Green Fingers

Cabbages growing in flower bed in front of our house
Going green with green fingers

I was in a mall, shopping for a camera when the shop assistant – who happened to know my parents when they were based in Masai – asked after them.  His admiring remarks about the cabbages that my dad used to grow jolted memories of the vegetable garden around the Government quarters where we once lived.  So when I got home, I wasted no time to dig out the old photos that had living proof of dad’s green fingers. 

In the early 70’s dad expanded his hobby in flower gardening to planting vegetables and I can relate to the thrill of watching plants grow and trees bearing fruit.  Thoughts of dad’s vegetable patch swiftly brought back memories of a strong smell of cow dung because dad used it liberally as a fertilizer for his cabbages, brinjals and ladies fingers plants.  In any wind direction, this familiar pong would be carried into our house!

Mum at the cabbage patch next to the Health Centre, Masai

Dad said he would collect the fresh dung from the local cowherd (who supplied fresh cow’s milk) to use it on the plants.  Cabbage plants were planted in the flower bed in front of our house and on the ground in various plots between our Government quarters and the Health Centre clinic.  Some cabbage plants that were grown in large flower pots, made very good gifts to admirers who probably, sweet-talked dad into parting with them. 

It was fascinating to figure out that those healthy plants sprouted from tiny seeds.  I remember the seedlings that were tenderly nurtured in a damp tray-like nursery before being transplanted into earth that was thoroughly mixed with cow dung.  I can still picture how dad used to till the earth with a cangkul or hoe, carve neat rows out of the ground and use his hands to break up the soil as he mixed it with dung.

Dad harvesting brinjals from the plants outside our
kitchen window
When the weather was hot, dad would be armed with his watering-can to make a circuit around the garden to water the plants at least twice a day.  If the weather was wet, the work begins after the rain stopped.  Mum and dad would be in the garden, searching under every leaf and frond to find pesky snails that usually abound in such damp weather.

They know that these snails can cause significant damage to the plants if they were not weeded out.  So it was like a treasure hunt for them to push aside leaves to extract a variety of large and tiny snails.  I can still remember the bucket of crushed snails which were fed to a flock of ducks that we reared in a pen at the back of our house.

Besides the cabbage plants in the front and side garden and brinjal bushes outside the kitchen window, there was also an herb garden behind our house.  It was amazing how this garden seemed to have an endless yield of fragrant pandan leaves, lemongrass and lengkuas ginger whenever mum needed to use these ingredients in the kitchen.  There was also a climbing plant grown on a trellis we call sim lor choy, [Siamese vegetable?] and its leaves were plucked for mum to make a delicious vegetable lemak dish.

Mum admiring the cabbages planted next to the
Health Centre, Masai [1970]
I soon discovered that our rear garden was watered by water that was used to wash fish in because I used to see bits of dried fish gills “growing” on some of the plants.  Today there is no vegetable patch in our garden but we still have the ubiquitous pandan leaves and lemongrass along with a few species of shrubs that are grown for medicinal purposes. Looking back now, it’s interesting to note that mum and dad were already practicing a form of Green living way back when it was not yet a popular lifestyle.

Mum is familiar with farming because when Ah Kong or grandfather was based in Muar after World War 2, the family grew their own fruit and vegetables in a plot of land close to their Government quarters home near the hospital.  Mum said the children were instructed to set aside their chamber pot every morning for Ah Kong to dilute the contents with water and use it as plant fertilizer.  This natural fertilizer, commonly used by farmers in those days, produced a healthy yield for the family’s consumption.

The family had to grow their own vegetables out of necessity because there were many mouths to feed and Ah Kong worked hard to ensure that everyone had a well-balanced diet.  Mum said their plot, planted with a variety of leafy vegetables as well as brinjals and chillies, was bordered by a fence of sayur manis plants and said their chillie yield was so good that they could trade them for goat’s milk from a neighbour.  This was very handy because Aunty Polly, who was then a baby, needed the goat’s milk nourishment.

After a visit to the market the other day, mum told me that her regular market lady was aggressively promoting her stock of organic vegetables.  The lady is probably not English educated but mum said the word, “Organic” was rolling off her tongue quite comfortably.  Mum wondered if she truly understood this over-used word but I hope discerning customers will ask about farming methods to find out if the vegetables are truly organic.

I’ve learnt that not all plump, leafy vegetables are the best because their perfection may mean that a great deal of chemicals have been pumped in to ensure that they are free from blemishes.  Maybe less than perfect fruit and vegetables are best because they developed the natural way.  While growing our own would be ideal, the next best thing is to buy from local farmers who use responsible farming methods and pay less for fresher products because of lower energy costs for transport from nearby farms.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets on 16 November 2011

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