vegetables, pollination is important hence be sure to remove old, yellowed leaves to allow easy access for the pollinating insects.
I like to keep a clear ground area of about 2 feet or 20cm diameter clear around the base of the plant.  I will build a little circle dam around this,  By doing this, it allow me to do a few things: less area to keep weed free, allows for the plant to be the main consumer of the fertiliser and allows the water to be trapped in this circle giving time for the water to seep through the ground to the roots.  We water it once a day unless it rains, and depending on the rainfall, we may not water it for a couple of days.  This is a hardy plant and can be a prennial, lasting over a year with the right care and attention.

It is easy to know when it is time to harvest, it is when the fruit is a nice purple colour.   The fruit is prones to attacks by insects which lay eggs and the larvae then feeds on the aubergine, making holes in them.  I use an EM+ spray as an organic pesticide.   If it is heavy with fruit, you will need to provide support to the plant as the fruits can get to be heavy - 250-400 gm each - straining the branches.
 Now that you have the fruit, what can you do with it.  So many options: grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper, turned into a dip, cooked a curry with it, do an eggplant parmagiana (slices coated in breadcrums) and lots of other dishes.  I have never seen it eaten in sweet dishes though who knows, someone may one day create a sweet dish out of it.  Happy trying to plant this gorgeous plant :)

Friday, 20 February 2015

SHL Trellis Adventure Part 2 - Pumpkins

I have tried planting pumpkins with and without trellis and find that the fruits are better when they grow on a trellis.  So December 2014, I seeded various types of pumpkin seeds.  Previously, I had
bought commercial seeds and they didn't have a good sprouting rate, about 50%.  This time around, I bought 4 different varieties of organic pumpkin  - I prefer speckled pumpkins - and then selected the good-sized, fat seeds and placed them in a colander to dry.  The skinny seeds do not sprout since they do not have enough "meat" to start a plant.  I had tried drying them on newspaper and it ended with them getting stuck on the newspaper.  I store the excess dried seeds wrapped in a newspaper in a dry, cool area.

I sow the seeds in small polybags, about 9 cm across, filled with a soil mixture containing soil,
organic matter and fertilizer and place them in a sunny location.  I water them everyday, taking care not to have the soil too wet and never letting them dry out.  The seeds sprout in 5-7 days.  Two "baby leaves" will appear first before the normal shaped leaves will appear which looks very different from the baby leaves.  After the third normal leaf has appeared, I will transplant them into the ground.  After 1 week, I will fertilise it with about 1 teaspoon of organic fertiliser.  I find that the "trailers" will start to appear after about 2 weeks and the plant will start to climb up the trellis.  By having them grow on a trellis also helps me control the spread of the plant and enables me to easily spot the pumpkins as well as keeping it away from the ground pest and keeping it clean.

This time around, I changed the design of the trellis from the x-shape to a platform-style trellis.  This design helps to support the fruit, which can weigh over 1 kg.  It also provides for a wider area for the plant to creep along and provides me easier access when I need to do plant maintenance.  The plants love full sunlight and the leaves tend to slightly wilt during the peak hot afternoon but will perk-up as the heat eases off.

I will remove any old or yellowed leaves
whenever I spot it as well as any leave that covers-up a flower.  The aim is to provide easy access for the insects to pollinate.  Removing these leaves also encourages growth.  Fruits will also result from pollinated flowers hence it is important to increase the chances of pollination for the flowers.  All 4 types of pumpkin produce a beautiful, bright yellow flower.  Any flower that does not produce a flower will drop off, still in good shape.  I will collect these flowers and cook them - they are edible.

The fruit are ready for harvest when the white area of the speckled skin has turned into an off-white colour with a slight brown tinge.  These pumpkins can be cooked in many ways either as a sweet or savoury dish.  A simple way to prepare pumpkin is to slice them to about 0.5cm thickness, and coat it with olive oil, salt and pepper and grill or bake them.  Simply delicious.  You can do more complex dishes like masak lemak labu dengan udang, pengat labu and even pumpkin pie.  The young pumpkin leaves and shoots can also be used to cook in savoury dishes.  I like to eat the pumpkin for its many benefits including the high content of anti-oxidants, vitamins such as A, C and E, whilst containing no saturated fats or cholesterol.  It is also rich in the vitamin Bs.  All in all, something good to eat :)