Sunday 11 September 2016

Growing plants with Elijah Choo | Part 2

In part 1 you discovered how Elijah wasn't born with a green thumb, and how he went from killing cacti to successfully growing his own fruit and veg. In part 2, we go into a deeper discussion about what soil works for different plants, and what you can grow with limited space or no garden.

What have been some of the weirdest and most exotic plants you have ever grown?

When you first start you always want to look for the weird and exotic things. Asparagus peas was on of them for me, they really aren't all that nice. They are like sweet peas, the flowers are beautiful, they climb all over the place, and the pods they produce look a bit like normal pea pods but with wings. I wouldn't recommend growing them, they really don't taste that nice.

Also cucamelons, described as cucumbers with a squeeze of lime (that is not how I would describe them). I would say they are like stale cucumbers. They do have a slightly sour taste to them, but for me, it is missing that zestiness of a lemon or lime, I find them to be more vinegary. I can understand them being used in a cocktail, but not by themselves.

In the beginning was growing things like kohlrabi and romanesco. I grew loquats from seeds, I went through the so-called "exotic" phase. Now the "exotic" plants I go for have more to do with variety than the actual species. I will seek out heirloom tomatoes, I also have a climbing courgette which is quite rare. Even the fruit varieties that we have in the orchard are rather rare. My perspective on what I consider exotic has changed.


How about growing things with little space, and can we talk more about what soil to use?

To grow things organically you do need to have more space, it does become a bit tricky without a garden. If you don't have one, but someone in your family does, you can pinch soil or compost from them (provided they don't use a lot of chemicals that would leach into the soil). You can buy compost, but you need to read the labels to check that they don't have certain additives (most compost is ok and relatively neutral).

Some plants like free-draining soil, for example, all the herbs in my garden are in a raised bed, and the soil is designed to be very free-draining, with lots of stones at the bottom, so the water flows easily. The soil itself we took from our own plot of land and mixed it with a lot of sand, again for water to go through it very easily. The reason is that most herbs like rosemary, sage, oregano, marjoram, mint they love this type of soil. We also have a fig tree in the same bed.

If you are growing plants at home with not too much space, for example, if you have a patio and space for some potted plants and nothing else. Tomatoes are great, there are different types, and bush type tomatoes would be perfect. Alternatively, I have grown sun golds before as bush type, so instead of pinching it at the side shoots to grow tall (as you are normally told to do), you just pop it in a pot and let it grow as a bush.

To deal with the slugs: get a pot and put it upside down, get a tray (like the tray some plants come with), fill it with water and make sure it is always filled with water, put your potted tomato into the tray and the slugs won't get past this. Alternatively, put a copper strip on the outside of the pot (you can get it from a garden centre), slugs and snails don't like that, but you can't prevent the birds! That is part of growing, you are feeding yourself, but you are also feeding nature a little bit.

The best thing to deal with pests is to ensure your plants are healthy, you don't need to spray them, don't bother with pesticides (you might as well go and buy fruit and veg from the shops if you do)! You don't need pesticides, and you don't need fungicides. You only need to do two things: keep the plant healthy and is seaweed solution to improve the health. Just like with humans, if you are healthy you don't need medication. Seaweed solution is multipurpose (you can buy it from a garden shop or make your own if you live near the coast), it is dark brown and looks like soy sauce. You mix it with water, and you can water the soil with the mixture to give it nutrients, or you can spray the leaves as a form of natural pest control. It has nitrogen and lots of nutrients that boost the plant. If you can get your hands on it, horse manure is amazing to boost the soil, otherwise chicken pallets are also great (these you can get from a garden centre). It is basically dry chicken poo. Don't use fresh horse manure or chicken poo, it needs to be 'well rotted', in other words aged, and by then it doesn't have the smell.  While you need to feed the plant, like with everything, too much is also not good. With my tomatoes for example, I feed them with seaweed solution once a week, and with manure or chicken palettes about once a month.

You could also grow cucumbers, you will just need to be able to lean the bamboo polls against something for the plant to climb up. Go for the mini cucumber varieties, but even then it could take up a bit of space, so you would need to be careful with it.

Herbs like thyme and rosemary would be the easiest to grow in a confined space. If you are worried about green-fly you need to drench the plant in seaweed solution and it will prevent it.

When you first bring your plants home, it might be a good idea to change the soil as there are only so many nutrients available to it in the pot (you don't want to keep changing the soil all the time, though, after that it is about feeding it). You don't necessarily need to do it with all the plants. The easiest way to check is by touching the soil if it's all dried up and shriveled, it no longer has nutrition in it. Good soil has a certain colour, and a rich earthy smell, if you don't think it is right, and it is not holding water then change it. With my tomatoes, for example, I have only re-potted them twice, and they are now in their final position. Of course, I have been feeding the plants, watering regularly and generally looking after them.

So with a patio, you can grow herbs, tomatoes, mini cucumbers (provided you have something to lean them against), strawberries, and there are patio fruit trees.

You can find apple, pear and plum trees that have root-stock that restricts their growth, so they are tiny. The best thing is to go to the garden centre and ask. The coolest ones don't even spread out, they just grow to maybe the height of your chest or your shoulder. The tree looks like a green column! You will not get tons of fruit, but you will still have 5-10 apples on a tree, and they will be your apples.

Blueberries are also great, the plant itself isn't cheap but they aren't difficult to grow. You do need to get familiar with soil when you grow things, they have different structures: there are clay soils, sandy soils, loamy and so on. There is also PH level in soil: it can be acidic or alkaline. Some plants do better in acidic soil, others prefer alkaline. Hydrangeas are weird, depending on the PH of the soil the colours of the flowers change from pink to blue (pink for alkaline, blue for acidic). Blueberries love acidic soil, so in UK they are actually better to be grown in a pot then in the ground.


What about if we move on to the upper floor, with no patio and just a window?

In that case, stick to the plants that you can grow in tiny pots or troughs. You can have a trough filled with strawberries. You can find troughs that are half a meter long, that will sit along the entire windowsill, and you can put about 4-5 strawberry plants in there (there are shorter troughs too).

You can have a mixture of little tumbling bush type tomatoes, like tumbling tom for example, on both ends of the trough, and in the middle fill it with herbs like oregano, thyme or sage. So you can have a little tomato and herb garden on your windowsill.

If you don't to go down the root of fruit, vegies and herbs, you can always grow flowers. There are edible flowers like nasturtium. In fact, nasturtium leaves are also edible, they are a bit peppery and taste like rocket, but the shape is round. So if you are making vegan burgers, they fit really well in a burger! The flowers are beautiful as a summer salad decoration, they taste sweet and peppery. You can pick the petals off and scatter them on top of your salad, just make sure keep them on top and don't stir them in as the flowers are so fragile. Nasturtiums are very easy to grow, you can buy them in a pack of seeds, you will not fail growing them. They don't need a very rich soil, in fact if you over feed them, you will only get the leaves and no flowers. The only downside is that they are very prone to greenfly and black fly, so again turn to seaweed solution. If there is any green or black fly, it always happens under the leaves, pick that leaf off and throw it away. It tends not to spread too quickly, you just need to check regularly. The key with plants is that you really can't expect it to do everything and anything for you if you are not looking after it. They don't need checking every hour, but you still need to take care of them.

When it comes to watering, it will depend on the weather (or central heating if you growing plants indoors). Water them when the soil starts drying out, it won't necessarily be every day but as you grow more you will develop a sence for it.  Wonderful thing about nasturtiums is that they are really pretty and come in different colours.


What has been the most surprising thing that you have learned after you have started growing plants?

Nature is very adaptable, just when you think it isn't going to work, it works out. It finds its own balance, instead of forcing it, all you ned to do is give it a bit of a helping hand. Growing your own plants, your own fruit, your own vegetables, it nourishes your soul. It does change the way you think: you get respect for what you eat, you learn to have respect for nature, you understand more. You become responsible for the plants, they are like pets (although they do not require the attention that pets do, unless you are growing bonsai, you need to spend every single second with those). Also when you grow things, the final result, be it fruit or veg, it will never be 100% perfect, but that is the beauty of it.


There is one more thing that I would like to add. There are many things that you can grow without buying any plants or seeds. Avocado is one example, it might not give you fruit, but you will have great fun growing it. If you have celery, you can actually grow fresh celery from it. Make sure you buy your celery with the base. Once you've eaten all your celery and are left with the base, instead of throwing it out put it in the dish of water and just wait for it to grow and you will have fresh celery. In time, it will have roots, and then you can plant it. Other things include pineapple, ginger, lemongrass, and onions. A tip with ginger is to keep it outside of the fridge, just like tomatoes and onions it will have better flavour that way, and if left sitting long enough, you will notice it sprouting. You can plant it by half burying it in the soil!

If you juice, chances are there is something you can grow from the things you are juicing.

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*Photos courtesy of Elijah Choo.




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