A few months back, we built a food garden for the Canossian School in Singapore. They work with kids with hearing impairment and the school principal Terry wanted a sensory garden for the kids to develop all their senses. She lamented a few times about how children nowadays do not get to pull things out of the soil.
Canossian School is very fortunate because they actually have unused space for a garden. We have spoken to many schools that want a food garden but do not have any space left. We would walk the school grounds to find that everywhere has been concreted or planted with trees. Canossian School has a sizeable and flat grass patch and we were allocated about 35m x 11m for the garden.
Analyzing the Site
Before even thinking about garden design, we needed to understand the site. From a distance, we noticed many bare patches that grass did not grow on. That’s not a good sign. The type of vegetation growing on it was odd as well. Walking the ground, we immediately noticed that the soil was soft. It was not the spongy softness of a soil with good structure and many pores. It was a muddy kind of softness like wet pottery clay. As expected, there had been major soil works about a year ago. We learned that there is construction waste like concrete rubble beneath the soil. There is no top soil but just a layer of yellow clay. It’s not a great start but we are used to all these in urban environments.
The ground also floods after heavy rains. This drainage issue is likely caused by the heavy clay that has become compacted. This compaction also means that the soil will have trouble retaining moisture. It seems a contradiction that the same soil can flood and dry out. We witnessed the same when doing Project Spectra.
Other than that, the site gets full sun which means we can grow a wide range of edibles. There are big trees surrounding it, which break strong winds and increase soil fertility through leaf litter.
In the humid tropics, we almost always recommend raised beds in gardens. For Canossian School, this is especially relevant because raised beds are less likely to be water-logged than on the ground. We initially proposed a mandala garden to create an interesting circular pattern for the kids to explore. There would be a pond at where it floods easiest (turning a problem into a solution) to encourage biodiversity and natural predators like frogs and dragonflies.
The design was well-liked but right before we starting building, Terry called to say that they have old doors and door frames that were removed from the school building during renovation. She asked if we could use them in the garden. The school did some renovations a while back and these majestic 75-year-old doors and door frames were going to be thrown away. Terry stopped them and had them stored away somewhere.
It says something about our modern economy when it is cheaper to throw away perfectly function doors and door frames made of hardwood, than to store them and use them again. Space is at such a premium and building processes are so bureaucratic and standardized. It becomes cheaper to throw doors away and chop down trees again when you need doors in future.
Door Frames as Garden Beds
We modified our design to incorporate the door frames as garden beds. The kapur wood (Dryobalanops Spp) is in good condition and should be able to last a good few years. Better to have them rot into the ground to return fertility than burning or burying them in a landfill.
The door frames are thick, heavy and of an awkward U-shape. That made moving them quite challenging. But after a few days of physical workout and some bruised fingers, we finally put them in place on the grass patch. We shipped the doors to Malaysia in hope of using them someday.
Tree Trunks for our Tree Belt
We plan to use the garden beds for vegetables. Around the garden beds, we proposed a tree belt to provide some windbreak and shade. The tree belt would be made up of fruit trees, perennial edible shrubs, and edible ground cover. In a few years, a gardener tending to the veggie beds would be surrounded by taller fruit trees and feel like being in a secret garden.
For the edging for the tree belt, we rented a lorry and drove to a place at the end of Singapore. Over there, landscapers dump the prunings from roadside trees to be turned into compost.
Filling the Beds
After the door frames and tree trunks were put in place, we had to fill them with fertile soil and compost. Our soil is probably from construction sites in Singapore where they strip away the top soil before pouring concrete (here’s a song to that). Our compost is from the same place where we took our tree trunks from. These guys at Greenback turn prunings from roadside trees into compost. It’s local and free of chemicals, unlike most agricultural waste. It was many days of shoveling and pushing wheelbarrows before we filled them all!
For some of you familiar with how we build gardens, we like to start with a round of green manure. Green manuring helps to build fertility in soil using plants, not animal manure. Read more about the benefits here and how it turned out at Project Spectra. With the strong sun, they grew quite well here as well.
We will be planting after the round of green manure. More on that next time! Read everything we’re doing at Project Canossian.