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Growing goodies in the garden

In Thailand one is spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing edible plants to grow. If you can be bothered to count the number of different fruits and vegetables in any fresh market in Phuket, you will find at least 50 different species on display. And nearly all of them are cultivated in Thailand.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 30 April 2023, 11:00AM

Two favourites: mangos and cillies. Photos by Shaun Parker and Dustin Humes

Two favourites: mangos and cillies. Photos by Shaun Parker and Dustin Humes

The fruits come mainly from fast-growing trees, so when I planned my garden many years ago, I had to be forward-looking. Indeed, most of my trees now grow on a separate plot of land where, unencumbered, they can spread their expansive roots and branches.

Nonetheless, I opted for a mango ‒ surely one of the world’s most succulent fruits ‒ and a feature, often as a door tree, of most Thai properties ‒ and a pomegranate. Mangoes are extremely vigorous and hardy, pomegranates less so. In fact, the pomegranate has long since died back, but has recently shown signs of life. I also put in a jackfruit – and though I doubted I would see the massive fruits in my lifetime, they duly put in a hefty appearance. The tree, replete with large glossy foliage, is now about five metres tall, and regularly produces three-kilogramme monsters. 

I added a guava, a rose-apple, a longan, a mangosteen, a couple of avocados from seed, and of course, a kaffir lime and Thai lemon. The latter died, a victim of the grey mould that can affect so many plants here, but has since been replaced. One avocado flourished mightily, but never cropped. On the other hand, two robust and disease-free growers, a banana and a papaya bore fruit rapidly. The latter is a great asset to any tropical garden with its pleasant foliage and its propensity to crop heavily, even in poor soil. This fecund tree produced at least 20 fruit ‒ all within the space of one year – before expiring.

Thai cuisine is based on both strong and subtle flavours, so spices and herbs were bound to be central to anyone’s thinking. Thus the ubiquitous chilli was the first to be planted. I had grown so many in my previous garden that the neighbours made daily sorties to pick them.

Indispensable and attractive to boot, with its glossy red or green seed pods, the chilli hails from Mexico; one wonders how Thais coped before it arrived on these shores. Moreover, its spicy ingredient, capsicum, is beneficial in cases of heart conditions and high blood pressure.

I also planted the fleshy rhizomes of ginger, another root which is not only used extensively in cooking soups and fish dishes, but also makes a spicy, refreshing hot drink which is frequently sold in local markets, and its relative, galangal. Both varieties ‒ which require plenty of water ‒ are key ingredients in many stir-fry dishes and soups as well as in herbalist remedies and cures, especially as ‘carminatives’. An odd word that: as Aldous Huxley complained in his novel Crome Yellow, the word does not hint at its real meaning which is ‒ sorry folks ‒ to act as a flatulence dispersal agent.

C and C Marine

Lemon or citronella grass, another on the ’wanted’ list, was next to arrive. Its bushy growth habit, similar to that of  pampas grass, gives a bit of variety to the kitchen garden. More importantly, it is one of the signature flavours in tom yum soup. A pepper plant went in, next to the acacia tree, so it could indulge its inclination to climb and enjoy some moist shade.   Onions and garlic were not planted. Not that I don’t love them: it is just that members of the allium family are so cheap and so available everywhere. 

Regarded by Italians as the “queen of herbs”, the basis for pesto sauce and a frequent ingredient in pizzas, basil is used widely in Thailand and grows here like a weed.

About three of the arrivals, I have to confess my ignorance. They are shrubs ‒ or more properly small trees ‒ whose leaves are used in this household in the following ways. One, a fast growing tree (yot sa-om) with fern-like fronds, is both eaten raw as an accompaniment to cooked food and included in omelettes; the second, a small tree (lep krus) with dense crinkly leaves is added to soups; the third shrub (pak waan) is a tall, spindly shrub with dark green leaves which taste a bit like spinach when boiled.

So I have a small problem: I do not know their English or Latin names since they all came from other Thai gardens. But they taste good… 

Patrick Campbell’s book ‘The Tropic Gardener’, described in one Bangkok review as the best book on Thai gardening for 50 years, is available for B500 (half price) to personal callers from 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13 in Rawai (Tel: 076-61227 or 085-7827551).

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