Urban farmers: Growing own greens fast becoming food trend in S’pore

SINGAPORE – Vegetable farms in Singapore? Lim Chu Kang isn’t the only area in the country where edible greens are grown.

From private balconies, to office premises, and neighbourhood plots, a growing number of folks are digging their fingers into dirt and planting crops.

Spa Esprit’s CEO Cynthia Chua recently invested in Edible Gardens, an urban farming consultancy firm that helps design and build vegetable gardens for restaurants, schools and homes.

Together, they have set up a rooftop garden at Wheelock Place which is used for planting vegetables and herbs. The harvest will be for use in Spa Esprit’s Tippling Club restaurant.

“I’ve always like the idea of farming, and was inspired by the rose farms in France. Those roses go into the making of Chanel perfume,” says Ms Chua.

“Farming and connecting to nature is very on-trend now.” She has not started growing vegetables in her own backyard, but has friends who have done so.

“My friends have grown sweet potato leaves, basil and chillies to much success,” she says excitedly.

Ms Chua adds that homegrown vegetables are often more tender, and setting up a garden need not cost an arm and a leg.

“We should all try to practise sustainable living,” she says.

BT Weekend meets a group of urban farmers.

Balcony gardener

When Shi Xiaowei, a partner in a marketing communications agency, recently posted on Facebook photos of the kale and peppers she grows on her balcony, amazed friends bombarded her with comments.

Ms Shi began gardening about four years ago, when she moved into an apartment with a spacious balcony and plenty of sun.

“Since the family didn’t want to fill the balcony with furniture, I thought I would beautify it with ornamental plants,” says Ms Shi.

“The idea of growing edible plants came about because I wanted my kids to cultivate a love for nature and gardening, and I wanted to eat healthily and save money on buying herbs.”

She started with rosemary, basil, thyme, and sage to moderate success, but the plant she was most proud of was a pumpkin plant that stretched across her balcony.

“The fruit was puny but I was a proud parent nonetheless,” she says.

The list of greens now sprouting on her balcony include sweet basil, Thai basil, aloe vera, edible cactus, peppers, round chillies, mint, marjoram, rosemary, kale, salad leaves – an assortment of lettuce, chives and pumpkin – and “if we are lucky, an interbred short papaya tree whose seeds we hauled from an organic farm in Kluang,” she says.

“My daughter, Ashley, sowed it last week, so we await the seedlings with bated breath.”

The vegetables are grown for the family’s consumption, but “I give away most of the herbs as you can only consume so much rosemary”.

Some of the vegetables that she grows are bigger than commercially grown produce found in supermarkets.

“The cai xin had leaves bigger than my palms, and the stems were thick and strong,” she says.

“Mine definitely tasted better because they were cooked immediately after harvesting.”

The Western herbs are mostly used for seasoning and marinades.

Occasionally, she uses them to make pesto, herb butter, and infused oil for cooking and beauty purposes, such as rosemary oil for her hair.

She cannot recall the last time she paid for herbs, but still buys leafy vegetables because what she grows isn’t enough for her family of five.

She prefers growing leafy vegetables from seeds, which she buys from the nurseries, as “they tend to grow stronger”.

She finds it challenging to grow herbs from seeds, so she purchases herb plants from supermarkets and grows them herself.

Apart from making sure that her vegetables and herbs get sufficient water and sun, Ms Shi says placements of the plants is also important.

“The balcony can get scorching hot, and I have to move some plants in and out of the balcony every day, which can be hard work when there are five pots to move everyday.”

Leafy plants like kale and lettuce need a wide pot.

“I am big on recycling so I plant them in used styrofoam boxes and whatever wide containers I can find,” she says. “Tin cans are also good holders for seedlings.”

She also spends time checking the condition of her plants and researching help and advice online.

“Next to harvesting, reviving a wilting plant and seeing it flourish is the most gratifying part about gardening,” says Ms Shi

Neighbourhood watch

Product consultant Gina Ong was an urban farmer even before the term became hip.

Back in 2002, she started a community garden near her home in Marine Crescent, with the help of its Residents’ Committee. Five years after that, she did the same in the Laguna Park condominium, where she still lives.

Ms Ong manages both gardens together with about 20 residents from Marine Crescent and 10 neighbours at Laguna Park.

In the latter, crops include pandan, lemon grass, Chinese herbs like Sabah snake plant, sweet potatoes, basil, rosemary, tarragon, and wolfberry leaves.

“We’ve grown vegetables from Day One, when one of our long-time residents planted wolfberry leaves, chives and sweet potatoes,” says Ms Ong.

At Marine Crescent, herbs were initially planted, but as more residents preferred vegetables, the residents now grow edible greens.

They now have a wide range including cai xin, xiao bai cai, spinach, okra, kang kong, lettuce, brinjal, bitter gourd and pennywort leaves.

The vegetables are growing so well, that the residents harvest some for an elderly lodge nearby.

With over a decade of experience, Ms Ong has plenty of stories to share.

“When we first started, our seed germination always failed as we just threw the seeds into the soil. Then we used seedling trays, which turned out to be a better method,” she says.

“As the seedlings grew, they were eaten up by grasshoppers and snails.”

The residents sought help from the National Parks Board and AVA, who taught them to use nets to cover our plots.

“We also have a SWAT team to catch snails and slugs at night,” quips Ms Ong. She says the vegetables from the two plots are much sweeter and fresher compared to those bought from the markets.

Ms Ong is only too happy to dish out advice to those who want to grow their own vegetables too.

“For beginners, try cai xin, as it is easy to grow. It is best to grow the seeds in seed trays until they are about three inches high, before transplanting them into the soil,” she says.

Her other tips include using neem oil to fend off insects and bugs, and using organic fertiliser such as chicken dung to keep plants growing fast and healthy and reduce the chance of disease.