BIG CMIS stands for Biodiversity Indigenous Garden at the Center for Malaysian Indigenous Studies. The garden acts as a model to test the concept of creating microhabitats to promote biodiversity in urban spaces, and to serve as a communication and educational platform for local indigenous groups to engage with the campus community of University of Malaya (UM) and the general public.
(1) To enhance local biodiversity by creating microhabitats for urban wildlife
(2) To explore connections between indigenous culture and biodiversity
(3) To demonstrate sustainable and/or environmental-friendly practices e.g. composting, mulching, rain gardens, drainage system etc.
BACKGROUND OF BIG CMIS
The garden is a 30m x 40m compound. It used to be dominated by patches of senduduk (Melastoma malabathricum) plants. The front part of the garden is exposed to sunlight, while most of the remaining parts are shaded by roadside trees. The middle part of the garden is swampy and waterlogged especially when it rains.
The existing flowering vegetation attracted a number of pollinators to the garden. Insects e.g. ants, beetles, bees and butterflies are frequent visitors of the garden. If the weather is humid enough, we can see snails, frogs or toads come out for food. Soil-dwelling animals e.g. earthworms, centipedes and termites are usually less visible unless we purposely look for them. Some common birds such as Javan myna and Yellow-vented bulbul occasionally drop by to hunt for these animals as food.
A major challenge of this project is to balance between increasing biodiversity by enhancing the existing habitat while maintaining a space that is visually attractive and acceptable to the stakeholders. We did this by pushing for a Microhabitat concept of creating small habitats for wildlife within cultivated and culturally important plants.There are two main parts in BIG CMIS which are the Orang Asal-themed garden and the Reforestation Contemplative garden. The OA-themed garden portrays a typical urban garden layout with plenty of vegetables and herbs used by the indigenous communities. Visually, we intend the reforestation contemplative garden to have a wilder, forest-like design as compared to the OA-themed garden. This part of the garden highlights how issues of deforestation affects Orang Asal communities, and how reforestation and relooking our relationship with nature and wildness can help us to regenerate land.
From sowing seeds to pulling weeds, gardening is extremely beneficial to our health and wellbeing. As gardening is an everyday activity, this unique form of regular exercise helps keep us fit and healthy. Moreover, research shows that getting your hands dirty in the garden can increase your serotonin levels. To simply put it, soil contains a natural antidepressant that can make us happy. Undoubtedly, gardening can bring joy and fulfilment to your life.
Before you spring into action, you must first ensure your garden bed is healthy or in other words, fertile.
Soil is the foundation of your garden as it stores and provides essential nutrients, water and air to support plant growth.
Thus, planting in a garden with infertile soil would result in disappointment, putting your efforts in vain as soil of low quality is incapable of sustaining plant growth. An easy sign to look out for in identifying healthy soil is the presence of underground animal activity, specifically earthworms. The presence of these little creatures indicate a healthy soil system. Additionally, soil that is rich in organic matter tends to be dark brown or black in colour. However, if the soil that you are working with has little to no life in it and looks more like dirt, fret not! Here are some tips on how to make fertile soil.
Before making fertile soil, we must first understand what makes an ideal rooting environment. Roots are described as the lifeline of a plant, not only do they anchor the plant in place, resisting the forces of nature and other environmental stresses, they too play an important role in the uptake of nutrients. With that being said, soil requires a balanced combination of water, air and nutrients to become a rich growing environment. Soils of high quality would promote the growth of a strong root structure, keeping the plant above nice and sturdy.
First off, add 2 to 3 inches of compost to the top 6 inches of the soil. Compost, sometimes referred to as “black gold” by gardeners, is decomposed organic material containing basic nutrients needed by plants for growth. Some examples of compostable material include leaves, grass clippings, and even plant-based food scraps such as fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds and bread. The addition of compost also keeps the soil at a light and fluffy texture, helping it retains its moisture.
Maintaining the right consistency of soil is a critical part of your gardening success. Avoid compacting soil with heavy equipment as well as stepping directly in the growing beds. If your soil is compacted, it would be difficult for water and air to move freely through the pore spaces to the roots. On the other hand, if your soil is too loose, it cannot hold water, ultimately drying out your plants. By adding compost to your soil, not only does it adds organic matter, it too helps maintain the ideal soil consistency.
Final tip in making fertile soil is to mulch your garden. Mulching is the process of covering the open surface of the ground using mulch, for example – shredded bark, animal manure, stones, etc. Mulches can either be organic or inorganic. The mulch applied on the top layer of the soil helps retain moisture in soil by trapping surface water of the soil that would otherwise get evaporated quickly. Furthermore, weeds are also suppressed in the process as the mulch blocks and prevents sunlight from reaching them, minimising competition with the plant. If organic mulch such as decaying leaves or bark are used, your soil would be further enriched with nutrients and organic matter, boosting its fertility.
Starting your own garden may seem like an immense responsibility. However, once the flowers blossom and produce ready to harvest, it will be truly rewarding not only for you but for our planet.
Mind you, this guide is suitable for Malaysian cities where we have lesser population of venomous snakes as compared to other countries worldwide.
Snakes are tertiary consumers, which means they are predators that feed on smaller animals like insects, rodents, and birds. They would make a great gardener. About half of common snakes found in Malaysian cities, at least in Kuala Lumpur, are non-venomous snakes. Even the venomous Sumatran spitting cobra (Naja sumatrana) would warn you by expanding its hood out as a sign for you to back away. If they’re continued to be provoked by you E.g. Trying to jab them with a stick then they will strike. Cobras have manners too.
Unless provoked, snakes are totally not dangerous. They are harmless and are more afraid of us than we are of them. Non-venomous snakes will be more likely to slither away, unless it’s a giant reticulated python. They are a little slower.
So put your penyapu down from shoo-ing them away and let them save some of your energy in managing your yard. A great way to welcome snakes to your garden is to create a space for them to visit, feed, and/or even live with you.
Making your garden snake-friendly.
The target is to allow them to help tend your garden by feeding on animals like rodents, lizards, skinks, frogs, and small birds. Kinda like making your garden a cafe. Here are some of the things you can do for your legless gardeners:
1. Increase biodiversity in your garden
Increasing the diversity of plants, this will attract a variety of wildlife in your garden. By doing so it encourages a more balanced ecosystem ranging from plants as producers, to its primary consumers like grasshoppers, to secondary consumers like frogs and geckos, and finally to tertiary consumers like our dearest snakes and raptors. Besides that, this also provides a corridor for snakes to move around. Here is a generalized list of some common urban snakes and what it feeds on:
Common snakes in Kuala Lumpur
Favoured prey of snakes
Common wolf snake (Lycodon capucinus)
House geckos, lizards, skinks
Reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus)
Rats, birds, civet, primates
*Sumatran spitting cobra (Naja sumatrana)
Rodents, frogs, other snakes, lizards
Painted bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus)
Lizards and frogs
**Oriental vine snake (Ahaetulla prasina)
Lizards and frogs
**Paradise tree snake (Chrysopelea paradisi)
Lizards and bats
*Venomous **Mildly venomous
2. Provide a refuge area or microhabitat
The simplest way to describe a microhabitat is a habitat but smaller in spatial extent. Some species are active in daytime, while others are active at night. Habitats favoured by snakes are like dark crevices of trees, abandoned buildings, drains, and cooling environment like piles of logs, metals, and walls. Build up some rock piles, logs, metal sheets or plywoods. These are suitable places for snakes to get shelter as it is a dark and cool spot for them to rest.
3. Give snakes some signs
Give snakes some signs before starting any activities in your garden like mowing, pruning, or moving things around. As a reptile, snakes need to regulate their body temperature externally. During mid-day, they will be out to bask. They are also capable of detecting vibrations and ‘smell’ with their tongue. So make some noises like clapping your hands, stomping the ground, or use a stick to knock your raised beds, metal piles or wall. These acts will trigger snakes and they will slither away. This practice will allow you to have predators to control populations of frogs and other small animals and co-exist with snakes.
4. Step aside, pesticides!
Let’s face the fact that purchasing chemical pesticides to deter pests in your garden is a waste of time, money and energy. No matter how much chemicals are sprinkled around the garden, as long as it provides a good source of food for some animals they will always come back. Although targeted pesticides are not aimed for snakes E.g. slug baits, snakes feed on these animals. Hence, indirectly ingesting the pesticide.
Take this gardening opportunity to co-exist with the remaining nature striving in your backyard. Just remember, snakes barely even bother about a person unless they feel threatened. Here is a meme I made to conclude this guide:
Fun fact As snakes grow, they shed their skin. This process is known as ecdysis. One of the reasons why they do this is to get rid of parasites.
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Shang Ming & Syuhada Sapno
In this final article in our series on pollinators we look at pollinators with a backbone.
Birds that feed on nectar typically have long narrow beaks. Sometimes they supplement their diet with insects as well, often other pollinators.
Typically, sunbirds and spiderhunters make up most bird pollinators in Malaysia. These small, energetic birds can often be seen in gardens where there are the types of flowers that they can feed on.
Examples: Olive-backed sunbird, Brown-throated sunbird, Little spiderhunter, Scarlet-backed flowerpecker.
Flower structure: Birds are often attracted to large and yellow, orange or reddish flowers. Usually, these flowers open during the day, are odourless and tube-shaped with a large reservoir of dilute nectar at the bottom.
Plants that they pollinate: African Tulip, Crepe ginger, Hibiscus.
Flying at night, fruit bats are a constant presence in urban areas but barely noticed. Fruit bats have long, doglike faces, and they rely primarily on their sight to navigate in the dark, unlike insect-feeding bats that use echolocation.
Fruit bats primarily feed on fruit, but can also pollinate trees that are specialised in bat pollination. Often, these bats fly over long distances from their roosts to feed on flower and fruits, and they are incredibly efficient pollinators for important crops such as durians. The bats lick the dilute nectar of these flowers up with their long tongues, and the pollen gets caught on their fur as they do so.
Examples: Horsfield’s fruit bat, Malayan flying fox
Flower structure: Often, these flowers bloom at night, are large in size, have a lot of dilute nectar, and have large amounts of pollen.
We are often hit with pangs of guilt when we dispose leftovers or other perishables that have been left sitting at the back of the refrigerator forgotten, overlooked or uneaten.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Association (FAO), an estimated 1.6 billion tonnes of food (worth $750 billion annually!) is wasted globally each year. In Malaysia alone, up to 16,688 tonnes of food waste is generated on a daily basis, an amount sufficient to feed 2.2 million mouths three meals a day.
The amount of food wasted globally would help feed twice the number of malnourished people across the globe, ending world hunger.
However, wasting food not only comes with a financial and ethical cost, it too has impacts on the environment. Food wasted is equivalent to wasting all the energy and water invested into producing and processing, transporting, and packaging it, all the way until it reaches our plates. And if discarded food waste ends up in landfills to rot, a potent greenhouse gas 25 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide known as methane would be released. Undeniably, reducing food waste can reduce our carbon footprint, reversing global warming.
So what can we do about it?
A potential solution to minimise food waste ending up in landfills is composting. Composting is a method used to decompose organic solid wastes into simpler compounds with the help of microorganisms in the presence of air. The rotted organic material also known as compost, could be used to improve the quality of garden soil or even as a fertilizer for plants, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers.
To begin, you require three simple ingredients – greens, browns and water.
Greens refer to materials that are nitrogen-rich, crucial for microbial growth. Some examples include fruit and vegetable peelings, coffee grounds or filters, tea bags, and grass clippings.
Browns represent carbon-rich materials which provide aeration such as dry leaves, shredded paper or cardboard, egg boxes and egg shells.
Water keeps the compost pile moist, important for compost development.
When selecting your food scraps, avoid meat and dairy products which include fish bones, milk, yogurt, as well as oils and butter. These foods would cause bad odours to waft out of your compost, consequently attracting pests such as rodents and flies. Pet wastes (e.g. dog or cat faeces) and diseased plants should also be left out of the compost pile or bin to prevent the transfer of harmful pathogens back to plants or to humans. If you would like to compost these materials, you might want to look into the bokashi method.
Once you have collected and stored a good amount of kitchen and garden scraps, it is time to make the compost mix. Into your compost pile or bin, start layering your browns and greens.
As green materials are typically wet and brown materials tend to be dry, you should always start the bottom layer with dry browns followed by a layer of wet greens, then just repeat the layering process until you run out of food scraps.
Step 5: Repeat step 1-4. It is all about layering!The ratio should approximately be two or three portions of browns to one portion of greens (3:1).
Add a splash water to the browns to keep the compost mix nice and moist. Do not add too much water until the pile gets wet and soggy. If your compost is too wet, the sludgy mixture would not breakdown and will produce a foul odour. However, if it is too dry, microorganisms cannot decompose the materials effectively. Ideally, your compost needs to be moist for effective composting to occur.
Once you are done, just sit back, relax and let the magic happen. In our Malaysian climate, the decomposition process usually takes anywhere between 4-6 months, depending on the temperature within your compost pile. The higher the temperature, the quicker your ‘black gold’ is produced. It is advisable to turn or rotate your compost pile using a spade or stick, preferably once a week to ensure everything is well aerated.
So how do you know when your compost is ready?
Finished compost tends to be dark and rich in colour, smells earthy (sometimes with a hint sweet or sour smell), and fluffy to the touch with a good moisture content just like a sponge. That is when you know it is good to go. If your compost smells like a dumpster or just bad in general, it might be too wet and have yet to decompose. Fret not, add more browns to soak up excess water or readjust the portions of browns to greens.
Composting is pretty experimental, so keep trying and don’t give up!
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
These are pollinators that crawl around flowers. Sometimes they crawl into flowers as protection, sometimes they are looking to feed on pollen, sometimes they randomly pick up pollen while doing something else.
Sometimes crawling insects can pick up pollen as they move about in search of other food. Ladybugs are known to be minor pollinators, and other crawling insects can do so as well. However, they aren’t very good pollinators since they don’t move as far as bees or butterflies.
Examples: Ladybugs, true bugs, beetles
Flower Structure: Plants that can be accidentally pollinated usually produce a lot of sticky pollen.
Some beetles feed on pollen grains and the plants that are pollinated by beetles develop specialised relationships with the beetles that feed on their flowers. Often, these plants produce large amounts of sticky pollen in tight spaces that force beetles to crawl through to get to. These flowers also either have no petals or very tough petals that can withstand the biting damage of beetles.
A good example of beetle pollination is the oil palm, which is mostly pollinated by a small beetle, the Oil Palm Weevil (Eleidobius kamaroonicus) that has been introduced from Africa.
Aside from beetles, small animals like thrips also feed on flower pollen. These can be pests of crops as they feed on flowers and sometimes spread plant diseases.
Many primitive trees from the Magnolia family are pollinated by beetles.
Examples: Oil Palm Weevil, Sap beetles, Fungus beetles, Thrips,
Flower Structure: White, green or yellow flowers with tight pollen compartments or open bowl- shaped flowers. Usually have thick petals or sometimes none at all. Some aroids are known to attract beetles by heating up.
Plants that they pollinate: Aroids, Magnolias, some palms.
Flower brooders are insects that breed inside of flowers, using the flower as both a source of food and shelter. Some flower brooders breed in fallen flowers and survive on fungus that grows inside. Some live in living flowers and damage them from the inside. The movement of these animals from flower to flower spreads pollen.
Sap beetles and thrips can be found living inside flowers, feeding on pollen or the flower itself. These weak fliers can move between flowers to spread pollen.
Examples: Sap beetles, Rove Beetles, Thrips
Flower structure: Usually part of the flower forms a protective chamber that can only be accessed by crawling insects.
Plants that they pollinate: Bean flowers (but they cause damage as well)
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh
In this part of our series on pollinators, we look at the Lepidopterans, or in simple words butterflies and moths.
Flowers that butterflies and moths visit are usually also usable by other types of insects.
Butterflies are primarily day-flying and attracted to brightly coloured flowers. While they are quite well studied for insects, we don’t fully understand the ecology of many butterfly species. There are 1,051 species of butterflies recorded in Malaysia, so it is unlikely we will be able to understand all of them in a human lifetime.
There are a wide variety of butterfly species in Malaysia, ranging from tiny garden butterflies to very large Birdwings. Many larger species tend to prefer shady areas or forests, while a variety of small and medium sized butterflies are common in urban areas.
Golden birdwings are some of the largest butterflies in the world.
Examples: Lime butterflies, Birdwings, A variety of common garden species Species guide
Flower Structure: Flowers that grow in bunches with long nectar tubes are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are usually reds or yellows.
Plants that they pollinate: Ixora, Saraca
Moths are very important pollinators, but since they fly in the darkness they are rarely noticed or appreciated. Local moth species range from tiny micro moths (many of which don’t even have names) to the world’s largest moths like Atlas moths and Lunar moths. In Malaysia, moths are more diverse than butterflies, with an estimated number of species of more than 5000. This pattern is similar for the rest of the world.
Moths primarily navigate using moonlight and stars, while find food and mate using their excellent sense of smell (which is located on their often elaborate antennas). This is why they are endangered by human lighting and light pollution. Flowers that attract moths are often pleasant-smelling.
Hawk moths have very long tongues called proboscis. Plant pollen usually has to stick to this structure instead of the moth body, since hawk moths don’t land on flowers but hover above them. Some larger hawk moths are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds.
Tree falls can create gaps and disturbance in rain forests.
Written by Thary Gazi Goh Photos by Thary Gazi Goh & Langur Project Penang
The natural world is chaotic. Accidental events can happen that can affect a whole ecosystem, for example a fire started by lightning or a disease that kills off a species. In the worst cases, random events can cause the collapse of entire ecosystems.
The effects of random events on ecosystems become stronger the smaller the area is. This means that small isolated forest patches will take more damage from accidents than larger areas.
So why have our forests not been completely wiped out by random events? Two factors come into play: Movement between different ecosytems and heterogeneity.
Movement of biodiversity between separate patches helps to recover damaged ecosystems. When all the vegetation was removed from Krakatoa after a massive volcanic eruption, the surrounding islands contributed to the recovery of the ecosystem there.
Heterogeneity means more diversity of species. More heterogenous ecosystems are also more resilient. If a plant disease like fusarium wilt hits a monoculture banana plantation all the plants will be wiped out, if it hits a diverse rainforest there will be minimal damage.
This happens because there are more varied plants and they are far apart enough so disease doesn’t spread like a wildfire. In fact literal wildfires tend to spread less effectively in heterogenous forests because different plant species have different reactions to fire and some patches can act as natural fire breaks.
Canopy bridge provides a safer way for animals to cross a busy and dangerous road Photos credit to Langur Project Penang
In terms of understanding how to apply this to our cities, it is really important to not just preserve forest patches, but to allow for some form of connection. This can be through bee lanes (margins planted with flowers to allow for pollinator movement), viaducts (tunnels that allow the movement of ground animals) or canopy bridges (rope bridges that allow movement of arboreal animals).
This is not just a matter of building structures, barriers can be removed through collective action like closing roads on certain days of the month or turning off non-essential lights during a migration or mating season.
In Kuala Lumpur most of our forest patches are abandoned rubber plantations, we can increase their resilience by planting a greater variety of tree species and slowly transitioning away from a monoculture plantation to diverse secondary forests.