Urban Farming

okra ladybird beetle pest

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Low Shao-Lyn, Eats, Shoots and Roots (Co-founder and Design Director)

Low Shao-Lyn from Eats, Shoots and Roots has shared with us her personal journey on urban gardening. 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.

Farming in urban areas

Shao-Lyn and her team started to 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 now 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.

… manpower is the most important element in urban farming … it is good to get a community together that would commit to a space to work on the land properly.

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.

Realities of urban farming

  1. We have to understand the life cycle of plants as plants will eventually die. Therefore, manage your own expectations.
  2. Choose plants that are suitable for the tropical climate.
  3. Pests love the plants that you love too. We have to learn how to manage them.
  4. Maintenance is essential. We have to prune leaves to keep the plants upright.
  5. 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

1. Seeds

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 GMOsHeirloom 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.

4. Planting

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.

5. Care

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.

Saving the Underground Farmers: Soil Ecosystems

soil beneath vegetation

Have you ever noticed the earth that you step on?

It is where we get materials essential to our survival. It is soil that supports the growth of plants, the producers of the food chain and the sources of fibre, fodder, and fuel.

At first look, it seems static and lifeless. In fact, soil hosts millions of life forms including bacteria, fungi, insects and other invertebrates, that all interact and perform complex activities. Some of these consume other life forms, others compete for space and resources, and certain organisms form collaborative relationships to access resources.

image of earthworm and soil
Earthworms are important members of the underground soil community affecting physical structure of soil

Underground life forms collectively form the soil biota and continuously re-construct the soil environment. These underground farmers are important to ensure healthy development of a plant, as the roots of the plant are a part of the soil ecosystem.  

The Mutualistic Relationships between Plants, Soil Microbes and Fungi

The underground parts of plants carry out nutrient and water uptake from the soil. The root system of a plant is involved in plant-microbe interaction whereby the plant provides carbons and shelter to the microscopic soil organisms (microbes). The microbes in turn supply minerals and trace elements in a modified form that can be used by the plant.

An example of such interaction is that of legume plants (peas, beans) and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The bacteria in the soil convert nitrogen from the air into a form that legume roots can absorb from the soil.

Plants also develop symbiotic associations with soil fungi, that is, the relationship benefits both the plants and the fungi. These fungi reside near to or within the root cells of the plants.

Soil fungi use the organic nutrients and sugars that are produced by the plants. In return, they benefit plants by improving the plants’ ability to absorb nutrients and water, and their resistance to unfavourable conditions like pollution and diseases.  

The Alteration of Soil Structure and Composition

Over recent decades, large-scale industrial farming and land conversion have resulted in great change of soil structure and composition. The clearing of trees, shrubs and grasses, the digging and overturning of topsoil using machinery, as well as application of chemical insecticides, herbicides and fertilisers have had disastrous impacts on the underground food web.

The soil environment has become less conducive for the organisms to survive. The soil microbial communities lose connection with plant roots that provide carbons and shelter, and in turn the plants’ capacity for taking up water and nutrients declines. The soil ecosystem is losing its viability and robustness. 

Promoting healthy soil ecosystems

In order to revive the fertility of soil, we need to bring back the carbon to the soil. This is important for ensuring food security and sustainability of agricultural activities.  Here are two ways we can do this:

  • Plant different varieties of plants–each plant variety releases a unique set of biological compounds to the surrounding of its root system, and signals different underground microbe community and fungi. The greater the plant variety, the greater the variety in soil microorganisms which improves soil water-retention capacity and nutrient availability.
    Besides soil improvement, more plant varieties result in a greater variety of insects, including predatory insects that feed on pests. The predators help control pest numbers and thus reduce physical damage to the crop plants. 
Soil ecosystem consists of life forms that live within the soil but it also provides food to above-ground organisms
Image credit: USDA (CC-0)
  • Limit the use of chemical fertilizers—The application of NPK fertiliser has to be reduced, so that soil microbial communities have the chance to thrive and re-connect with the plant roots. Instead of relying on chemical input, plants have to derive these essential elements from the underground microbial communities and in return, channel their carbons to the soil. The increase of soil carbon would boost the soil communities, improve nitrogen uptake and also help maintain the structure of soil.  The removal of excess fertiliser reduces the formation of nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) in waterlogged or compacted soil.

Summary

If we understand soil and the life it teems with, we can grow healthier plants and do so in a sustainable manner. We can avoid the excessive chemical and water use that is a growing concern.

Plant growth is influenced by the health of the soil and it also influences life around it and beneath it. Having more plants of different varieties helps conserve underground ecosystems. As the soil carbon (provided by plants) increases, the soil microbial community is revived, and the underground farmers can improve the structure and composition of the soil to support more plants.

Reference:

Jones, C. (2018). Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils . Retrieved from Amazing Carbon Web site: http://amazingcarbon.com/JONES-LightFarmingFINAL(2018).pdf

Plants for Food 2: Ulam raja

Common name: Cosmos, wild cosmos

Malay name: Ulam raja

Other local names: –

Scientific name: Cosmos caudatus

Distribution: Pantropical

Conservation Status: Least concern, Cultivated, Naturalised species

The name of the plant means ‘king of ulam.’ Its scientific name is Cosmos caudatus. Therefore, it is also known as Cosmos in English. This plant is indigenous to tropical America, and was intro­duced by the Spaniards into the Philippines, pos­sibly because it was used by them as a vegetable at sea. Now it is pantropical, including Southeast Asia, where it is cultivated but also occurs in a naturalised state.   

This erect, herbaceous plant can reach up to 2 metre high. It has grooved, purple-tinged stem with opposite leaf arrangement. The leaves are pinnatifid, and emit strong fragrance when crushed. The plant bears inflorescence at the tip of stem. The flowering stem is 5-30 cm long. The cluster of flowers consists of yellow tubular flowers and pink, spreading petal-like flowers. The inflorescence is slightly scented.

Culinary uses

The leafy part of Ulam raja is commonly consumed with rice, budu, sambal belacan, tempoyak and cincalok. Its grassy taste is accentuated by a subtle peppery tinge. It is believed that by consuming this plant one can enhance his or her blood circulation as well as protect their bones.

Planting

It is good to plant it in pot or bed as the plant grows vigorously. Just sow the seeds at soil surface or fine texture mulch. It prefers sunny places and fertile, moist, well-drained soil. This annual is quite short-lived as it dies after flowering and seed production. However, the plant will self-sow and re-grow in the same plot.

ulam raja 
Cosmos caudatus
The author is measuring the diameter of flower clusters.
Photo by Shang Ming

Biodiversity benefits

The flowers of Ulam raja attract a variety of day flying pollinators. These include several species of butterflies such as Tawny costers (Acraea terpsicore), Chocolate albatross (Appias lyncida), Julia heliconians (Dryas iulia) and Sulphurs (Eurema spp.) as well as long tongued bees such as stingless bees and honey bees. As with most composite flowers, it likely harbours thrips as well.

As a low shrub, it also helps to provide shelter for small animals and create ground cover to protect against soil erosion. It can be planted in mixed beds with native plants, but because of its rigorous growth it has a tendency to crowd out other native plants.

Related websites:

  1. https://www.yellowpages.my/article/ulam-the-original-malaysian-salad.html
  2. http://www.globinmed.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=62969:cosmos-caudatus-kunth&catid=8:botanical-information&Itemid=113
  3. https://tropicalselfsufficiency.com/cosmos-cosmos-caudatus/
  4. https://tropicalgardener.wordpress.com/tag/cosmos-caudatus/

Plants for Food 3: Pegaga

A carpet of Pegaga leaves
Photo by Shahidul Hasan Roman (CC BY-SA 4.0 License)

Common name: Asiatic pennywort, Indian pennywort

Malay name: Pegaga

Local name: Gotu kola (India)

Scientific name: Centella asiatica (L.) Urb.

Distribution: East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia

Conservation status: Least concern, Cultivated, Naturalised

Description

Pegaga is originated from the Asian and East African regions such as India, Sri Lanka and Madagascar. It spreads out to many countries such as Malaysia, Pakistan, China, Japan, West Indies, South America and Australia. It is a perennial creeping herb commonly found in moist places. The plant spreads quickly by the roots, producing long stolons up to 250cm in length. These root are at the nodes and form large carpets of growth. The green leaves are of kidney-shape or disc-like, with a deep basal sinus. The margin of leaves are rounded-tooth i.e. crenate or smooth, sometimes with scattered hairs on upper part of leafstalk. Flowers are inconspicuous and formed in short clusters.

Precaution

The plant is toxic in large overdose or as a result of long-term application. Pegaga is POSSIBLY SAFE for most people when taken by mouth for up to 8 weeks. It may cause nausea and stomach pain. Rarely, Pegaga may also cause liver problems if taken by mouth.

Culinary uses

It is widely used in salads and cooked as a vegetable. Besides serving the whole bunch raw with sambal, the stem and leaves can also be made into a refreshing juice. Traditionally it is believed to help ease symptoms of hypertension and migraine. Please click on the following link to get recipe of Pegaga salad with carrot.

Planting

Pegaga survives well on sandy loam to sandy clay. Most species survive well in open areas while others need some shade. Propagation can be done through either seeds or cuttings. If circumstances are favourable, the first harvest can be obtained 2 – 3 months after planting. Fresh leaves harvested as a vegetable are tied together in small bundles and need to be consumed quickly, as they wilt rapidly.

Biodiversity Benefits

Pegaga form dense mats of short plants that are a good low maintenance ground cover. Due to its natural habitat Pegaga is resistant to flooding, therefore it can also be used as a pond or an aquarium plant. This provides shelter for aquatic or amphibious animals.

Related websites:

  1. https://www.yellowpages.my/article/ulam-the-original-malaysian-salad.html
  2.  http://www.globinmed.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=62727:centella-asiatica&catid=8:botanical-information&Itemid=113
  3. http://www.globinmed.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=79424:centella-asiatica-2&catid=199&Itemid=139
  4. http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Centella+asiatica
  5. https://www.bibliomed.org/mnsfulltext/140/140-1505496493.pdf?1586245919

Plants for Food 4: Temulawak

Curcuma xanthorrhiza rhizome
Photo credit: Danny Steven S (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Common name: Javanese turmeric

Malay name: Temulawak

Local name: –

Scientific name: Cucurma zanthorrhiza

Distribution: East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia

Conservation status: Least concern, Cultivated, Naturalised.

Temulawak is a unique variety of ginger that grows in tropical Asia. This plant is very much like usual ginger, but has the characteristic yellow tinge and taste bitter. As the name suggests, Java ginger originated from Indonesia, more specifically from Java Island. Currently, most of the Temulawak is cultivated in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Philippines.

Flower cluster of Javanese turmeric
Photo credit: Kalpana Kalpana (CC BY-SA 3.0 License)

Temulawak is a herbaceous, perennial plant.  It consists of a cluster of erect pseudostems up to 2 metres tall from an underground rhizome. Each pseudostem is made up of up to 8 leaves with blades that can be 40 – 90cm long and 15 – 21cm wide. The purplish, spike-like cluster of flowers sprout horizontally from the rhizome next to the leaf shoot, with 15 to 35 bracts (hardened, specialised leaves) arranged spirally, each containing a flower. The layers of bract turn purplish as they spiral up. This is different from the flower of ginger, which have greenish, spadix-like (resemble flower cluster of aroids) bracts with pale yellow, tubular flowers.

Precaution

Java ginger seems to be safe for most people when used for a short time, up to 18 weeks. Nonetheless, it may cause stomach irritation and nausea when used in large amounts or for long periods of time. For pregnant and breast-feeding individuals, please stay on the safe side and avoid using it. Besides, don’t use Java ginger if you have liver or gall bladder problems, as it can increase the production of bile and worsen your condition. If you have gallstones, get medical advice before using it.

Culinary Uses

It can be eaten fresh and has a sourish, bitter taste. According to an article written by Juliana Harsianti, Temulawak is mostly used by beating the rhizome of this ginger and putting it into the dish being prepared. The rhizome of Temulawak contains curcuminoid, which is possibly useful to neutralise toxins, relieve joint pain, increase the secretion of bile and lower blood cholesterol.

The common use for this herb is to improve appetite, especially for children. To make a Temulawak potion, mash the rhizome and brew with tamarind and palm sugar, keep it boiling until only half the water remains.

Planting

The plant prefers slightly shady conditions and demands a moist, fertile soil which is rich in humus. Place the dried rhizome into the soil, covered up and don’t forget to water it. Fertilise the soil with compost to get health plant growth.

Biodiversity Benefits

Curcuma species are known to be pollinated by several species of bees and butterflies, as well as attracting ants and beetles that are known to feed on the pollen. There are records of Hoeybees (Apis spp.) and Blue banded bees (Amegilia spp.) visiting these flowers. Dense plantings of gingers can be used to create natural screens or hedges. These provide shelter for small mammals, birds and frogs.

Related website:

  1. http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Curcuma+zanthorrhiza
  2. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins/ai/ingredientmono-532/javanese-turmeric
  3. https://www.healthbenefitstimes.com/javanese-turmeric/
  4. https://uses.plantnet-project.org/en/Curcuma_xanthorrhiza_(PROSEA)
  5. https://www.koop-phyto.org/en/medicinal-plants/turmeric.php
  6. https://www.99.co/blog/indonesia/cara-menanam-temulawak/
  7. http://ijprb.com/vol%2009%20(1)/7.aswani.pdf

Plants for Food 1: Selom

Selom (Oenanthe javanica)
Photo by KENPAI (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Common name: Java waterdropwort

Malay name: Selom

Other local names: –

Scientific name: Oenanthe javanica

Distribution: East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as Australia

Conservation status: Least concern, Cultivated, Native

Description

Selom is found in the rainforest in Malaysia. Selom is an erect, perennial plant growing from 10 – 150 cm tall. The plant has creeping stolons by which it spreads vigorously, often forming large clumps. It bears small, white flowers in clusters. Selom often grows wild in swampy places such as the edge of wetland and rice field. However, there has been cultivation of Selom nowadays in response of market demand. It is rich in Vitamin C and minerals.

Culinary use

Selom was once a staple of Malay diets, freshly harvested leaves and stems were often served with a mix of Ulam raja, Pegaga or Tenggek burung as ulam. If you are a food lover, you should not miss the Northern Laksa or Laksa Utara in Peninsular Malaysia. The dish is normally presented together with fresh leaves of Selom. Other than that, the tender stems and leaf stalks of Selom are used fresh as salad, to garnish steamed rice and other dishes, or boiled and chopped as greens.

Planting

Selom is considered a plant that is easy to grow. It thrives in various type of soil. However, it is best to grow the plant in fertile, moist soil with high organic content. To plant Selom in seed bed or nursery, the soil must be plowed before planting.

Instead of planting with seed, planting with cutting is faster to get the yield. Young plant needs sufficient water to grow well. It is good to water the plant two times per day, morning and dusk. The cutting start to develop roots within 2 to 3 weeks. After 4 to 6 months, reduce the times of watering. You can harvest the plant after 3 to 4 months of planting in soil.

The most common found disease of the plant is Sooty mould. Therefore, take precautions on the sanitation and implement good farming practices e.g. keeping a distance among plants and removing unhealthy plants.

Biodiversity benefits

As a small plant that grows in moist places, Selom makes for excellent shelter for small wetland animals such as frogs. It can also be planted near ponds to act as a shelter for fry and small fish. The small white flower clusters are attractive to pollinators like butterflies as well as short- and long- tongued bees.

Related websites:

  1. https://myagri.com.my/2017/12/selom/
  2. https://avrdc.org/water-dropwort-oenanthe-javanica/
  3. http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Oenanthe+javanica
  4. https://animhosnan.blogspot.com/2010/12/selom.html
  5. https://www.mstar.com.my/lain-lain/jamu-selera/2014/07/02/kerabu-selom