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
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
Earlier this month, AVA announced that 10 parcels of vegetable farming land in Kranji will be awarded to 8 companies. These are all high-tech farming companies that use “productive and innovative farming systems, such as greenhouses with automation and smart controls; multi-tier hydroponic systems using LED lights and data analytics to optimise growing conditions; and multi-storey farms that use automated soilless cultivation system and robotics”.
Source: AVA website
On AVA’s website, the first thing listed under “What We Do” is ensuring food supply resilience. To me, food resilience and security is about meeting our entire population’s minimal nutritional needs with safe food during all situations. There are 3 reasons why I think leasing our agricultural land to these high-tech farms do not contribute to that.
1) Poor Calories
Calorie is key for food resilience. One can survive somewhat miserably on a pure rice diet. Change it to a pure chye sim diet and it’s a different story. These high-tech farms are definitely not growing rice. How about farming high-calorie vegetables that are full of carbohydrates to fill your stomach, like tapioca or sweet potato? After all, these were the kinds of food our grandparents and parents survived on during the Japanese occupation when there wasn’t enough to eat. Well, these companies are only allowed to grow leafy vegetables. Not root vegetables or even fruiting vegetables like long bean and eggplant. Continue reading
The forest beside the lawn
On a pleasant Sunday morning, I observed some interesting happenings along the edge of a forest at Lower Pierce Reservoir where I jog to or play football occasionally. There were some patches of upturned soil on the otherwise flat and trimmed lawn. It was somewhat thrilling because I felt like a detective at a crime scene, gathering clues to figure out what happened. Even better, I also felt like a hunter tracking a prey by reading signs left behind to foretell what might happen in the future. Here’s the story of what I think happened…
The crime scene: upturned soil and an unknown fruit
Over the weekend, I gave a talk at a conference in downtown Singapore. The conference is called FutureME and showcases emerging ideas, innovation and trends shaping our future. There were a few speakers addressing urban farming and local food. I guess that people in Singapore are becoming more concerned about food issues.
My talk was probably the shortest. It is a story of three locally grown vegetables. It is a response to the many high-tech growing systems that I am starting to see more of only recently. Hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, indoor growing, soil-less growing, etc. Continue reading