Phuket Gardening: From fetid to fragrant

PHUKET: Shakespeare’s father, John, was fined for digging a “midden” in front of his neighbor’s house. Very unneighborly. Today the word has almost vanished from the English language as modern sanitation systems have replaced the foul cesspits of yesteryear.

But make no mistake, a “midden” is neither pleasant to behold nor smell. Originally a hole in the ground, a dump for household refuse, shells or more likely human feces, the advent of rudimentary plumbing later meant that sewage could flow fitfully down a barely hidden pipe and discharge its fetid effluent in the surrounding soil – away from the house. That arrangement would have allowed Mr Shakespeare to get away with it.

Of course, “middens” are still part and parcel of life in Third World slums, but I was unprepared for one in the middle of an “expat’s” garden here in Phuket. After all, we supposedly live in a world where septic tanks or communal waste water systems are the norm. You would be surprised … there are lots of these cesspits on this paradisal island. And the danger to underground water tables that supply our wells is a very real one.

Raw sewage, like fresh manure, is hostile to plant growth. It is estimated that one gram of human feces contains one trillion bacteria.

But once microorganisms start to degrade and break down this material into less complex compounds, things start to improve. This process is aided by contact with soil; this filters out many pathogens.

Once health hazards diminish, the stench from the midden disappears, and sturdy plants can begin to colonize its borders.

The roots of these plants in turn absorb many toxic elements. Happily, our “expat” friend had done his level best to minimize the impact of this “midden” by planting herbs and especially basil around its edges.

Herbs are part and parcel of any and every Thai garden. They are one of the first things to be planted – as essential to Thai cooking as turmeric is to Spanish paella, garlic to Provençale aioli, or nutmeg to English rice pudding. The only decision is where to grow them – assuming you have a typical garden.

One school of thought favors a kitchen garden or herbarium where all your herbs can flourish together in neat rows.

Unarguably, this is a highly convenient arrangement. However, it has one key drawback, namely that herbs don’t all enjoy the same conditions.

Pepper, for example, does best in shady, moist conditions whereas chili needs plenty of sun to crop heavily. Lemon grass enjoys a dry environment, ginger plenty of water.

My “horses for courses” view takes account of these different cultural requirements, with my herbs dotted around the garden in company with their flowering fellows. In this way, you can select a suitably marshy spot for your ginger, or a dryer one for your lemon grass.

Basil, as my friend’s efforts attest, can be put anywhere. In fact, it may well take the prize for being the easiest of all herbs to grow. It crops up, unannounced in my scruffy lawn, and takes uncomplainingly to life in pots. Ocimum basilicum is an unobtrusive star.

Known as bai horapa in Thailand, it has intensely aromatic, dark green leaves and purplish stems and flower heads. There are other varieties: holy basil (gapow) has narrower leaves and needs to be cooked to release its full panoply of aromas. Lemon basil (bai manglak), which exudes the delicious scent of lemons, has pale green, slightly hairy foliage and generally makes a smaller plant.

All these varieties are both easy to grow and to propagate from cuttings. Simply put some stems in moist soil and within days they will have taken root. After all, if they can put up with a “midden”, they are unlikely to be fazed by much….

Tip of the week: Mulching

IT IS almost two years since we talked in these columns about mulching. Very relevant in today’s rainless conditions when the soil is in danger of drying out completely.

Mulching is the use of material to cover soil surfaces such as flower beds. Spread evenly up to a depth of two inches to allow some air and water through.

The process provides insulation from the full glare of the sun, prevents erosion in downpours, helps the retention of moisture in the earth, and inhibits weed growth.

The best mulches are organic: for example, coconut fiber or coir dust ( the cheapest, and readily available), compost, or shredded bark. Not dead leaves though, which in this climate are rarely utilized by earthworms to create humus.

Moreover, they may harbor disease. Better to use them in a compost heap where the heat will destroy potentially harmful bacteria.

If you have a question or a garden that you would like featured, you can email the author here.

Keep checking our online Phuket Lifestyle pages or join our Facebook fan page for regular gardening features and tips.

— Patrick Campbell

Thai Life

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Legacy Phuket Gazette

Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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