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
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
Twenty snails harvested in a few minutes on a drizzling day
Yes they are. We have eaten them a few times over the past months. The snails at Project Canossian have been munching away at our seedlings and we thought that the best way for pest control would be to introduce a natural predator – the Homo sapiens. In a more diverse ecosystem, we would probably get more natural predators like ducks, lizards, beetles, birds, snakes, etc. However this is not common in an urban area surrounded by lawns.
A favorite permaculture adage is “the problem is the solution“. And as Bill Mollison says “You don’t have a snail problem, you have a duck deficiency!” Over here, our duck deficiency is solved by some very omnivorous human beings.
To be accurate, these are the common snails you see all over Singapore. The kind you might have stepped on accidentally after a rainy day. They are known as African Land Snails (Achatina fulica). Before attempting the African Land Snails, we have actually tried eating the very invasive Golden Apple Snails (Pomacea canaliculata), commonly found at the reservoirs with their pink eggs along the water edges.
In an urban garden that does not have any livestock, these garden snails are the only source of meat. In fact, they are said to be very healthy because they are low in fats. If you are looking to be more self-sufficient in food, these snails are a great addition to all the greens for a whole diet. Not to mention they are free-range, organic, wild foraged, hand-picked, and “add any fancy marketing term here“. Continue reading
It has been a year since we started the food garden at Project Canossian. One year ago, the same place was a flat grass patch. Today, there are over 50 species of food plants growing happily. Not to mention the birds, butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers (huge ones), snails (too many!), and more.
The garden after a year of growth…
The garden has been dynamic, starting from legumes for green manure, moving to annuals like okra, and now to a multi-layered perennial system. The tapiocas are probably getting the MVP award, growing rapidly to give high shade and also providing lots of tubers and yummy shoots. Some of the fruit trees are growing better while some got their feet in waterlogged soil and seem stagnant. The snail infestation causes a high rate of seedling mortality. However for all the anguish they cause, the snails also poop copiously and provide our only source of animal protein from this garden (yes, we have tried and they are edible).
We have had more freedom in how we maintain this garden compared to the typical “neat and tidy” gardens around Singapore. We took the opportunity to spend time on protracted observation rather than being reactive to every issue. We sometimes let the weeds grow more rampant than our usual tolerance threshold (which is already pretty high relative to most gardeners). Snails, grasshoppers, caterpillars are typically left to their own devices. Masanobu Fukuoka might give us a pat on the back while meticulous weeders shocked by our laziness. Continue reading
Sweet potato and katuk (sweet leaf/sayur manis)
We have been playing around with companion planting at Project Canossian. Actually it’s more of stacking plants on top of one another rather than just adjacent. Lots of failures with some successes. It is something we have been experimenting with since our days at Project Green Valley. There are many good reasons why you would want to companion plant by vertical stacking:
- Better use of sunshine: Here in Singapore 1 degree north of the equator, the sun is overhead throughout the year. As Bill Mollison says, a resource that isn’t properly utilized can become a pollution. Sunshine is photosynthesized by leaves and is turned into a yield (for us or other living things). However, when this strong sunshine falls on the soil many things happen. Soil water evaporates, soil organisms (e.g. earthworms) die from the heat, ambient temperature increases due to radiation. A single layer planting of small vegetables or herbs does not use the sunshine efficiently. Lets talk about planting lettuce as an example: for most of the growing duration, most of the sunshine will fall between the tiny seedlings onto the soil. Even when the lettuces are fully grown and touching one another, the leaves are not able to utilize all that good sunshine. One layer of leaf can only photosynthesize so much sunlight, after which the remaining passes through the leaf. Which is why the best use of sunshine here in our climate is still a forest. Almost all of the solar energy would be extracted as the sunshine passes through the many layers. Nothing much is left by the time it reaches the forest floor.
- Better use of rainfall: Likewise, we are blessed (or, to poly-tunnel farmers, cursed) with heavy rains throughout the year. The kinetic energy of falling raindrops causes soil compaction and sheet erosion when not absorbed by foliage or mulch. Having more leaves to intercept and direct the water flow down the stems allows the soil to drink more gently. If there are not enough roots in the soil to absorb the rain it flows away, causing leaching of nutrients.
- Shading out weeds: Nature doesn’t waste. Solar energy that falls on soil will be taken up by weeds. Mulching helps but we have seen weeds here that can penetrate mulch (cardboard or leaves) just to reach for sunlight.
Food waste collected in a bin
We started food waste composting a few months ago in the garden at the Canossian School. The food waste comes from the children’s home and the sisters’ quarters. We have a food waste bin each outside the two kitchens that we collect once or twice every week. The chefs throw fruit peels, vegetables cuttings, and egg shells into the bins. We don’t take dairy, meat, and oil because they are much harder to compost. The smell will be stronger and there will be more pests like rodents.
Most people associate food waste with stench. It can be true because food waste tends to be high in moisture and nitrogen. It breaks down fast and the process can become anaerobic (no air) since it’s so wet. That causes the smell. To solve this issue, one can add materials that are high in carbon and low in moisture. Some materials that would work include sawdust, wood chips/clippings, dried leaves, old newspaper/cardboard, and straw. Continue reading
Tree belt on the left, veggie beds behind
When we designed the food garden at the Canossian School, we placed a tree belt around the perimeter of the garden. The trees, when they have grown bigger, will protect the vegetable raised beds in the middle. They will provide:
- Partial shade
- Wind protection
- Fertility in the form of leaf litter
- Wildlife and biodiversity
We picked about 30 types of small to medium sized fruit trees. They would be placed at the left, right, and back of the garden. While it would be great to have some big durian and mango trees, the space was limited and we wanted fruits that the kids can pick easily to snack on.
We planted them as a simplified food forest with a few layers – tubers (underground), ground cover, shrubs, creepers, and small trees. Continue reading
Sounding as bad-ass and violent as natural farming (not industrial farming) can ever get, chop-and-drop is actually a really effective gardening technique. Simply put, one chops the existing plant down and drops them right away on the spot where the next plant is to grow. Combined with green manuring, it is an excellent way to kickstart your garden
Green manure growing out of the beds
Our previous post on Project Canossian ended with a round of green manure. Over the next month or two, the green manure helped to:
- Fix nitrogen: roots of legumes (beans and peas) act symbiotically with certain fungi to convert nitrogen in the air to the soil for plants to absorb
- Create biomass: the vigorous growth means that you get a mass of organic matter for mulching when you chop-and-drop
- Settle the soil: gives time for the newly poured soil and compost to stabilize
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.
The possibilities are endless, like a blank canvas.
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. Continue reading