Most of our time at Edible Gardens is spent building food gardens for other people. We design the gardens based on their aesthetics and we grow the plants that they like to eat. It’s still lots of fun but you feel different when it is your own garden. In this sense we are very lucky to have a small plot of land that we can do anything we want.
Ok, our land is not really ours since it is adopted from Green Valley Farms, a commercial organic farm that has set aside part of their farm for recreational farmers/gardeners to adopt plots to grow edible plants.
Like most of the other plots, ours is about 100 sqm (~1000 sq ft) measuring 20m by 5m. It is within a polytunnel which means the plot is covered completely by a plastic sheet or net overhead. In Singapore and Malaysia, it is very common practice for commercial vegetable farmers, organic or not, to grow in a polytunnel. The polytunnel gives the farmer control over the rain and sunshine. It is supposed to keep pests and birds away from the vegetables as well.
The community at Green Valley Farms was a big draw for us. It comprises mostly of older folks who grew up in a Singapore that was less crowded and kids climb trees and frolic by the streams. Some of them used to grow vegetables at their kampungs (villages) but ran out of space after moving into high-rise apartments. They are usually very tanned and lean. We have been learning a lot from these gardeners with decades of experience. There are also some oddball youngsters like us, albeit the minority, that grew up in a city but have aspirations of getting back to the earth.
Due to our commitments at other food gardens, we know that we will not be able to spend too much time on this land. On some weeks we can be spending three days but on others we will not get to be there at all. We needed a food production system that was low maintenance. How is it possible? Most of the folks here water everyday, some twice a day! When someone is away on vacation, a friend will be assigned to water everyday on his/her behalf.
Singapore lies almost smack on the equator and has a tropical rainforest climate. Rainfall is abundant throughout the year. At roughly 2.3m of rainfall a year, we have one of the highest rainfall in the world. There is so much water that our land is one of the few places on earth that can support the extremely dense vegetation of the tropical rainforest. One thing for sure: there is no lack of water. The question is how do we catch it.
We were lucky to inherit two mini ponds, each about 1 sqm by 30cm deep. We dug it deeper to about 1m deep to store more water. That would save us a lot of trouble bringing in water from the tap at the communal area. We always see people lining up at the tap to fill barrels with water. They will then push the barrels carefully on trolleys back to their plots. A big part of Singapore’s water supply, about 40%, is imported from Malaysia. Singapore also desalinates seawater and purifies dirty water. We try not to pour tapwater on the ground.
In the Soil
In actual fact, the cheapest and easiest way to store water is beneath our feet – in the soil. During the worst dry spell since 1869 in early 2014 (27 days without rain), the rainforests here did not even bat an eyelid. The trees have been drinking from the soil with their deep roots. Good soil can store many times its weight of water and is stingy with it. However, we will need to improve the soil to tap on this capability (pun intended). From the photo above you can see that the soil is compacted clay that lacks organic material and humus. It will take time to restore the soil…
Mulching is putting a layer of material over the surface of the soil so that it is not exposed. It helps to retain moisture in the soil by reducing sunshine and evaporation on bare soil. In my opinion it is one of the most underrated methods in farming because it does a lot more than retaining moisture. It can be done with artificial material (eg plastic mulching in China) but we much prefer using organic material.
We have been mulching with whatever organic material we can get our hands on. Garden waste from our plot, fast-growing water plants, dried leaves swept up from the roadside, shredded sugar cane, rice husks, old cardboard, etc. Ideally mulch should be thickly applied so that you cannot see the soil from above.
Other than using mulch to shade the soil, planting densely can also help to keep the sun away from the soil and to where sunlight should be – the leaves. There are some people that worry about plants having to fight for space, for sunlight, and for nutrients. They have good reasons for these worries. However I have also noticed that many times when I clear the surrounding vegetation to make space for some valued plant, it suffers instead. The sunshine on this part of the earth is the strongest and most plants will enjoy some protection during the day. I also think that the plants will co-exist by arranging the leaves and roots in an efficient manner. Otherwise the plant less fitted to the condition will get dominated by another fitter plant. Survival of the fittest is but a part of nature.
Dense planting is usually thought of horizontally, but can also be done vertically. In a forest there can be up to seven vertical layers of vegetation. We try to do that at our plot.
Toby Hemenway has a very informative chapter on how to harness water in his permaculture book Gaia’s Garden.
Come swing by our garden if you are in Singapore. We hold community farming sessions usually on Saturday mornings. Details can be found here.
More on our adventures at this plot next time!