Herbs you can grow at home

Ever wanted to start your own herb garden but unsure of what herbs to grow? Here are some simple questions you can ask yourself first:

1) What herbs do you often use in the kitchen?
2) Where will you be growing your herbs (indoors or outdoors, balcony, service yard, etc)? How would you like to grow them (in pots, in a patch, together in a box, etc)? Do you think you have sufficient space?
3) Are the herbs easy to grow in your country’s climate? (you can ask the staff at the plant nursery or consult your friends who may already be growing these herbs in their own homes)

For me, I like a good range of herbs that will allow me to cook a variety of different cuisines in the kitchen, and are also versatile enough to be used in various ways. I don’t claim to be an expert in growing plants, so I wouldn’t know the optimal conditions to grow them, but I do appreciate the convenience of having easy access to the appropriate quantity of herbs that I require, without having to go to the supermarket to buy more than I need.

Here are my top picks of easy-to-grow herbs that you can consider growing if you are starting your first garden:

Mint
Mint is a fast-growing plant; my little pot from Ikea grew to 3 times its size in a couple of months. It is also easy to grow, and you can either purchase an inexpensive pot or start from a few cuttings in soil or water.


I particularly like using mint in the kitchen because of its versatility: It can be used as a garnish, as a refreshing and pretty addition to a spritzer for a hot day, or to enhance the flavour of salads or meats like lamb and beef.

Curry leaf plant
Curry leaves are used in curries (duh..) but it can also be used in dishes like cereal prawns and snacks like salted egg yolk potato chips. I have also seen it being added to deep-fried calamari and potato wedges/french fries as an accompaniment to beer. The leaves have the best flavour when they are used fresh rather than dried, and you can easily purchase a pot from a local nursery or even from the wet market.

Curry plant

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Buttery goodness of cereal, curry leaves and chilli padi (Photo credit)

Rosemary
The first time I heard of rosemary was when I was a secondary school student… It wasn’t because I used it in my cooking, but I used the essential oil for aromatherapy during my examination preparation period because I read that it was good for concentration… haha. The plant is easy to grow and is pest-resistant, but be mindful that the rosemary bushes can grow quite large.

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I like to use the herb in bread, to flavour olive oils, or with its partner-in-crime, chicken. You can also use rosemary stalks as skewers for your meats on the barbecue or on the grill. I also love the perfume that lingers on my hands when I rub them against fresh rosemary sprigs… Ahhhh 🙂

A refreshing way to use rosemary is adding them to your drinks to give it an interesting twist. Here’s a simple recipe for Rosemary Blueberry Smash that you may want to try out for your next brunch or dinner party.

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Rosemary Blueberry Smash (Photo credit)

Pandan
The screwpine, or more commonly known as pandan, is a wonderful aromatic plant that is widely used in Asian cooking. Use them to perfume your rice, sweet desserts, or do what many local taxi drivers do, place a bunch of them in your car as a deterrent to cockroaches (I’m not sure how such a lovely fragrance will chase away these pests, but my hubby and I have tried it, and it works).

Pandan leaves screw pine leaves

Tie the leaves into  a bunch and place them into your food when you cook to give it a pleasant aroma (Photo credit)

You can actually cultivate the pandan plant at home without having to go to a nursery to purchase a pot. You can visit your local supermarket or wet market, and select leaf stalks with tiny roots at its base. Then all you have to do is to place them in water for the roots to grow further, and thereafter, plant them in potting soil.

In Singapore, one of the most beloved ways to utilise this plant is to use its essence or extract for pandan chiffon cake, but an easier way to use pandan leaves is to boil it with ginger and lemongrass to create a warm and nourishing drink, especially for a cold rainy day. I’ve seen my mum-in-law make the drink using dried ready-made leaves that she purchased from the supermarket, so if it’s too much of a hassle to prepare it from scratch, that can be an option as well. But it isn’t all that difficult to throw the ingredients together in a pot, right? And having it fresh is always better 🙂 Here’s a simple recipe for the drink.

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Lemongrass, ginger and pandan drink (Photo credit)

Basil
There are many different kinds of basil that you can grow at home, but the most common ones here are Sweet Basil (or called Genovese Basil) and Thai Basil.

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Genovese Basil (Photo credit)

thai basil

Thai Basil (Photo credit)

Grow your basil plant in a sunny place, and you can propagate the plant via cuttings. Always use fresh basil whenever possible, and if you are cooking it, add it into your food at the last moment to retain its flavour.

There are different ways to use the herb: Genovese basil can be used with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese in a caprese salad or for a bruschetta, while the Thai basil can be used in a stir-fried pork or beef dish, or as an aromatic garnish for Southern Vietnamese pho. If you are bored of the usual tomato or cream based sauces for your pasta, you can also use Genovese basil to make your own pesto with pine nuts or walnuts. Here’s an easy classic pesto sauce recipe that you can refer to.

Spring onion
Also known as scallions or green onions, you can just use store-bought spring onions (cut to about 3 cm to 4 cm stalks, including the roots), place them into water and wait for the green shoots to grow before using them. Take note that the flavour of the re-grown spring onions will be milder.

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I know some of you may find it too much of a hassle and would rather just pop by the supermarket to get them (true that), and to be honest, I would do that too because they are so readily available, but the process of seeing the little green stalks grow from the roots can be quite satisfying. For those with children, it can be an interesting green project that you can do with your kids. Just imagine the excitement as they see the plant grow and when they harvest the spring onions! 🙂

I do know of people who hate the taste and smell of spring onions (my hubby hates them, I love them), but I like using it as a garnish to add some freshness and colour to a dish. Spring onions can be used in so many ways, and I chanced upon this recipe of a scallion-ginger sauce in the Straits Times that can be used to accompany meats and even instant noodles… Delish!

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I can imagine scooping a dollop of this yummy sauce over grilled chicken or just over a bowl of rice 🙂 (Photo credit)

 

Need some ideas on how to structure and grow your first herb garden? You can visit the following websites for some inspiration:
10 Tips To Start Your First Herb Garden In Singapore
10 Cool DIY Ideas to Grow an Indoor Herb Garden

Geometrical Patterns in Nature

I’ve always loved looking at pretty flowers and plants, but of late, I have become quite fascinated with the different patterns, geometrical symmetries, fibonacci spirals and tessellations that I see in the plants around me. Many mathematicians and scientists have tried to come up with theories to explain these patterns in nature; some have shared that the patterns could be the most efficient way for the plants to grow for maximum exposure to sunlight and water, some have shared that plants have evolved in this way as a means of survival through natural selection or camouflage. For me, these patterns are a reminder that God is the creator of all things big and small, and they are the manifestation of His creativity and love for us with the creation of such beautiful patterns in nature for us to appreciate and be in awe of.

Symmetry in Flowers
Symmetry in flowers can basically be grouped into two types:

1) Actinomorphic or regular flowers have radial symmetry, in other words, you can find more than one line of symmetry through the centre of the flower. The petals are the same size and shape, and you can section out numerous mirror images in the flower.

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Gazania, belonging to the Asteraceae family

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Helichrysum bracteatum

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Another variety of the Gazania

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Clematis flower

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A delicate cherry blossom flower

2) Zygomorphic or irregular flowers have bilateral symmetry, and only have one single line of symmetry dividing the flower into two mirror image halves. The petals of the flowers are usually different in shape and size.

These orchids are an excellent example of zygomorphic flowers

Spirals
Spirals in plants can be seen in its leaf arrangement and in its arrangement of flower heads or seed heads.

One type of spiral that I see very often during my GB stint is the Fibonacci spiral. The Fibonacci sequence is a series of numbers where a number is found by adding up the two numbers before it, so starting with 0 and 1, the sequence goes 0, 1, 1, 2, 3,5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on. A Fibonacci spiral is a a series of connected quarter-circles drawn inside an array of squares with Fibonacci numbers for its dimensions. The squares fit perfectly together because of the nature of the sequence, where the next number is equal to the sum of the two numbers prior to it.

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Fibonacci Spiral

Here are some examples of the spirals in Nature:

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The rosette arrangement in this succulent is in the form of a Fibonacci spiral

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Can you see the spirals in these Golden Ball cacti?

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The compact arrangement of this flower head showcases the Fibonacci spiral

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This camellia bloom is a gorgeous example of a Fibonacci spiral in nature

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Fern frond (Photo credit)

 

Tessellations
Tessellations are patterns formed when one or more geometric shapes called tiles are repeated on a plane surface. You can see tessellations most commonly in honeycombs built by bees, and even though they may not be as common in nature as compared to art and design, we can still see tessellations in the plants around us if we look a little closer.

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The leaf scars of a Canary Island Date Palm

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Can you see the repeated shapes in the climbing ivy vines?

Pine Cone

Pine cone (Photo credit)

On a separate note, I recently chanced upon the works of M.C. Escher, and was intrigued by his tessellated artwork. You can view his art pieces and read more about tessellations as a whole from these websites:
http://www.mcescher.com/gallery/symmetry/
http://www.livescience.com/50027-tessellation-tiling.html

Want to admire more patterns in Nature? You can see more gorgeous photos of geometric patterns from this boredpanda post 🙂

Easy-to-care household plants that are also good for you

I grew up being surrounded by flowers and plants in our garden, and my Mum is a true nature lover, so I guess it was through her that I developed an interest in plants as well. My hubby and I will finally be getting our own place (Hopefully it’ll be ready by the end of the year!), and I can’t wait to do up our new home. One thing’s for sure, we definitely want to have lots of plants, and if like us, you are looking for plants to grow in your own home, to place at your office cubicle, or as a meaningful gift for a friend, here are some suggestions for you:

Ferns
Some may feel that ferns are too common, but there are so many types with different foliage to choose from. They would definitely add interest to any living space. Do you know that ferns are an ancient plant species and have been around for hundreds of millions of years? They are also said to be able to remove pollutants in the air, so that’s another reason to have them in your home. Some common varieties that you can consider growing include the Boston Fern and Bird’s Nest Fern.

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One of my favourite ferns, the Maidenhair Fern, with its delicate leaves

The Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)
This plant has pretty white blooms, and it prefers low light and shady environments, making it a great indoor plant. Like ferns, it also removes harmful toxins like ammonia and benzene from the air, so not only will you have lovely flowers to look at, you’ll have cleaner air at home. If you have pets, avoid growing the Peace Lily as it is toxic to the animals when ingested.

Peace lily

Peace Lily (Photo credit)

Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
The Spider plant loves well-drained moist soil, and bright, indirect light. With shoots that will eventually grow into smaller spider plants or spiderettes, it works well as a hanging plant. Beyond its somewhat unusual looks, it also helps remove pollutants like formaldehyde and xylene from the air. Definitely an interesting plant to have at home.

Spider plant

Spider Plant with its little spiderettes (Photo credit)

English Ivy (Hedera Helix)
NASA has listed the English Ivy as one of the top air-filtering house plants and is found to remove airborne fecal matter particles.  It adds an aura of elegance to the room, and has long vines, making it both an ideal hanging plant or on tabletops with its long trails. They are easy to grow and can also be  propagated  by stem cuttings. Grow the plant in a place with medium sunlight. This is another plant that is not recommended for pet owners.

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English Ivy (Photo credit)

Money Plant (Epipremnum aureum)
A very common and affordable (you can get a reasonable sized pot for less than SGD2 at Ikea and NTUC!)  household plant that is hardy and easy to maintain. A great indoor plant, it will produce trailing stems that look good in a hanging basket. The Money plant is also effective in purifying the air by removing volatile organic components (VOCs) like formaldehyde. If the stems get too long, just cut them back and the plant will continue to grow well.

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Money Plant (Photo credit)

Chinese Money Plant (Pilea peperomioides)
Okay, I included this plant because I really like it… I don’t think it has any air cleansing properties, but I think it looks really pretty. Its place of origin is Yunnan, China, hence, its name. It is an evergreen plant that is easy to grow, and can also be propagated by cuttings.

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Definitely getting a pot or two for our new home (Photo credit)

The plants recommended can be easily purchased from our local plant nurseries or even at a neighbourhood supermarket, and hopefully, you’ll see more lovely plants that you would want to bring home to nurture and grow. Remember to check if the plant you are purchasing is an indoor or outdoor plant, and ensure that your home or office has suitable conditions for the plant to thrive.

If you wish to find out more about plants that will help filter and purify the air you breathe in at home or in the office, you can read up on the NASA Clean Air study that provides a list of common indoor plants that help remove and neutralise toxins in the air.

Have fun creating your own calming green spaces at home and at your work place!

Crazy about Cacti

One of the plants that I think I got to know pretty well during my attachment at GB is the cactus. I was tasked to do quite a bit of research on this prickly plant, and I grew to have a new-found appreciation for it.

The cactus belongs to the Succulent family, and while all cacti are succulents, not all succulents are cacti. The main difference is that the spines (modified leaves) of cacti emerge from areoles (soft, cushion-like protuberances). Some succulents like those belonging to the Euphorbiaceae family have spines, but if you look carefully, you realise they do not emerge from areoles.

Although cacti and succulents are largely considered desert plants, it is usually misunderstood that they only survive in very dry desert conditions. With the exception of varieties whose seeds can lie dormant for years without water, they still need some moisture, and majority come from arid, semi-desert habitats that may receive infrequent but heavy rains annually. Do you know that some varieties can be found in the rainforest as well? However, they may appear slightly different from the ones found in the desert. The succulents found in rainforests grow in the canopy as epiphytes, may not have any spines and have elongated leaves for light absorption and not water retention.

The cactus is an excellent example of how plants learn to survive in the environments they are in through a myriad of amazing adaptations:

As mentioned earlier, spines are actually modified leaves, and they protect the plant from being eaten by animals that want to get to their water supply. In some varieties, water from dew condenses on the spines and water is collected through this way, or they help to direct rainwater to the roots of the plant.

The pleats on the cactus also help the plant store water. When it rains, the pleats in the flesh expand, allowing the cactus to store more water. When the water is slowly used up, the pleats will shrink.

Most cacti also have a large shallow root system that spreads out and grows near the surface of the soil, and this allows them to gather as much water as possible when it rains.

The Sun Pavilion was one of the places I visited the most often during my stint at GB, and to be honest, I found it rather boring on my visits there as a visitor. However, after spending time researching on the cacti and succulents there and at the Flower Dome, I’ve come to realise that there is so much to see and learn about this unique group of plants… A pity that there aren’t any information panels for visitors to learn more about the various species and types of cacti and succulents at the Pavilion. Albeit it may get really hot in the afternoons, but do pop by this fascinating section whenever you are in the Gardens… It’s free admission by the way!

Here are some interesting and unusual cacti and succulent varieties that you can see at Gardens by the Bay 🙂

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Loving the pattern on this succulent known as the Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa)

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Mammillaria elongata cristata, commonly known as the brain cactus for obvious reasons

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The Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) is a popular ornamental cactus species but did you know it is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list?

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The Cardon cactus (Pachycereus pringlei), one of the tallest cactus species in the world

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I think this should be a Prickly Pear cactus (Opuntia), a cactus variety that is commonly used for culinary and medical purposes. Surrounding it are cute little Turk’s Cap cacti (Melocactus).

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You either find this fascinating or are disgusted by it.. heh heh. The Woolly Cactus (Vatricania guentheri)

Besotted with Begonias

Started the year deciding that I should start writing a blog and been procrastinating ever since I got an account on wordpress… Well, finally decided to write my first post! Been spending time working amidst plants and nature, so decided that this post should revolve around what I learnt in my work these past couple of months.

One plant species that particularly intrigued me is the Begonia. I’ve always thought of the Begonia as a relatively boring flowering plant, but the foliage is what sets it apart from other ornamental plants. It belongs to the Begoniaceae family and is one of the largest group of flowering plants with close to 1,500 species. They can be grouped into several kinds: Tuberous Begonias which are known for their rose-like blooms, Rex Begonias which are famous for their multi-coloured foliage, Rhizomatous Begonias which are sought after for their interesting leaves and compact form, Cane Begonias that display graceful and upright habit like bamboo and Wax Begonias which are bedding plants with small flowers. (Information from the “Introducing Begonias of the Cloud Forest” write-up at Gardens by the Bay)

The blooms of flowers always catch my eye, but Begonias have leaves that are so gorgeous to look at, and it’s amazing how they come in so many shapes and colours as well. The leaves of the plant are mostly asymmetrical and variegated with different patterns. Begonias should not be placed directly under the hot sun, but they do however need partial sunlight so growing them under shade with plenty of ambient sunlight is ideal. They thrive under moist conditions, but try not to drown the soil with water too as the plant does not tolerate heavy waterings well. Begonias can be propagated easily via leaf cuttings, so you can pass on these lovely plants to your friends and loved ones for them to enjoy in their homes 🙂

In my walkabouts in the Gardens, I enjoyed spending time at the Begonias of the Cloud Forest section as well as looking up the vertical walls of the Cloud Forest, admiring the beautiful patterns of the foliage. Here are some of my favourites:

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Rex Begonias with their stunning spirals… Can you see the Fibonacci spirals in their leaves? Amazing, right?

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The spotted leaves of the Begonia maculata… It’s as if each leaf was painstakingly painted.

Aren’t these colours gorgeous?

I wouldn’t have noticed Begonias if not for my work attachment at the Gardens. Will most definitely be looking out for these beauties on my next trip to the plant nursery.

Can’t wait to share more information on the delightful plants that I’ve learnt more about these past months in my upcoming posts 🙂 Stay tuned!