Low Shao-Lyn from Eats, Shoots and Roots has shared with us her personal journey in urban farming.
Realities of urban farming
- We have to understand the life cycle of plants as plants will eventually die. Therefore, manage your own expectations.
- Choose plants that are suitable for the tropical climate.
- Pests love the plants that you love too. We have to learn how to manage them.
- Maintenance is essential. We have to prune leaves to keep the plants upright.
- A good farm can only exist with a good farmer. The farm is actually a reflection of you. Hence, make sure you have enough time to take care of your farm.
Tips on how to start growing plants
Understanding the typical life cycle of an annual plant: The plant starts to grow from a seed and it soon develops into a seedling. It then matures, flowers and dies. Then, we harvest the seeds and grow the plants again. However, we can also choose perennials that can grow for a longer time period such as pandan, lemongrass, daun kadok.
Choose plants that are suitable for our climate. Choose the local variety. For example, choose Thai Basil instead of Italian Basil as Thai Basil grows better in a tropical climate.
Choose fresh seeds. All seeds have an expiry date and they just can’t last forever. Therefore, check the expiry date of seeds before you sow them.
Heirloom vs Hybrid vs GMOs – Heirloom seeds are seeds that may not be a commercial crop. They are non-famous ( may not taste good) but with interesting properties. So, it is okay to use them but they may not be for the same purpose as the common varieites. Hybrid seeds can be found in nurseries easily and are okay to use if you know what to expect. Hybrids are good for consistency. Nonetheless, the second generation may not have the same quality as the first generation. GMOs are mostly commercial crops e.g. corn and cotton. Therefore, do not worry if you just grow your sawi or pak choi at a small scale.
2. Preparing Your Vegetation Bed
Make sure the plants receive sufficient sunlight so that they can grow food. Full sunlight is the best.
3. Preparing the Right Soil
Mix simple topsoil with compost and cow manure. Topsoil provides the basic structure to hold the roots while compost and cow manure provide nutrients and ingredients to make the food. Good soil mix has a moist and nice texture. Sometimes we need to modify soil to make sure it has a good structure to hold nutrients and moisture.
You can sow the seeds directly into the ground (for large or ‘cheap’ seeds).
For more expensive seeds, you can grow them in trays so that they get the best chance of growing and would not be eaten by birds.
Watering – You can use watering cans in a small area. However, it is good to install an irrigation system if you are farming on a large scale. Use drip irrigation instead of sprinkler irrigation to ensure the water permeates the soil.
Shade House – Create a shade house instead of a greenhouse as the shade house would keep the bugs out while still allowing ventilation.
Fertiliser – Natural fertilisers release nutrients slowly while synthetic fertilisers release nutrients quickly and are specific. However, synthetic fertilisers may cause pollution and kill aquatic animals. A third option is microbes which unlock the nutrients for plants to absorb, and help plants to grow better
Pest management – Manually removing the pest is the best way of controlling it. If it doesn’t work, then only look at using natural repellent e.g. chili or garlic spray, so as not to repel beneficial bugs too. You can grow flowers or plants that attract predatory bugs e.g. ladybirds, praying mantis or spider that help to control pests. The last resort is to destroy, burn and start afresh.
Farming in urban areas
Shao-Lyn and her team teach and produce kits and educational materials for people who may not able to find the right materials or don’t know how to start growing plants. They design compost bins that are more suitable for urban settings. They also sell microgreens in small containers. They have also created planter boxes to manage gardening spaces.
Shao-Lyn suggests that it is good to install large garden beds to share resources among plants. Besides, if you have large space, grow different things in different areas to manage them better. She also mentions that it is important to have a diversity of plants so that pest insects get distracted. Shao-Lyn stressed that manpower is the most important element in urban farming. Therefore, it is good to get a community together that would commit to a space to work on the land properly.
The urban farming experience
Shao-Lyn shared how she was first exposed to a permaculture garden of Sabina Arokiam in Batu Arang. Then, she started to explore and grow things from a balcony in a very small space. She documented the process of growing plants and looked for more information on how to grow them. Shao-Lyn mentioned that a good way to learn is by starting and working with your own hands.
She soon paid visits to several sites in Europe to learn about farming. Along the journey, Shao-Lyn discovered that there is a big network of urban farms in London. However, 8 years ago in KL, people saw farming as something for backyards that they did not want to do in the city. Nonetheless, Shao-Lyn felt that it was important to reconnect with gardening. She then established the first edible garden in Bukit Gasing. She and her partner spent 6 years to establish the garden, starting at a small scale as that was what they could handle at the time before, before expanding.
This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant
You can watch the entire session here.