Grow Your Own Perennial Leafy Vegetables
Vegetable gardens are rewarding, but are often viewed as high-maintenance. This is because they tend to feature annual food plants like various Chinese cabbages, cucumbers, lady’s fingers and chillis – which require frequent replanting. Such vegetables are also heavy feeders that demand high soil fertility, and the gardener also has to watch constantly for weeds, pests and diseases.
An alternative would be to plant perennial vegetables, which are also food plants but do not require frequent replanting. Furthermore, they are not bothered by pests and diseases under local conditions, which makes them more environmentally-friendly to grow. And as an added bonus, these plants also yield abundantly, taste delicious and contain plenty of nutrients!
Some perennial vegetables are regarded as ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetables. This means that they can be harvested, and then allowed to re-grow before the next harvest. Others freely flower, self-seed, and regenerate in the area where they are grown, and the new plants can be harvested for food once they reach the right size.
At times, they can even become ‘useful’ weeds in your garden!
It may come as a surprise that a number of these plants were grown previously in our parents’ and grandparents’ kampong backyards. Some of these species are unique to particular ethnic cuisines, and our palates may need some time to adapt to these unfamiliar food plants. But on the positive side, vegetable gardening is a great way for us to inject new ingredients into our daily meals.
The following are some perennial vegetables that you can try growing in your garden:
Cekur Manis (Sauropus androgynous)
The tender young leaves of this plant are harvested from the top 15 cm of stem tips. They have a pleasant and slightly nutty taste, and can be eaten raw in salads, steamed or stir-fried with egg and dried anchovies.
This plant is a ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetable. It can be easily grown from stem-cuttings, obtained from material bought from the market. After stripping off the leaflets for food, you can plant the leftover stems in a pot of soil, then leave them in the shade until they root. This plant is a sun-lover, and prefers to be grown in a sunny, well-draining location.
Ceylon Spinach (Basella species)
The Ceylon Spinach is available in two forms – the green-stemmed (B. alba) and red-stemmed (B. rubra) varieties. It grows as a vine that can be planted in a semi-shaded location. Also a ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetable, Ceylon Spinach is a rampant grower.
The young shoot tips and leaves can be harvested, and stir-fried or boiled in soups. They have a somewhat slimy texture when cooked. Like the Cekur Manis, the Ceylon Spinach can easily be grown from stem-cuttings obtained from material sold in the market.
Ulam Raja (Cosmos caudatus)
Also called ‘wild cosmos’, the young leaves of the Ulam Raja are usually consumed raw. They are sometimes cooked and mixed with coconut sauce and chillies. This is one of the more common raw plant leaves eaten like a salad, which is called ‘ulam’ in Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. When crushed, the leaves emit an odour that is reminiscent of mangoes. Ulam Raja is an annual flowering plant that self-seeds readily. It produces dainty pink flowers, and when grown in large quantities, can give your garden the effect of wildflowers. This plant can only be grown from seeds and prefer to grow in a sunny, well-draining location.
Water Mimosa (Neptunia oleracea)
A common ingredient in Thai cuisine, the leaves and young shoots of Water Mimosa have a nutty cabbage-like flavour. They can be cooked in a similar manner as kangkong (Ipomoea aquatica), added to soups, or even eaten raw (such as after being dipped in sambal belachan).
Water Mimosa is the aquatic equivalent of the common sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica), as its leaves close up when touched. It develops a layer of white spongy tissue around the mature stems, formed between the leaves, to help the plant float on water.
You can grow Water Mimosa from stems bought from the supermarket at Golden Mile Complex. (You can just drop the stems bought from the market into a pond - the stems will just root and grow from there.) This plant prefers a sunny location to grow. It is also a ‘cut-and-come-again’ vegetable, for which the young shoot tips are harvested.
Okinawan Spinach (Gynura crepioides)
The Okinawan Spinach is a low-growing, scrambling shrub that thrives in semi-shaded conditions in the tropics. It is an attractive edible plant due to its shiny green leaves that feature purple undersides. This plant can be purchased from selected nurseries, and propagated via stem-cuttings.
It is a 'cut-and-come-again' vegetable, for which the young shoot tips are harvested. Fresh leaves can be added to salads or stir-fried like any other leafy vegetable. The Okinawan Spinach can also reportedly lower cholesterol levels.
By Wilson Wong
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