Saturday, October 5, 2019

The tropical terrace

I was away in Cape Town - working remotely and keeping my mom company - for the month of September. Despite my absence, the plants on the terrace just kept growing, watered almost daily by the Frenchman. Despite its tiny size, relative to the garden I just left, returning to this terrace - my fourth New York garden - is still a homecoming. And right now it feels distinctly tropical.

The Thai limes (you can also call them makrut, as they are known in Thailand - Citrus hystrix) are flourishing.

While they are better known for their aromatic leaves, the fruits' rind is intensely fragrant. I used some in a Thai green curry a couple of nights ago.

After looking peaky (I would describe it as a failure thrive - FFT - a medical diagnosis that I first encountered with reference to child deaths in 19th century English workhouses. Cause? "Failure to thrive.") in mid summer, with drooping top growth and yellowing mature leaves, the curry leaf tree (Murraya koenigii) revived after some serious June intervention: root pruning, repotting in the same pot, and a heavy prune of its branches. It revived. Of all the plants I have grown curry leaf has been the most challenging. But I think I understand it, now. For vigor it will require frequent pruning - top and bottom. And unlike every other plant I know it likes a little water, every day. This is the opposite of the deep watering I usually recommend. To complicate matters, indoors in winter I water it only once a week...

Galangal! I harvested some of the rhizome for that same green curry, making it about as authentic as it gets. The leaves are also very fragrant. This is Alpinia galanga.

And my other galangal - Kaempferia galanga. The coolest plant on the terrace. It was dormant all winter (indoors), meaning no leaves at all. So I was thrilled to see the first green shoots appear in May. It has spread extra fast since August, and is still making tiny, remarkably pretty white flowers that last a day, giving it another common name of resurrection lily. The leaves are delicious shredded into curries and braises and have an affinity for vinegar (I slow-cook often with the vinegars I make at home).

The curry leaf and both galangals came from Companion Plants in Ohio, all in four-inch pots. You can read more about the galangals' journey here.

These subtropicals and tropicals must come in, soon. Night time temperatures are dipping down to 50'F and when they stay below, I make the move. We brought the curry leaf in last night when 45' were predicted: Miss Fussy Pants.


  1. Wonderful! As is the phrase 'failure to thrive'. (Although not for those children, obviously).

  2. Curry trees! Not your typical tropical, for sure, so it is no surprise you struggled with deep watering and no pruning. Curry trees are native to South India, where I live, and the seasons are a little different here. Winter is the mild season with little heat or rain from about Novemeber to February, and weekly or less watering is what the tree would get naturally then. Summer is March through May and quite hot, but even then there are some showers, nicely named the Mango Showers that coincide with the mango harvest! June to October is monsoon and rain falls almost every day, but not very torrential. That is why your curry in the New York summer wants a little drink every day, but is happy with weekly waterings in the winter. I grew one in a pot in LA and it liked the same treatment! Pruning is harvesting for curry trees and does not harm them at all. It happens year-round here. The harvest is the leaves which are what is used fresh in cooking. I hope you are using those curry leaves! Loads of South Indian recipes use the fresh curry leaves. (Not to be confused with the English idea of "curry" or curry powder, a totally different thing!) The leaves are delicious on their own fried to a crisp with a little oil and maybe a little garlic and salt. And great in a broad category of recipes called palya, which is a kind of South Indian stir fry. Also, the only time I have seen curry growing wild it was in the understory of the Western Ghat forests, so I think they might be slightly shade loving, especially in very hot weather. My potted one preferred shade in the LA summer, but the one in my garden downstairs is okay with pretty strong afternoon summer sun, but it is not in a pot. Might want to experiment with some shade if your terrace is very hot or sunny. Hopefully youll be enjoying those curry leaves for years to come!

    1. A good treatise on curry leaf's native experiences, thank you! And yes, I do use the leaves, which is why I grow the tree...they are lovely.

  3. My husband is not a gardener, but he's a terrific plant waterer in my absence. I guess we do a good job explaining how to do it ;)


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