Project Changi – Natural Farming in the City

Here’s a guest post by Imran, fellow permaculturalist and farmer. Hopefully it shows that natural farming is possible in a small and urban environment.

It’s a plot of garden about 30 sqm big in a quiet little neighbourhood in the east of Singapore. We have been tasked to transform and maintain the garden to produce food, medicine and comfort to both humans and other lives.

Before

This garden has been left untouched by the owner of the house for a few years, as she had been living abroad. Prior to that, the owner had planted some trees in the garden like chiku and neem.  The big trees were shading most of the garden and there wasn’t much sunlight reaching the ground. The good news is that because the garden was shaded and there were leaves from the big trees covering the soil, the garden had decent soil; well at least good enough being in a city, where most of the time, soil is usually compacted from heavy machinery use, contaminated and devoid of any organic matter and life.

Before 1

Before we started…

Before 2

The Transformation

Before we began restoring the garden, we got the trees pruned so that more light was able to pass through. This makes it easier for us to prune, harvest and manage the trees in the future. By pruning the trees, it also invigorates and makes them grow better.

We strive to produce zero waste from the garden, so everything that was pruned was reused in some way. Logs were used as edging for the garden beds, leaves and twigs were chipped and used as mulch. The concept of waste is not understood in nature and so it is in this natural garden.

With the canopy pruned, more light could get in and we could plant more shrubs and groundcovers. It is important to understand plant stratification and light requirements to plan out the long term planting scheme.

We edged the garden beds using logs and planks from the prunings and house construction. The reason for edging is to hold in the fertility and define the walkways. One could differentiate the pathways from the beds and not step into the beds.  We added compost and a little sprinkle of bone meal in the beds. No tilling of the soil needed in this case, as the soil underneath is quite soft. If the soil was harder and more clayey, we would fork or till the soil once in the beginning. We then mulched the beds using leaves and chipped wood from the garden. The pathways were mulched first with burnt rice husks, followed by a layer of unburnt rice husks for that nice soft yellow finish. I would not recommend purely using burnt rice husks as the top layer, as it is leaves marks on the footwear and gets all over the place.

Maintaining the Garden

Now, one year after the construction of the garden, the garden has matured. It is filled with at least 80 different kinds of plants at any given time. Herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, medicine, flower, perfume, the garden has it all.

From the very beginning, this garden has been designed to be low maintenance, but a weekly visit is important to keep an eye on things. Necessary tasks for every visit includes: watering, pruning, harvesting, mulching, planting and observing. There is an irrigation system installed in the garden, which waters twice daily in the early morning and late afternoon. Nonetheless, a weekly watering by hand is needed to give an extra boost especially when it is really dry.

Because it is a ‘thick’ garden with a lot of plants, regular pruning is essential to manage the amount of sun in the garden. Taller plants are pruned regularly and the prunings are then used as mulch in the concept known as chop-and-drop. Planting and harvesting are done regularly to ensure a continuous supply of food and effective utilisation of space. Observation of plant needs, ecosystem development and general circumstances gives us feedback that helps us plan our next move.

Integrating the House and the Garden

Not only does the garden produce food, it also has a worm bin which manages most of the waste from the kitchen. The house itself was designed in an environmentally conscious way. The building is oriented to capture the most wind and the least sunlight. Solar panels are used to capture solar energy to feed back to the grid. Rainwater, which is collected from the roof through gutters and fed into an underground tank, is used to water the garden. There are air bricks placed around the top of the walls to allow for better air flow and to cool down the house, eliminating the need for air conditioner.

Air Bricks

Air bricks on one side of the house

Learning from Mistakes

Apart from the successes we had from this place, there are some learning points worth sharing. Firstly, always put plants in their preferred location, especially for longer-term plants. A papaya was planted in the annual beds and it was taking up a lot of the sunlight and root space that was available (annual plants are much shorter). Secondly, even though the use of rice husks was excellent as a walkway mulch, it tends to get blown away and get onto the concrete pathways. This is not a big problem here but could be for other gardens. Lastly, a good nursery, however small, needs to be allocated in the garden to ensure continuity of plants.  A lot of time will be spent in the nursery so it is important to look at how the flow of work can be efficient in order to grow lots of plants in a small space.

The Garden Today…

One thing for sure is that this place is teeming with food and life. One dig in the soil and earthworms can be seen. Sunbirds stop by to hang out and suck on nectar from the heliconia. Dragonflies and bees fly around and occasionally a hornet buzzes through. Bananas, papayas, chillies, kedondong, noni, vegetables and ulams (traditional Malay salad veggies) are available year round. It is a happy garden and it has such a wonderful energy to it.

It is definitely a good feeling to know that there’s clean water and food right at your doorstep, a result of our cooperation with nature. Hopefully more people will be inspired to grow a garden, collect some rainwater, and harvest solar energy.

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