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…
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
A relative of mine passed away recently. We were all saddened by her death, though I could not help but think about certain things during the funeral. I thought about how modern cultures deal with death and how that reflects their relationship with nature.
In most civilizations…
When we die, we chop down a big tree to make a big coffin. Other than the life of the tree, we are taking away lives that the tree is supporting. The birds with their nests gone, the squirrels that eat the fruits, the caterpillars that chew the leaves, the fallen leaves that feed the earthworms. In Chinese customs, the coffin is given much importance. For wealthy families, the coffins can be very big and made of quality wood. They require many bearers to carry. That is probably one of the many contributing causes to the lack of forests in southern China even during the 1900s (read F H King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries). Upon seeing the photo below, my mother told me that her grandmother had a coffin of that size during the 1980s in Singapore. Big trees were still abundant then, I guess.
We have been farming at Project Spectra for close to a year. The rooftop conditions are especially challenging with the heat and wind. Only certain plants that can adapt to these conditions do better at our garden, like beans and legumes.
During the school holidays, we decided to do some soil amendment by adding biochar. Terra preta is man-made soil created by an ancient farming method in the Amazon Basin between 450 BC to AD 950. It literally means “black earth” because of the high charcoal and humus content in the soil. The ancient farmers have digging charcoal into the soil sometimes up to a depth of 2 meters. There are a few reasons for doing so:
- Biochar reduces nutrient leaching which is a major problem in places with very high rainfall, like the Amazon Rainforest and Singapore. Much of the plant nutrients are water-soluble and they get washed away during a heavy rain into the rivers (or in the case of SIngapore, the drains). Charcoal is extremely porous so they have a very high surface area to volume ratio and these pores hold on to the nutrients.
- The high porosity characteristic of charcoal also encourages microbial activities in the soil. They provide spaces for bacterial and fungi that help with the ecosystem of the soil.
- Biochar is slightly alkaline and helps to balance the pH of tropical soil, which is typically acidic.
- Biochar helps to moderate the wet and dry cycles in the soil. The numerous pores absorb moisture when the soil is wet and release them when the soil is dry. The roots of most plants enjoy a condition where it is moist enough but not too wet that they suffocate without air.
- Lastly, biochar will last a very long time in the soil. Unlike compost or ash, it doesn’t break down. This is why we still find Terra Preta in the Amazon after thousands of years. Talk about permanent agriculture!
We have been keeping bees in Singapore for over two years. I don’t mean keeping in the sense that we keep pets like dogs and cats, or even domesticated animals like chickens and goats. Bees are wild and they don’t need us to feed or protect them to survive. They forage for their own food in the surrounding flora and they defend themselves from honey robbers like ants (and sometimes humans). If they don’t like where you keep them, they simply move off to better grounds.
Urban beekeeping is a growing movement in different cities over the world. There are over 3,000 bee hives scattered across London. There are also many on top of hotels, museums, and other prominent buildings in global cities like New York, Paris, Hong Kong, and Melbourne. Singapore is late in the game! Continue reading
It has been over 3 months since we last updated about Project Spectra. Back then, we chopped and dropped the green manure to prepare for a round of planting. After leaving the green manure to break down in the soil for a week, we started planting works. Here is our progress so far.
While the garden today is very much different from what it was before, we are still dealing with many problems that come with starting a garden from scratch. There was zero life on this rooftop just a few months ago and you are creating a universe! The ecosystem is still unstable and the rooftop conditions are too hot and windy. We have started the process of restoring soil fertility through adding compost and green manure. However, there is still lots to be done by nature herself, and nature does not rush. Continue reading
Michelle is our resident forager. If you get the chance to take a stroll with her, you might notice that she has the ability to stop suddenly to pluck off some weed-looking plant from the roadside and put it in her mouth. She will be sharing her foraging diaries with us in hope that we can start seeing the forest as a free grocery store. Here goes…
We got word about a day before about some chefs wanting to forage – Mads Reflunds, fresh off the 4×4 event, with other chefs – Dave from Burnt Ends, Bryan from Morsels, Denise who gathered us all, us farmer folks, and Rebecca, interviewing Mads for the Straits Times.
We brought the guys to NTU (Nanyang Technological University), one of my favourite spots for the curious plants, including the fragrant Tonkin Jasmine, with its mandarin colored, edible flowers blossoms.
I am observing the responses. Uncle Ng leads the tour, serving his usual rounds of herbal tea (which I politely turn down). Mads gingerly picks up, and sniffs the Asiatic Pennywort, Centella Asiatica, breaking into a grin – finally – someone who gets excited by ingredients! (often times I get blank stares when I share with friends about this).
We move through a few other plants familiar to us – Wild Mints, Shinybush, Wormwood, Blue Butterfly Pea and Yellow Pea flowers, Wild Maracuja (tiny in size), etc. I am once again exhausted from the mosquitos that leave me bitten and bleeding. Continue reading
Earlier, we posted about kickstarting the rooftop farm at Spectra Secondary School by growing green manure. You can read about that here. We are happy to report that the legumes have been growing very happily and rapidly. We have been intentionally lazy and have not watered or done anything. There is a time for us humans to work hard and there is also a time to sit back and watch nature do her magic. As expected, the monsoon rain really sped up the growth of our green manure.
The legumes have sprouted and grown through the thin layer of mulch. You can literally see it growing by the day!
We were tasked to build a farm on the rooftop of Spectra Secondary School recently. It is a new secondary school in northern Singapore that focuses on vocational and practical skills so that students will be well-equipped to work upon graduation. The school’s philosophy behind this rooftop farm initiative is “No One Owes Us a Living – We Work Hard to Put Food on the Table”. As such, we will also be teaching the students how to farm organically. I have no doubt that it is out of this world for these city teenagers.
The good and also bad thing is that the infrastructure is already built. There are 11 big concrete planters filled with soil which means we can start growing soon. Unfortunately the soil has been left bare for a few months. In the tropics, this mistake was magnified by the baking sun and torrential rain. I learned from the school that the landscape contractor has scraped off the top layer of the soil because it was muddy. My guess is that the “mud” is actually the fertile top soil that got damaged by the elements. We are now left with the clay subsoil… Continue reading
This is a mandala garden that we designed based on permaculture principles – minimal digging and using natural waste materials like tree trunks and newspaper. It’s easy and everyone can do it!