Urban farmers: Growing own greens fast becoming food trend in Singapore

Tay Suan Chiang The Business Times AsiaOne 24 Nov 14;

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.

Office planters

At Singapore Technologies Kinetics, staff come to the office early, take shorter lunches, stay back after work and even come in on Saturdays. Not to show off to their bosses, but to tend the office garden.

They are part of the 20-strong gardening club at the land systems and speciality vehicles arm of Singapore Technologies Engineering.

Its industrial-looking premises at Jalan Boon Lay has three gardens - Garden in Bloom, which has flowers, fruit trees and vegetables, Evergreen, which has only fruit trees, and Sonata, which has flowers and fruit trees.

Yeap Khek Teong, vice-president of management systems and processes, and chairman of the gardening committee says, that while the gardens were started in 2009, it was only in 2012, that they started growing vegetables.

"Planting vegetables started off as an experiment as we are all urban dwellers with little or no experience in growing vegetables," says Mr Yeap.

"Our motivation is to see if we are successful in growing edibles and making it sustainable."

Mindful of the harmful effects of consuming pesticides in their greens, the staff at ST Kinetics grow vegetables without them.

Mr Yeap adds that growing vegetables has also intangible benefits, as it provides staff with a platform for exercise and stress relief.

"There is a sense of satisfaction in harvesting what is sown," he says.

The well laid and maintained garden is also a visual treat, and has also created interest among non-gardening staff who wanted to know how they can grow vegetables on their own.

Vegetables such as kai lan, lettuce, long beans and okra are just some of the greens planted in the Garden in Bloom plot.

Apart from edible greens, there's also mint, bananas, longan, dragon fruit and passion fruit.

When Mr Yeap and his colleagues first started their vegetable experiment, they grew kai lan in a large recycled semi-circular drum.

When more people showed interest, Mr Yeap added more variety.

"As we have limited space within the garden, I introduced 'high-rise' vegetable planting," he says.

He designed two vertical structures to allow large containers to be placed above each other. The two structures can accommodate 12 large containers.

"We later expanded to an unused strip behind the garden wall to house more styrofoam boxes for planting vegetables," says Mr Yeap.

Depending on the crop, most leafy vegetables can be harvested with a month or so.

Long beans will take close to two months.

After harvesting, the greens are distributed to staff involved in gardening.

"On special occasions, we grow the vegetables for cooking class demonstrations for staff," says Mr Yeap.

What he and his colleagues have learnt is that vegetables need not be planted in the ground, and deep containers can be used for planting.

"By planting in containers, you can choose the best quality soil for the vegetables," he says.

"If you have space constraints, why not try planting in vertical tiers like ours?"

Steady harvest

When the chefs at Fairmont Singapore or Swissotel The Stamford give you the usual spiel about using only fresh herbs, vegetables and fruits, they're not exaggerating.

Most of their greens come from the hotel's private herb and vegetable garden located on the fifth floor of the hotel complex.

The hotels started their herb and vegetable garden in 2008, and were one of the pioneers of urban farming in Singapore.

Measuring 600 sq ft, the garden is now three times the size of the original and was moved to its current location in June last year, before receiving its new harvest last November.

Executive chef Robert Stirrup says the garden was first created to provide the various F&B establishments managed by the hotels, with a steady harvest of organically grown herbs and vegetables such as rosemary, thyme, six varieties of mint and basil, dill, lemongrass, oregano and tarragon.

Since the revamp and the re-launch of the new herb and vegetable garden, "we now grow a more extensive collection of herbs, micro-greens, vegetables, fruits and edible flowers that are produced organically and follow the principles of organic production," says Mr Stirrup.

The garden has an impressive list of over 50 varieties of herbs and vegetables; some of the essential crops include arugula, basil, bulls blood beets, zucchini flowers, celery, cilantro, cress, onions, kolrani, dill, bergamot, lavender and sage.

Mr Stirrup says: "The new homegrown greens, fruits and edible flowers are freshly picked for our restaurants and bars, such as Jaan and Equinox at Swissotel The Stamford, as well as Mikuni and Prego at Fairmont Singapore.

"In-house guests can also enjoy the fresh produce in the comfort of their own rooms when they order a selection of dishes from the in-room dining menus. Grains and fruits, either whole or as juices, are also part of the breakfast spread at both hotels."

The latest addition, cocktail bar Anti: dote at Fairmont Singapore, uses a variety of fragrant herbs and flowers from the garden in its signature cocktails and modern tapas.

The hotels' service staff often share useful insights on these crops with hotel guests they interact with.

"We can also further arrange for our hotel guests to visit and learn more about our herb garden should they be interested," says Mr Stirrup.

Pockets of growth

Hedrick Kwan, founder of Plant Visionz believes that "everyone should be producers of something".

He runs a gardening business which he started in 2012, which also teaches people how to grow their own vegetables.

"Even if what is grown makes up only 10 per cent of your diet, you can save money and get better health. The key is sustainable life," says Mr Kwan.

Similarly, James Lam, founder of UGrowGardens Australia, which has a branch in Singapore, adds that when people grow their own vegetables, "it is economical, fresh and clean in addition to helping reduce carbon footprints. The vegetables are more nutritious too."

This trend is growing in Singapore.

Both Mr Kwan and Mr Lam say that 50 per cent of their business comes from private home owners who want to try their hand at vegetable growing.

And the good thing is, you do not need a lot of space to be able to grow your own edible greens.

"Any space is possible, so long as there is some ambient light," says Mr Kwan.

"You can grow food on the kitchen table, on walls, on window grilles, on the balcony fence. It is about getting creative."

Plant Visionz offers table sprouters that retail at S$40 that come with an assortment of vegetable seeds.

There's also the Wolly Pocket at S$150 per pocket, that can be hung on the wall. Seedlings are placed in these pockets to grow.

Alternatively, Mr Kwan can also advise and help homeowners set up a vegetable garden.

"Soil foundation is important and putting the right plant for the area is another key factor," says Mr Kwan, on his hands-on approach.

Some vegetables that his clients have had success with include kai lan, cai xin, bayam and kang kong.

Mr Lam, who started UGrowGardens, aims to provide innovation solutions for urban dwellers to produce low cost, high yielding, fresh and clean vegetables.

"The vision is to grow the equivalent of a 9 sq ft garden patch using only 1.5 sq feet of space," says Mr Lam.

To do this, Mr Lam created the Ugrow Vertical growing system, which can easily fit into any balcony or corridor.

Mr Lam also helps clients choose the right vegetables to grow, and provides a watering system that ensures even moisture throughout the UGrow Vegetable System so that clients are able to grow plants all over its surface.

It costs S$120 to set up the system which includes fertilisers, seedlings, irrigation pipe and other necessary components.

Meanwhile, Edible Garden City which designs, builds and maintains food gardens for clients that include restaurants, hotels, schools and residences, will run an urban farming school at Rowell Road next year.

"The school will cater to all urbanites wanting to learn how to grow their own food from apartment balconies to full fledged soil gardens," says co-founder Bjorn Low.