I first wrote this article for “The Sauce” magazine by Foodscape Pages.
I don’t remember when I first came upon permaculture. Perhaps there was never an exact moment, like the conception of a human. Perhaps the point when the sperm entered the egg was in 2011, when I took up a five square meter allotment plot at an organic farm in Hong Kong. I was working weekdays and come weekend, would jump on my white Vespa for the one-hour ride to my tiny garden in the mountains bordering China. I was clueless about farming then, but Nature was forgiving enough to spare me among the weeds some choy sum, French beans, and one strawberry. The point when the baby popped out was when I spent my 2013 Christmas and New Year holidays at the foothills of Genting Highlands, building a bamboo hut and digging canals to irrigate a paddy field as part of a permaculture course. Since then, it has been a bit of an obsession, practicing at the farms in the day and reading the same in the evenings.
Yet, five years since its birth, I still stumble whenever someone asks me, ‘What is permaculture?’ The answer varies, always. This difficulty is not unique to me; ask most permaculturalists and you might get responses ranging from well-memorized standard definitions to a blank-eyed ‘hmm’. The difficulty lies in the all-embracing scope of permaculture and what permaculture means personally to each practitioner. Try asking a loving elderly couple ‘What is love?’ and you’ll get an idea. On top of that, we try to customize the answer to the enquirer. A budding gardener and a corporate executive might go home with different answers after a conversation about permaculture with me. To be honest, I don’t think I would get better at answering even with another five years of practice. But I take consolation in the first verse of the classic Chinese text Tao Te Ching: ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao’. Continue reading
Farewell my garden. You are unlike any of the gardens I have shaped. In terms of money, barely any was spent on you. You were made of waste, scavenged together. You ignited from three bags of composted food waste – a friend’s contribution. Plants grew from seeds of eaten fruits. Plant cuttings taken fondly from families, friends and around the neighbourhood. The fertility came from our kitchen scraps, dried leaves the landscapers swept up, logs from pruned roadside trees, and pee. Even water, none of it came straight from the tap. Aside from rain, I spoiled you with flavoured water: mop water, shower water, rice water. Don’t feel upset, I did splurge on you once; I burst a pipe while digging in a garden for heliconia rhizomes, and had to pay for a plumber.
In terms of time, I was in no rush. There was no client, no remuneration, and no deadlines. As such, you were nurtured more than manufactured. I realized my zeal for gardening one day, when I came home to tend to you after a full day of paid gardening work, while my toddler waits impatiently by the gate in her blue swimming suit.
Before it all. Yellowing grass with bald patches.
So, thank you my garden, for being a small haven I could escape to, whenever living in this sprawling, car-centered city became unbearable and frustrating. You shielded me from the nakedness of modern ‘open living’, and I could live freely at home with windows wide open. Continue reading
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.
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 we started…
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. Continue reading
I have often been asked why I don’t grow much Chinese leafy greens. Those commonly seen in the market like chye sim/choy sum, kai lan, xiao bai chai, Chinese cabbage, etc. After all, growing up in a Chinese family, these are the vegetables frequently seen on my family’s dining table. Food is a big part of our identity, heritage and culture. What we eat during childhood is usually entrenched deeply in us. It is familiar ground we draw comfort from. So why do I choose not to grow these vegetables?
Truth be told, it’s something I have done before. I still remember planting and harvesting chye sim, Japanese kai lan, Chinese cabbage, and xiao bai chai from a rooftop garden at a school over 3 years ago. It’s always nice growing what you ate growing up as a child, proudly bringing the harvest home for your mum to cook them in the same way.
Chye sim/choy sum
Xiao bai cai
Xiao bai cai
Peeking into supermarkets around Singapore and Malaysia, one can be led to think that these Chinese greens grow perfectly well here. You see chye sim, bak choy, kai lan, radishes arranged in neat rows with labels stating they are grown locally. Walking around commercial vegetable farms, you see acres of them planted neatly on straight mounds. A sea of uniform green covered with thick juicy leaves. Try Googling “malaysia vegetable farm” or “singapore vegetable farm” and you’ll know what I mean. Images are powerful, and that was the type of farm I was striving for when I started farming.
Conventional image of a vegetable farm (Source: AVA)
But somehow, along the way of my farming journey, I stopped growing these vegetables. Here’s why… Continue reading
Have you ever seen slashes on a papaya tree? Shallow knife wounds not intended to chop her down but merely to bleed her. The farmer said this tree in particular has not fruited, unlike her peers planted at the same time.
“She’s too complacent,” he said. “Got to make her work harder.”
But what if she’s not ready? She might want to grow deeper roots first in case of a future drought, or bigger leaves first to harvest more sunlight for tastier fruits, or dedicate energy to her health first before fruiting. She might want to reach for the stars first before having kids.
“No, she’s taking up prime real estate and has to pay for it.” Continue reading
We don’t usually think of our climate as seasonal. Since young, we read about frigid winters in storybooks, or watch movies with falling autumn leaves turning the ground red and yellow. But for us those scenes only happen in far away places. In our humid tropics we are blessed with relatively consistent temperatures and rainfall throughout the year. The grass is always greener on the other side; I’m sure many of us (myself included) sometimes admire the excitement that changing seasons bring. Waiting for the first snowfall, or for the wild flowers to bloom in the meadow.
In fact, we do have variations in our weather even though the changes are not as dramatic as temperate regions. We have our Northeast monsoon, Southwest monsoon, inter-monsoon period, Sumatra squalls, etc. Even within the monsoon season we have wet phases and dry phases. Unfortunately this information is something that we read as children only in our geography textbooks for the sole purpose of examinations, forgotten two hours after the examination ends. We know it but don’t understand it. Most of us did not grow up living close to the land. We don’t rely directly on her for food through farming, foraging, fishing, and hunting. As such, the weather is just an inconvenience to be dealt with.
I found myself becoming much more aware of the weather and seasons ever since I started farming. For example, certain crops suit certain weather, or that the watering requirements would change, or the kind of weeds would change. However, it was in foraging that I realized how reliant one becomes on the weather. In farming, there is relatively more control: you can water more during the hot season, select suitable crops, provide more shade, etc. When one forages, the difficulty and beauty is that one has to accept and adapt. You submit to the changes of the environment and let Nature decide your menu, if there is any at all, for the day…
Vegetable Fern / Paku Pakis
We forage for fern shoots quite a bit while living in Project Lui. There are a few types of edible ferns and the one we forage is (I think!) the vegetable fern, or paku pakis / pucuk paku in Malay (Diplazium esculentum). It is commonly eaten throughout Asia and even in Hawaii. They thrive in wet soil and partially shaded areas. Continue reading
It has been two years since we broke ground at Project Merbok. The site was once a windswept hill covered with lalang (Imperata cylindrica) without any trees. The landowner wanted to do up the place as a retreat centre for his employees. A small house would be built, and behind the building there were to be fruit trees, vegetables, livestock, and fish ponds, all grown organically. To fulfill this vision, we did some earthworks for the ponds and vegetable terrace, brought in lots of compost, and planted many trees. Today, the landscape is much different from what it was two years ago. It’s like a little green oasis in the open grassland. We would like to share some photos and what we learnt.
A little green oasis in the open grassland
We previously posted that creating a windbreak was one of the most important tasks. The site is a hilltop and the highest point for a good distance all around. Without the windbreak, most of the fruit trees and edible plants would suffer. Despite being planted on the harshest area with the poorest soils, the Casuarina (Casuarina equisetifolia or Rhu) have been growing rapidly and doing well. The Eugenia (Eugenia oleina, or Syzgium campanulatum) are growing as well, but definitely slower. In some areas, we had to help them with competition from creepers and tall grasses. As our windbreak trees grow, they will slowly create a micro-climate more conducive for the other plants.
The tall Casuarina trees (left) provide wind and sun protection for the other trees (right).
View from the front, where the building will eventually be. Casuraina planted on the ridge line.
Two rows of casuarina trees.
Eugenia (left) getting competition from creepers and other weeds.