Lessons from Goldilocks: How to choose plants for your weather, and how to create weather for your plants

When Goldilocks invited herself into the home of the three bears, she helped herself to their porridge. She found the first bowl too hot, the second bowl too cold, and the third bowl just right.

What have Goldilocks and porridge got to do with gardening? Stephen Hawking said, “Like Goldilocks, the development of intelligent life requires that planetary temperatures be ‘just right'”. Well, the Goldilocks Rule applies to plant life in the garden too.

With the year-round tropical heat in Malaysia, it’s never too cold and almost always too hot. Most of the internet gardening advice caters to gardeners in temperate climate, and therefore, needs to be, well, tempered with our local reality. For example, we may see advice to grow lettuce and tomato in full-day sun. But if we do that in our weather, our lettuce will bolt (go to seed) very quickly and taste bitter, and our tomatoes, particularly heirloom varieties that are not tolerant to our heat, may wilt.

Our rain is also different. We don’t get spring showers, instead, we get tropical thunderstorms that hammer tender greens to shreds and turn them into a damp, rotting mash. This is why we see many vegetable farmers growing their crops under rain shelters.

Therefore, the first step in starting a food garden is to choose plants that match the weather in our garden. Does your garden get morning, afternoon or full-day sun? Take a few days to observe the sun, and take note of how the sun direction and duration change over the course of the year. Over the years of growing many types of herbs and veggies, I have worked out the following guidelines:

Types of Herbs & VeggiesBest Grown In
Stir-fry leafy greens e.g. spinach, choy sum, pak choy, cabbage.Half-day sun.
Salad greens e.g. lettuce, arugula.
Tender herbs e.g. coriander, dill.
Morning sun, protected from heavy rain.
Sun-loving tropical herbs e.g. Thai basil, lemongrass, chives.Half-day to full-day sun.
Shade-loving tropical herbs e.g. ginger including turmeric, bunga kantan.Partial shade to half-day sun.
Mediterranean herbs e.g. rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, Italian basil.Half-day to full-day sun, protected from heavy rain.
Heat-tolerant fruiting veggies e.g. okra, brinjal, chilli.Half-day to full-day sun.
Less heat-tolerant fruiting veggies e.g. tomato, heirloom fruits from temperate climate.Morning sun.

What’s your experience as a tropical food gardener? How would you add to the list above? I would love to hear your experience in the comments below.

What if we don’t have the ideal conditions for the plants that we want to grow? How do we tropical gardeners make our garden not too hot and not too wet, but just right for the food plants that we want to grow?

While we can’t control the weather, we can create microclimates or small pockets of gentler weather for our more tender plants. For example, I can’t bear to put up big rain shelters in my garden, but I have small sections with transparent perspex roofs that let in sunlight yet protect my seedlings, tender greens, and dry-loving Mediterranean herbs, from lashing rains.

For plants that hate getting their feet wet like chillies and Mediterranean herbs, I control the soil moisture by growing them in containers.

To buffer the heat of cloudless days, we grow hedges and fruit trees at the edges of our garden. This green barrier also serves as a wind-breaker. For cooling effect, we are growing real grass, instead of paving over with tiles or fake grass, although weeding the lawn gives us grief. Growing hedges, trees and grass also increases beneficial soil life and wildlife in our garden.

Excessive heat, water and wind cause stress to plants, making them weak and prone to pest and diseases. In this age of climate change, when we can expect weather extremes to become more common, creating microclimates with natural or man-made structures becomes a necessity.

Look around your house and see if you can find pockets of morning sun, afternoon sun, and full-day sun, to match the different sun requirements of the plants that you want to grow. Consider if you need to modify a hot pocket with a shade cloth that cuts out some sunlight, or take advantage of a strip under your house roof for rain protection, or create a wind-breaker with some shrubs or bamboo sticks. We can be creative in making these structures practical as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The “just right” conditions for our plants thankfully fall into a range rather than a rigid number. As I advocate tempering and testing internet gardening advice with your own local observation and experience, I urge you to do the same with my guidelines. Our own garden becomes our best teacher when we pay attention. A camera and a journal are wonderful learning tools in the garden.

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
― Mary Oliver

Published by Diglings

Tropical urban food gardener, designer and writer.

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