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
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.
It’s been a few months since we started work at a private resort situated 45 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur. We spend 2 to 3 weeks a month there as farmer-in-residence, trying to change current practices to be more aligned with permaculture principles. The landowner bought the 8 acre land over 20 years ago and has been wanting to practice permaculture on it. There are some beautiful old traditional Malay and Indonesian houses that she transported over for guests to stay in comfortably.
The land is long and narrow. Mostly flat except for a depression serving as a wetland that fills with water periodically, and a slope with a secondary forest. It is surrounded by secondary forest all around. No issue with flooding, based on memory at least. Continue reading
I never thought that wild mushrooms in Malaysia and Singapore could be edible. The image of picking mushrooms from the ground and placing them in a weaved basket to bring home for dinner doesn’t seem realistic here. It’s only possible in a children’s storybook happening in temperate Europe where everything is pristine, not in our tropical land of mosquitoes and leeches.
I realized this isn’t true ever since we started staying at Project Lui. We are in the rural villages amidst foggy mountains and waterfalls. Knowledge of the land is still somewhat strong here and people still forage for food in the wild. One of the wild mushrooms we learned about is the termite mushroom. Actually I came up with the name myself because I don’t think there’s a common name in English for it. In Malay, it’s “cendawan busut” (cendawan means mushroom). The scientific name is Termitomyces sp., which provides a clue about this mushroom. Termito like termites, and myces like fungus. Continue reading
We recently spent a few days at Serukam Farm. It is located in northern Malaysia, in a village within Sungai Petani. Xin and Fred started the farm about 2.5 years ago on a 2-acre piece of land that Xin’s grand-uncle and grand-auntie live on.
We first heard about this place from our good friend Will from FOLO Farms. Serukam Farm wasn’t just an organic farm, but a homestead. Over there, they live on the land. They grow food small-scale and organically; firstly for themselves and selling only if there is excess. While organic farms are getting more common in Malaysia, it is still rare to see people that view farming as a lifestyle rather than a business.
We have stayed at many farms before but this was our first time since having a baby! Luckily Xin was more than accommodating and gave us the nicest room – the only loft in the family house. She said that there’s no point farming if the farm can’t cater to a baby. Continue reading
We are helping Ricky transform the oil palm plantation on his 7.25 acre family land to a food forest based on permaculture principles. The oil palm monoculture was planted about 20 years ago but has been left fallow since then. No one has been harvesting the fruits. Over time, the understorey has been vegetated naturally and become dense with shrubs and small trees.
Ricky walking in the dense shrubs under mature oil palms
Ricky became interested in permaculture a few years back and we met when I gave a talk on permaculture at a farmers’ market in Johor. We kept in contact but it was only recently that he resolved to turn his dream into reality. He wants a piece of land where his kids can play in nature, instead of spending weekends in a mall. We talked about industrial agriculture, societal issues, environmental destruction, etc, where we shared similar views.
Oil palm monocultures have become the most common landscape in Johor; a drive around here will convince you of that. They have a bad reputation for causing deforestation (by burning or mass clearing), eutrophication of water bodies through use of chemical fertilizers, reduced biodiversity, soil erosion, and other issues. After two cycles of planting, the soil will be completely degraded and the land unproductive. We are reversing the clock – turning an old oil palm plantation back into a polyculture forest using ecological methods. We have not seen any precedents and hope that whatever we learn can be used by many others to heal the land. Continue reading