Saturday 10 September 2016

Growing plants with Elijah Choo | Part 1

When you ponder the organic life style, it is almost inevitable that the idea of growing your own veg crosses your mind. Personally I am terrible with plants, live in a tiny London apartment, and completely convinced that there is no hope of me growing anything, let alone something edible. After spending some time talking to Elijah Choo, founder of Bodhi & Birch, I feel that there is hope for me yet. In part 1 we discuss how Elijah came to love gardening, some of the challenges he had to overcome, as well as tips on growing tomatoes and strawberries.

Have you always grown plants?

Nope, my first plant, if I remember correctly, was an Ivy from Ikea (I would have been in my teens), it died. That was because I wasn't looking after it properly, I put it in my bathroom as I wanted to add a bit of greenery. The second plant had been a cactus. Simply because I thought to myself no one can kill a cactus, and where do I put it? In my bathroom... the most humid place in the house! And of course, I killed it.

After that I gave up on gardening for a long time, until I moved to the UK when I was 27. I was working in the design industry and didn't have much in the way of friendships at the time. This sounds quite pathetic, but I missed my family and my friends, so I decided to grow plants that reminded me of home. I started to grow orchids, and amassed a huge collection. The trick is whatever the plant you have, find out where it is from (as in where it is originally from), and try to mimic its habitat. That is it. So a cactus should not be in the bathroom! You need to mimic the climate, how much water does it want, how much sunshine, should the air be humid or dry, should the light be direct or diffused. Once you get that right the plant will thrive. Nature always finds a way of surviving, even if the conditions aren't 100% right, it will do its best.

I started growing my own fruit and veg, when we moved to Bittell farm. I still grow flowers along the border.

What made you want to go from orchids to fruit and veg?

I think its simply because I realised: if I can grow orchids, which everyone says are a nightmare to grow, then I can grow anything. In truth orchids are not that hard to grow, there are lots of different types from all over the world, you just need to know where it comes from and mimic the growing conditions for that particular orchid. The same applies to fruit and veg, it is the case of finding the one you like to eat and emulating the environment that they like to grow.

I started growing tomatoes, kohlrabi, kai lan, bok choy, peas, runner beans, purple sprouting broccoli, salad leaves. I failed with potatoes because of the wrong soil. I tried to go with things that I knew, and some of the vegetables that are a bit exotic, those you couldn't easily find in shops. As I progressed, I started to choose the types of fruit and veg I was growing based on several factors: the ones that taste better when you grow them yourself (homegrown strawberries for example always taste so much better), and the things that would be quite expensive to buy (for example sungold tomatoes are super pricey, so I always grow them).

At the very beginning I used to use quite a lot of pest control, because of slugs, green-fly and so on. I didn't want to continue doing that, and wanted to see what else I could do. I started learning about natural forms of pest control, about companion planting (plants that you grow next to tomatoes for example like calendula, it enhances their flavour and at the same time prevents green-fly). Certain plants are avoided by insects, so if you plant them next to a plant that the insect loves, it prevents it from being eaten. Over time you learn all these tips and tricks, it is no different from learning all the different tips and tricks about skincare and beauty. Of course it doesn't happen straight off the bat, you pick it up a long the way. The growing season is an annual cycle, so it does take longer to learn.


Was it a conscious choice to move to Bittell farm? Were you looking for a place that would have space to grow fruit and veg?

I've always wanted to have that space. Weirdly enough, even though I wasn't the best gardener to begin with, growing up I have always visited my uncle's plantation in Malaysia. They grow everything and anything, all those fruits considered exotic in UK: rambutan, durian, mangosteen. One time I had to go and help harvest peanuts.

Growing up in Singapore, a metropolis, the plantatiom was a form as escapism, those summer holidays were heaven. I always wanted to grow up and find a place that was similar to that. So Bittell farm was inevitable. Both Martin and I wanted to live out of the city but not too far from it. So the desire to have that space has alway been there, and as the years went by, I realised that I want to garden.

The beauty of the farm is that it already had its own orchard, with heritage varieties of apples and plums. It also has space for us to plan a vegetable patch, it's like a little slice of my own heaven.

Things are still under construction, what I'm using now as a green house is meant to be a potting shed. It is a small space, 2m wide and 3m long, the plants that I grow in here are in pots. At the moment I have: 8 tomato plants, which are about 3m tall (trick with tomatoes is water, in the summer I will water them twice a day and not just a sprinkling but a good soak); an occasional tray of salad leaves, theseI tend to pick quite young; blueberry is in here because birds were picking at it; 2 avocados that I grew from seed (it's not going to bear fruit but it looks great); succulents, these need to be kept really dry (but there are others that like water);  goji (this was a gift) and apparently the leaves are edible; 3 hibiscus plants that I have grown from seeds (not the Hawaiian flower, but rosella, the one that you use in tea, they are two different plants); a pot of thyme, lemon tree, kumquat, orchids, paper flower, and chilli.

Which plants are great for the beginners to grow?

Growing avocado is really fun and easy, next time you eat it, save the seed. You need to stick three or four sharp toothpicks into it, in such a way that the toothpicks balance on the edges of the cup with the avocado seed being in the middle suspended in the air, place on top of the cup filled with water to the point that the bottom half of the seed is submerged in the liquid. In about a week the root starts growing, once there are established roots and the plant is looking healthy, you need to transfer it to the soil, which needs to be rich for it to grow well (here is a video that shows how to do this).

If you want to grow tomatoes and are new to it, sungolds are really easy to grow, and in fact people who don't normally like tomatoes love sungolds, because they don't taste like your normal tomatoes.

Since you grow all the tomatoes in the pots, what happens at the end of the season when all the fruit is gone?

When it comes to pots, some plants do better in plastic pots, and others do better in terracotta pots. Some people may question the use of plastic, I have no problem with using plastic if you reuse it, reuse it, and keep reusing it, making it last as long as possible. Majority of these plastic pots are recycled and recyclable. The reason why my tomato plants are not in terracotta pots, is that terracotta breathes. They are great for plants that need the soil to dry out faster, if you want to retain moisture you can not use terracotta. To retain moisture pots need to be plastic or possibly glazed (but again the centre would still likely to be terracotta, and that still would dry out the roots).

At the end of the season (around October/November), if there are still tomatoes on the vines, I will cut off the leaves and that gives the plant a bit of a shock making it think "oh I need to make sure that I get seeds to carry on the species", so it will put all the energy into ripening the fruit. Once there is no more fruit I will cut everything off and it will go onto my compost heap (including the root).

Tomatoes are originally from South America, in their own country the root will stay in, but in UK that will not work. In a European country you need to start afresh every year. This doesn't apply to all the plants, it is the case for chilli and tomatoes, but blueberry and the citrus plants, and everything else I have here will grow year to year.


Have you tried growing tomatoes from seeds?

Yes, and here is where it gets a little controversial. Some people like to grow plants from seeds, especially tomatoes. There is a bit of gardening snobbery going on "oh you didn't grow yours from seeds?". I used to grow them from seeds, but unless you are a farmer, or have all the time in the world, or are retired, it takes up so much of your time and it costs money to look after the plants with the feed (so the idea that you will save money growing things from seeds isn't necessarily true). You would have to start really early in the season to grow tomatoes from seed, and some people would start turning the green house heater on, I don't think that's very 'green'. You will also most likely end up with way too many tomato plants, and then you have to decide which are your best plants and kill the rest (I always find that quite vicious). Out of the best plants people then choose which they want to keep, and then get rid of the others. Normally that means giving them away (whenever some offers to give you a plant, in truth it will never be their best plant, of course it doesn't make it a bad plant but it is their excess).

It really depends how much time you want to spend gardening, I love it, and I do spend a lot of time doing it, but still there is never enough time. When it comes to tomatoes, I would rather buy a healthy plant, that I can carry on growing to have the fruit. I am not growing them just for the sake of it, I am doing it so I can eat it. I also don't want a whole row of the same type of tomato. All the plants I have are different kinds of tomatoes. Last year when I grew them from seeds, I had so many plants that I was trying to give away and nobody wanted them.

On the other hand, things like salad you want to grow from seeds so you can get a lot, but other things like peppers, just take too long and won't ripen in time in the UK climate. Don't be swayed by others when it comes to what to grow from seeds, it depends on how much time you have, and what you want to get out of gardening.


Let's talk about strawberries.

Well I haven't had great luck with strawberries this year. I was growing them inside the green house, and then put them out to be sweetened by the sun, and the birds had them. So I have been very kind to the birds this year.

Strawberries are very easy to grow. You can get the plants very easily, all you need to do is make sure that you have rich soil and water them well (not too much, you want the soil nice and moist, not too dry, not too wet, right in the middle), and you will get strawberries. A good plant would be wild strawberry, if you grow those outside in the ground, it will come back year after year (in fact strawberries will come back year after year). Wild strawberries are tiny, and they don't have the texture of the strawberries that we normally get in the shops, but they have tons of flavour.

Strawberries are happy to grow outside in UK, and you can carry on growing them from runners. It is considered that you need to have a new strawberry plant (from runners or elsewhere) every 3 years, because the fruit isn't as good anymore, but I have a plant outside in the troth that is 5 years old, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

If you grow them in a pot, you can protect the plant from slugs and birds easier, as you can move it wherever you want, and of course it is much easier to pick those berries when they are higher up rather than on the ground. It does need a fair amount of sun, so make sure to have it in a sunny place in the green house or windowsill, you could have three strawberry plants in one pot.

Part 2 will be available on Sunday, with more tips on growing and what to do when you don't have a garden.

*Photos courtesy of Elijah Choo