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Uncategorized

Case Study Series: Free Tree Society

Free Tree Society Kuala Lumpur is a non-profit environmental organisation that spreads environmental stewardship messages through giving away trees for free. Its flagship nursery is located in cosmopolitan Bangsar amidst the backdrop of a former rubber estate, now the Pulai Trail and the last of the area’s green lungs. This nursery is a place for conducting gardening activities, classes, workshops, meetings and so on. It houses about 5000 plants for giving away, and is a perfect place to learn about plants, animals, sustainable gardening and natural environment.

A bird’s eye view of Free Tree Society Bangsar Nursery

Existing wildlife 

There are a number of wild animals that can be found at the nursery. A wide array of insects is observed: stingless bees, honey bees, butterflies, moths, dragonflies, damselflies, beetles etc. Some larger animals visit the nursery as well. For example, spiders, four-lined tree frog, common toad, monitor lizard, bronzeback snake, green pigeon and squirrels. 

A butterfly is resting on the leaf of a plant in the nursery

A leaf-eating grasshopper on the big leaf of a Calathea plant

Key elements of attracting wild animals

Animals need food, shelter and water to survive. All these resources are available at the nursery. The garden is full of plants and remains some degree of wilderness. The fruits and flowers are reserved for the animals. Leaf piles or rocks of different shapes, overturned flower pots and rotting wood provide shelter for animals to lay eggs or hide themselves. These garden visitors can quench their thirst at the wildlife pond next to the entrance of the nursery. There is no use of chemical at the nursery so that the animals can live freely and safely. 

The wildlife pond is home for many aquatic animals

Flowers of Kemunting (Rhodomyrtus tomentosa) plant

These bricks are placed under plants to provide shelter for small animals

The nursery is a good example of pollinator gardening, as there are many types of pollinators in the garden. From all sorts of insects to birds and mammals e.g. bats, these pollinators enjoy savouring nectar and pollen of flowers in the nursery. Some examples of nectar-providing plants at the nursery are Costus speciosus, Antigonon leptopus, Heliconia sp., Begonia sp., Murraya sp., Alpinia sp. and different varieties of orchid. It is also important to have some host plants in the garden so that the juveniles of moths and butterflies get enough food.

Flowering shoot of a spiral ginger (Costus speciosus)

Figs and palms are very useful plants as they provide food for a variety of animals in the city. Some of the common palm trees such as coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) and lipstick palm (Cyrtostachys renda) bear nectar-rich flowers and edible fruits. Both the flowers and fruits are important food source for birds and other pollinators or fruit-eating animals. Local fig plants such as weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) also provide food for insects and birds.

A clump of lipstick palms (Cyrtostachys renda) in the middle of nursery

Sustaining and establishing biodiversity in small urban gardens

No garden is too small. We can add greenery to our cities by growing plants at our own houses. There are many types of green spaces in the city. However, the most common one is the balcony garden, which is often exposed to direct sunlight and strong wind. We can overcome these limitations by having some big, bushy plants. These plants provide shade for other smaller plants. They also act as natural windbreaks to protect other plants from high winds. We need to understand the conditions of our garden. Then, we can try to create suitable microclimates by growing plants that can survive under such conditions.

Tall, shrubby plants provide shade for other shade-loving plants. 

To keep the plants healthy, practice composting and feed the plants with sufficient nutrients so that they are resistant to pests and diseases. We can regulate the nutrient inputs by adding different materials to the compost. For example, egg shells are rich in calcium while banana peels supply both organic materials and minerals such as sodium and magnesium. Although often being overlooked, soil health is an important factor that determines the success of an urban garden. We can start establishing soil biodiversity by introducing earthworms. They are good at improving soil structure and fertility.

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Soil

Soil Biodiversity

Bacteria, insects and earthworms break down organic materials e.g. fruit peels and dry leaves in the composting bin. Same goes to the real soil
Bacteria, insects and earthworms break down organic materials e.g. fruit peels and dry leaves in the composting bin. Same goes to the real soil

Soil organisms constitute more than 25% of discovered biodiversity on earth. However, much of them remain unexplored and receive little attention compared to aboveground organisms.

Though less visible, these organisms are responsible for various ecosystem functions such as:

  • nutrient cycling
  • pollution remediation
  • disease control
  • water infiltration
  • supporting agro-ecosystems etc. 

The ecological processes in soil are mainly driven by interactions between soil microorganisms and plants, especially their underground roots. The soil microbes (microscopic organism), mainly bacteria and fungi, break down dead organic matter e.g. fallen leaves and release minerals and carbon compounds into the soil. These nutrients will be reused by plants for development. Some microbes establish mutualistic relationships with plants. For example, the mycorrhizal fungi transport water and minerals to the plant, while they receive carbon in return. 

The soil microbes also suppress plant diseases by competing with disease-causing organisms, colonising or consuming them.

Soil microorganisms are important in maintaining soil structure and retaining water.

The sugar-rich secretion of bacteria or threadlike filaments of fungi bind soil particles into small aggregates which are physically and chemically stable.

The microbes are eaten by larger soil organisms i.e. the protozoa and nematodes. These small animals are then eaten by their predators such as insects, centipedes, spiders and scorpions. This underground food web is connected to aboveground food web as soil-dwelling animals become the food source of animals that live on the ground such as birds, snakes and frogs. 

Aside from organisms in the grazing food chain, there are animals that feed on dead plant materials. Unlike decomposer, these animals need to orally ingest the organic matter and digest it inside their bodies. Some examples of these detritus-feeders are woodlices, beetles and termites. 

A pleasing fungus beetle feeds on fungus and decomposing matter.

Cave cricket lives in leaf litter.

Apart from that, the earthworms which feed on leaf litter and soil are known as ecosystem engineers as they produce nutrient-rich castings and create pores in soil. The castings are important for soil aggregate formation and plant growth, while the pores in soil facilitate water movement, increase water infiltration and alleviate flooding.  

Reference:

  1. Ingham, E. R. (n.d.). Soil Bacteria. Retrieved from USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Web site: https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/soils/health/biology/?cid=nrcs142p2_053862 
  2. Biologydictionary.net Editors. (2017, November 05). Difference between Detritivores and Decomposers. Retrieved from https://biologydictionary.net/difference-detritivores-decomposers/

Categories
Soil

Conserving Soil Biodiversity

Black, fluffy soil with dead plant roots

Like aquatic and terrestrial organisms, soil organisms are threatened by a series of environmental issues. The major threat that they face is habitat loss, which results from land conversion, pollution, climate change and invasive species. Agricultural activities such as “tillage” alter composition of bacterial communities and reduce diversity of soil fungi and larger animals. Construction of roads, buildings and street pavement damage the soil structure and destroy  soil organism’s habitat.

Habitat degradation occurs when the soil is polluted. Pollutants such as heavy metal and excess nutrients change the soil environment chemically, usually in an abrupt and profuse manner. This makes the soil condition unfavourable for many existing soil microorganisms. As a result, only a few pollution-tolerant species survive and dominate the community. The overall microbial diversity and activity decrease. 

The alteration of environmental parameters as a result of climate change also affects soil organisms. Increased concentration of atmospheric CO2 triggers responses of soil fungal communities. Such responses are reflected in the amount of living plants in the area. Quantity and frequency of rainfall and changes of temperature also impact underground animals such as insects. However, the impacts vary by taxon (unit used by scientists to classify organisms) and ecosystem as some are more resistant to environmental changes while some are more vulnerable.  

The intrusion of invasive species such as exotic plants brings changes to the soil environment as well as underground microbial communities.

Their roots release a new combination of chemicals e.g. sugars and enzymes into the soil. The type and amount of chemicals are different from the ones released by original plant communities. This affects the activity and population size of microbial community at the rhizosphere i.e. portion of soil surrounding roots of living plant as its biological and chemical properties are influenced by the roots. The invasive plants also impact the soil organisms by interfering with nutrient cycling e.g. the legume plants, or changing the amount of litter and root inputs. 

Conservation measures to support soil biodiversity include managing natural areas, restoring degraded ecosystems, adopting sustainable farming practices and adapting urban areas for both nature and people. Identifying undisturbed land and protecting it are important to sustain soil biodiversity as the habitat quality of soil organisms is maintained. Other than that, both artificial and natural revegetation of disturbed land help soil microbes and fauna to re-establish. 

Dry leaves are used for mulching and composting. They help to retain soil moisture, regulate soil temperature and suppress weed growth.

Sustainable farming practices are also important in conserving soil biodiversity. Reduced tillage, crop rotation, planting of cover crop and retention of litter are some useful measures to improve soil quality as well as support soil biodiversity. Allocating spaces for greenery and wildlife in urban planning, establishing green roofs and rain gardens, reduced soil compaction and using mulch as groundcover are some of the ways that encourage soil biodiversity in urban areas.

References: 

Alizabeth M. Bach, K. S. (2020). Soil Biodiversity Integrates Solutions for a Sustainable Future. Sustainability, 2662. 

Nihorimbere, V., Ongena, M., Smargiassi, M., & Thonart, P. (2011). Beneficial Effect of the Rhizosphere Microbial Community for Plant Growth and Health. BASE, 327-337. Retrieved from https://popups.uliege.be/1780-4507/index.php?id=7578

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Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Bee Gardens by Dr Noraini Bahari

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Noraini Bahari

Dr Noraini Bahari is a member of MY Bee Savior. She was a landscape architect at USIM for six years and is currently a senior lecturer at UiTM, Perak.

Bees today

MY Bee Savior Association is an NGO that was established in 2015 to create public awareness of the importance of bee sustainability. It also aims to strengthen the efforts to increase bee populations and to empower corporate commercialisation in the field of bee keeping. Bees are highly important for crop pollination. These bees include Apis mellifera (western honey bee), native to Europe, and Apis cerana (eastern honey bees) which can be found in our country. They are highly managed in hives for crop pollination.

Populations of these agricultural pollinators are declining worldwide. This phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, occurs when the majority of worker bees disappear. It first came to the world’s attention with reports of western honey bees disappearance in North America in 2006.  But most beekeepers in European countries (especially in Northern Ireland) experienced a similar phenomenon in 1998, where there was a reported decline of 50% in bee population.

Now, this phenomenon has become global and affects some Asian and African countries as well. This shows the great need to protect, conserve and preserve our bee populations. We have to start worrying now before it is too late. 

The possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder include climate change, non-native species presence, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Discontinuous supply of flora resources, disease and habitat fragmentation all play a role in the decline of bee populations.

Bees need us. How can we help them?

From the perspective of a landscape architect, one of the ways which can help restore bee populations and preserve their habitat is establishing bee gardens. Cities hold the key to saving bees because cities encompass urban green spaces (UGS), for example, green roofs, public gardens, community gardens, allotments, domestic gardens, etc. The ability of these places to support biodiversity has been recently acknowledged. There is now a call to effectively integrate these UGS in biodiversity planning and management to ensure their full inclusion in biodiversity conservation.

The urban garden is one of the UGS that we are concentrating on now. It is preferred by bees because of the wide range of fruits, vegetables, flowers that can be found in the garden. Many studies find that urban gardens often attract up to ten times more bees than the places we might consider bee havens such as nature reserves, parks, cemeteries and other public green spaces. This is because bees are unable to thrive when there are only trees or turves. Thus, we should try to plant a variety of flowering plants that are richer in pollen and nectar.

Bees provide flowers the vital service of pollination, help us to produce healthy crops and maintain thriving ecosystems, which in turn ensure our health. In simple words, bees are important for the overall health of the environment.

Urban bees

Here are some of the bees that can be found in our cities:

  • honey bees (lebah madu)
  • stingless bees (lebah kelulut)
  • solitary bees (lebah tunggal)
  • bumblebees (lebah dengung)

(among the four types of bee, the bumblebee is perhaps the most glamorous because of the movie Transformers)

Establishing bee gardens in the city

Bees are unique insects. They play a major role in plant pollination due to their absolute dependence on flowers as their source of food. Therefore, bees that live in the cities seek out green spaces like parks and gardens. These green spaces in urban areas provide a proper habitat to the bees, thus helping in the conservation of bees.

When designing a bee garden, the flowers have to be in large patches because these would allow bees to dine at one spot for a long period of time. Otherwise bees would expend too much energy flying from one location to another, leading to stress. In one spot, we ought to have more than two species of plants. Researchers suggest a minimum of ten species of plants to be planted in one spot.

When there is limited space, a vertical bee garden can be one solution. We can use walls or trellis as media to hang the plants. We can also make cool ponds for bees to take water, adding features like pebbles in the water so the bees have something to land on and do not drown.  

Typology of green spaces for bee gardens

There are many types of green spaces in the city. When considered collectively as wider infrastructure, they can create extensive and powerful recreational, cultural or community spaces and improve environmental quality as well as provide diverse and species-rich habitats.

Urban squares attract urbanites to get together and socialise, why not extend this function to let bees to have fun as well? By planting a variety of trees and plants in the planter boxes, and establishing green roofs at the gazebos, we can make urban squares key sites for conserving bee populations. 

Bioswale or rain garden can be turned into ‘Beeswale’ gardens. While managing the stormwater, we can also take care of urban bees.

Vertical walls have an amazing and dramatic appeal. These walls are popping up in major cities all over the world. A large vertical wall can be covered by hundreds of plant species which are good for bees.

Bee pop-up gardens can be established anywhere in the city, even at the roadside or in parks. They beautify the environment while providing foraging habitat for bees in the city. One of the pop-up gardens in Sweden comprises hexagonal structures which act as planting vessels that contain plants and water. These gardens can be incorporated into edible gardens as well.

Other places include rooftops, residential gardens and small individual gardens.

The landscape structure of bee gardens

To sum up, the basic elements for creating bee habitats are softscape, hardscape and water features.

Softscape refers to a composition of native plants with varieties of bee-preferred species. These plants should have flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar. It is good if the plants flower all year round. The plants also have to be intensely fragrant and have vivid colours. Some choices include Cosmos caudatus (ulam raja), Portulaca grandiflora, Angelonia spp, Antigonon leptopus (coral vine or air mata pengantin), Jasminum sambac (jasmine), Nelumbo nucifera (lotus).

Hardscapes or hard structures such as planter beds, boxes or vertical walls support the plants. These structures are useful when you have limited garden space. We can also construct bee houses or bee hotels for solitary bees to rest, lay eggs and raise their young. Although these bees do not produce honey, they are excellent pollinators.

Water features provide fresh water for the bees.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Categories
Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Biodiversity Gardening by Tan Kai Ren

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Tan Kai Ren

Tan Kai Ren was the project officer of the Rimba Project in University of Malaya where he conducted a series of urban biodiversity conservation and education programmes. He also organised the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge in 2019, a citizen science project that focused on collecting biodiversity data in the urban area. A former YSEALI Academic Fellow for Natural Resource Management and Environmental Issues, he is now an environmental officer at Club Med Cherating.

Kai Ren discusses how we benefit from biodiversity and how we can introduce elements that promote urban biodiversity.

Importance of biodiversity

Biodiversity provides us with oxygen and food, a fact that many of us seldom appreciate as we do not see the link between nature & human. It helps increase productivity as diverse soil microbes are involved in nutrient cycles where they break down organic matter underground and keep plants healthy.

Biodiversity also contributes to our health. Many pharmaceutical products are made with raw materials that come from many different plants in the forest. It contributes to our economy as well: places with high biodiversity become recreational destinations and attractions for tourism.

Biodiversity contributes to pest control too as it regulates the number of pests by natural processes through prey and predator interaction.

The keys to high biodiversity in your garden

High number of plant species results in high diversity of features and micro-climates that promote different kinds of wildlife. For example, companion plants grown alongside desired garden plants distract insect pests. This helps targeted plants grow more successfully.

Selecting local plant species for your garden attracts local animals as they seek their preferred food.

There is an easy way to look at how local wildlife can improve our life quality. The plants and animals such as the mammals, insects and birds in our garden interact among one another, forming food webs that regulate the population number of each species, including pests.

Many people think that more plants will attract more mosquitoes. In fact, once a whole ecosystem is established, there will be fishes eating the mosquito larvae and dragonflies eating the mosquitoes. As a result, less mosquitoes are found in the place.

The roles of a garden as a habitat

As urbanisation takes place, land that was covered almost entirely by natural forest habitats is replaced by high-rise buildings, roads and houses that lead to habitat fragmentation. Some animals find it difficult to survive in such conditions, especially those that need large spaces, e.g. elephants, tigers and other large mammals. Animal populations end up being threatened, some may become locally extinct, even the so-called common or urban species.

To re-introduce wildlife into our city, we can start growing fruit trees and wildflowers in our garden, as these plants attract butterflies and birds. We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife. When we establish a balanced ecosystem in our garden, our garden serves as a place for animals to rest, nest and feed. Perhaps it is not for the relatively large animals, but the garden is still friendly to smaller and more mobile animals that contribute to the food chain.

We can view gardens as a shared space for ourselves and the wildlife.

We can try to make our gardens a bit wilder so as to attract wildlife such as the monitor lizard, bats and the Asian tree toad. Sometimes, when biodiversity comes to us, we push it away for reasons like guano from bats, for example. However, we can still try to find a solution to overcome these problems.

During the Klang Valley City Nature Challenge, over 2000 species of plants and animals were documented in Kuala Lumpur despite its urban setting. Urban gardens play a large role in supporting wildlife. Therefore, anyone can contribute to wildlife conservation, even in the city, by just growing a single plant in his or her garden.

Elements to encourage biodiversity

  1. Sunlight. The essential element that plants can’t live without but there should not be too much exposure.
  2. Shade. Shade is especially important for certain plants such as moss, ferns and orchids.
  3. Water. Both continuous supply and temporary puddles are important to wildlife. Water features will attract frogs that eat mosquitoes.
  4. Hideouts. The small lizards and frogs need these dark spaces, whether they are natural or artificial.
  5. Plants. Have more plants that attract pollinators such as bees, butterflies as well as birds. The selection of plants depends on our expectations and objectives. Arrange plants in multiple layers to create spaces for shade-loving species. It is important to know the growing requirements of the plants. Choose plants that flower and fruit all year round. These plants are best for wildlife.
  6. Decaying materials. Compost, logs, mulch that consists of dry leaves or wood chips increase biodiversity underground and keep plants healthy.
  7. Feeding station. Provide grains for birds.

Ideas for a wildlife garden

  1. Build an insect hotel by piling branches or rocks to create a moist and dark space for the insects.
  2. Mulch plants to attract beneficial insects and earthworms that help release nutrients back into the soil. This will also attract more birds e.g. the wild junglefowl.
  3. Create a small pond using plastic bottles or trays. Insert fish to inhibit breeding of mosquitoes. Small ponds help to increase biodiversity despite their size. It is also a good place for dragonflies to lay eggs.
  4. Start composting. We produce food waste every day. The fruit peels or roots of vegetables can be turned into compost that help gardens grow.
  5. Limit the use of insecticides as the toxins will cause long-lasting effects on non-target insects. Try alternative methods e.g. hand removal of the pest insects.
  6. Plant fruit trees as most of them are perennial. Besides, they bear edible fruits for humans and animals.

Knowing your limits

Knowing the right microclimate is especially important for plants such as orchids and leafy vegetables. Also, make sure there are enough spaces for the plants to grow. The intensity of sunlight is a decisive factor for plant growth. We also need to have the suitable soil type to produce healthy plants that support wildlife.

Most importantly, make sure you have enough time to manage your own garden. More is not always better as nature can be messy sometimes. It is always about balance. Avoid dominance in terms of plants as well as animals. 


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Categories
Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Butterfly Gardens by Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Dr Cyren Wong Zhi Hoong

Dr. Cyren is an ecological anthropologist and ethnozoologist who studies the relationship between human society and the natural environment. He is also a lepidopterist who specialises in the study of butterflies & moths. One of the chapters of his PhD research focuses on the butterfly naming and collection practices among Semai people living in Gopeng and Cameron Highland.

Why Butterflies?

Butterflies are a suitable flagship species for insect conservation because the adults share resources with a wide range of other beneficial insects such as flower flies and bees. As generalist feeders, many of the flowering plants for adult butterflies are also suitable to sustain populations of other pollinating insects.

Besides, both adult and larval stages of butterflies are very important food sources for a wide variety of animals including birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Also, many butterflies, especially the urban ones, are large, brightly coloured and easily recognisable. These characteristics make them prime candidates for simple observation. From an educational perspective, butterflies possess a strong cross-cultural appeal, across relatively broad demographics.

Another reason is butterflies are unable to cause physical harm through transmission of diseases, biting or stinging, which makes them excellent candidates for community science projects and amateur studies.

Plant Selection

To create a butterfly garden, the first thing you need to do is to make a distinction between larval-host plant and the adult-food plant. Larval-host plants are species of plants that are necessary for butterflies to complete their larval stages whereas the adult-food plants are flowers that butterflies prefer to feed on.

Food plants for adult butterflies

The great thing about butterfly gardening is that the different life stages of butterflies have different needs. You can partition your garden or create a segregated area in such a way that you have plots of more attractive flowers that butterflies can fly around, and put your larval-host plants somewhere hidden if you worry the site would be full of caterpillars or the leaves would be full of holes.

Fortunately, most butterflies are generalists. It is not that difficult to choose adult-food plants for the butterflies. Of course, there would be certain flowers that butterflies are more attracted to than others. These are flowers that meet the CEWL criteria.

  • C – cluster flowers
  • E – exposed nectaries
  • W – warmer colours
  • L – longer stamens

Cluster flowers

If you observe butterfly-attracting plants, one of their common characteristics is that they have flowers that bloom in a clustered pattern. These are plants where multiple flowers are grouped together on a single stalk. For example, flowers of Lantana, Ixora, Bauhinia, Saraca and Buddleia.

Exposed nectaries

Butterflies also prefer flowers with exposed nectaries. Flowers that have short nectar receptacles such as those of the family Asteraceae, i.e. daisy or daisy-like flowers, are usually excellent choices because most of them possess bright colours and short nectar receptacles. They are easy for butterflies to access.

Some people ask whether they can grow morning glory and butterfly pea to attract butterflies. The fact is butterflies do visit them but as a general rule, many tube-shaped flowers tend to be more frequently visited by bees compared to butterflies as their receptacle are too deep for many small or medium-sized butterflies. Therefore, they don’t prefer these flowers although they still visit them when there is a shortage of food sources.

Warm colours

In terms of colours, butterflies tend to be more attracted to colours on the warmer end of the spectrum as opposed to bees that tend to be attracted to colours on the cooler end of the spectrum. Butterflies tend to go for flowers that are in shades of pinks, reds, yellows, oranges, or even white. In fact, if you are in the forest and you want to see butterflies, you can lay down a piece of red cloth on the forest floor. You will find that many species of butterflies even the ones that usually just stay at the upper canopy level descend to investigate when they see the red colour.

Long stamens

If you are fortunate enough to notice larger butterflies in your area such as the swallowtail or birdwing butterflies, and you wish to attract more of these butterflies to your garden, you can also try to grow plants with longer stamens. The stamens and the anther are parts of the flower that stick out where the pollen is attached. Examples of flowers are Hibiscus, Clerodendrum, the pagoda flower, and Caesalpinia.

Larval-host plant

The other thing you need to know is how to select the larval-host plants. The adult-food plants and the larval-host plants are equally important if you want to sustain a stable population of butterflies.

It is definitely not enough to just grow flowers without a reliable food source (for their young) that they can breed on. The butterflies will not be able to sustain themselves in the long run and you will eventually see less and less butterflies as time goes by.

Try to observe and identify the butterflies that you see in your surrounding area and the plants that they visit, since butterflies are also found near plants that they reproduce on. You can do a bit of research on their interactions with the local flora. Look at the plants where butterflies stop and lay eggs. These plants are the first plants that you should be cultivating.

Unfortunately, many of these larval-host plants are what we consider weeds. You might not be able to buy the plants at a nursery. On the other hand, because many of them are weeds, upon discovering a larval host plant, you could just dig it up and bring it home.

Community-Assembly Approach

The thing to remember is that we are trying to build a sustainable habitat for a community of local butterflies and other pollinators. In nature, every species is a member of a community. It goes through a series of checks, balances and filters that ultimately decide whether the species is capable of adapting and integrating with other plants and animals that are already in that area. This process is what ecologists know as community-assembly theory.

In our urban gardens, every stage of this selection that would otherwise be driven by environment and inter-species interaction, is driven by us since we decide the plants to be grown and propagated in our gardens.

By controlling the species composition of plants to be grown, we also control what animals are capable of living and thriving in the spaces that we create. Therefore, when you are creating your butterfly garden, it is useful to think of it as living experiment and you get to decide what the final community structure would look like.

Dr Cyren’s advice is to always start small. Try to pay attention to not only how well your plants are growing in your garden but also whether the plants are attracting local butterflies or any other pollinators. If they are, you can add more of these plants in your garden. However, if the plants are not doing well or more importantly, if none of the local butterflies are interacting with them, then maybe it is time to get rid of the plants and try something else.

Challenges

The mindset that many people have today, especially if they are not wildlife enthusiasts or environmentalists, is that the human environment needs to be carefully designed, manicured and sterile. Even in these so-called green cities and communities, we tend to witness spaces with closely manicured lawns, and an abundance of non-native ornamental plants which are not really of any use to local wildlife.

You can see the beautiful green walls and trees. But, if you look closer, there is no sign of fauna interaction. Birds are not building nests in the trees. There is no insect munching at the leaves and no flower attracting butterflies and bees. There is very little space in our urban communities to set aside and allow nature to thrive, to run wild, which is precisely what the beneficial animals need.

The other important thing to consider is to try and just allow things to go a little wild. In fact, a lot of grasses and wild flowers that are very weedy or ‘semak’ to us play an important role and are irreplaceable. We cannot swap them out for ornamental ones as they have the vital position in the life cycle of countless species of native animals.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Categories
Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Urban Farming by Low Shao-Lyn

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 in urban farming.

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.

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.

… 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.

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.

Categories
ecosystem

Saving the Underground Farmers: Soil Ecosystems

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

Categories
Plants for Food

Ulam raja

Common name: Cosmos, wild cosmos

Local name: Ulam raja

Scientific name: Cosmos caudatus

Distribution: Pantropical

Conservation Status: Least concern, Cultivated, Naturalised species

Description

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 use

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.

Propagation: Seeds

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

Benefits to biodiversity

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/

Categories
Uncategorized

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