Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Native Trees by Adam Kamal

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Adam Kamal, TRCRC (Project Consultant)

Adam Kamal is a conservation biologist working with Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC). To him, conservation is an interdisciplinary science that require experts from different backgrounds.

History of wilderness in Peninsular Malaysia

The history of wilderness starts out with a very long period of stability, that lasted for around 150 million years, and is followed by a short period of time of tragic land-use. Looking at the Malaysian rainforest, it is a wonderfully diverse and complex ecosystem. 2,830 tree species are found in several different ecosystems in Malaysia. The main ecosystem is the lowland dipterocarp forest which once blanketed 69% of Peninsular Malaysia.

However, the extent of forest cover is not the same today. So, what happened to the wilderness?

Land use in recent history has been a series of chaotic and turbulent events. The original 69% of lowland dipterocarp forest has now shrunk to a mere 28% and only 6.8% of primary rainforest (undisturbed) still exists. Aside from protected forests in Royal Belum State Park, Taman Negara and Endau Rompin, the rest of the original forest cover is in some sort of flux as we extract resources from the forest. Conservation biology is about finding the balance in the use of those resources, which is an incredibly complex endeavour given the ecology of these forests.    

In response to emerging demands for sustainable forest management, the logging industry has started to adopt more holistic practices in logging. A lot of these practices originate from temperate countries. For example, selective timber management in which loggers remove certain patches of the forest, with the assumption that the cleared area will recover quickly by itself. However, the lowland dipterocarp forest is very different from the temperate forest because of its long period of stability and evolutionary history.  Over millions of years, tropical rainforests developed a very interesting disturbance regime by which the natural cycle of death and growth occurs.

The tropical rainforest regenerates by having a canopy-gap regime. There are trees which thrive for hundreds of years or even up to thousands of years; for example, the Borneo Ironwood (Eusideroxylon zwageri) and chengal (Neobalanocarpus) tree. While these emergent trees tower over the rest of the forest, there are lots of smaller trees in the understory, waiting for an opportunity to shoot up. When the emergent trees experience destructive events (for example, a lightning strike or termite attack) and fall, a gap will form and allow sunlight and water to penetrate. The understory trees will then compete and grow to become the new emergent trees. 

The understory trees that wait for opportunity to shoot up. Photo by Goh Shang Ming

But, when we chop away many trees at once, we kill off all understory trees that could have grown to fill the canopy gap. We also disturb the soil. When the patch of cleared area is very big or is far from a source of new seeds, the soil is left without cover. This will cause the land to dry up and after being exposed to the sun for too long, the soil will become poor, laterite soil. Also, when it rains, the rainwater will result in a severe leaching effect: all the resources and nutrients that were held within the soil will get washed away. It takes a long time to turn the bare, laterite soil into a secondary forest or belukar. The transition could take ten years or more, not to mention the time needed to form a primary forest.  

The regeneration of forests depends largely on underground seed banks. Almost all seeds are recalcitrant, that is, they do not tolerate drying and freezing, or are difficult to germinate. Few are able to germinate and get big, because the seeds are also easily attacked by fungus and fruit-eating animals or crushed by animals or human. When there are no seeds in the soil, other fast-growing plants will invade the forest. The False Bracket Fern (Dicranopteris linearis) is a notorious example. This plant can spread and dominate in a cleared forest, and modify the environment so that it can continue to thrive. As a result, the forest is kept from re-establishing, or becomes degraded as the trees are no longer able to grow successfully.

History of urban landscaping in Malaysia

Since we have lost so much of our forest, one of the ways of recovering them is bringing these forest species to our concrete jungle. This did not happen in the past since urban landscaping in Malaysia has historically focused on the aesthetic qualities of trees. This is reflected in the design of gardens, parks, streets, etc that we have today.

There are three main phases in the history of urban tree planting development that start all the way back in the era prior to independence.

Phase 1: The Colonial Era

The British chose some interesting trees to plant. They brought in the Angsana (Pterocarpus indicus), a gorgeous legume tree with a beautiful papery bark. However, this species was propagated and planted everywhere using stem cuttings from a few parent trees, resulting in little genetic diversity among the trees. As a result, the tree populations were vulnerable to attacks by pests such as Neolithocolletis pentadesma, the Angsana leaf miner, and pathogens like the fungus Fusarium oxysporum.  Fusarium oxysporum was behind the Fusarium Wilt epidemic which wiped out a lot of Angsana trees. Their popularity faded in the 1990s.

This would have been a great time to replace the Angsana with other rainforest trees. However, this did not happen. Many native trees were planted in the 1920s and 1930s, but not the rainforest species. Instead, a lot of the selected trees were coastal species. These trees are tough. They can tolerate salt, strong winds and unfavourable weather. Hence, they require little maintenance. Some of the most common species included Kelat jambu (Syzigium grande), Tulang daing (Callerya atropurpurea), and yellow flame (Peltophorum pterocarpum). These tree species are still popular and you can see them almost everywhere on the road today.

Later, landscapers started introducing other, non-native tree species as well. Some examples of the species are Cassia fistula, Swietenia macrophylla, and Khaya senegalensis. The last two species are known as mahogany trees, and are very common in Malaysia. These non-native trees were planted with the intention of quickening the revegetation process in harsh urban areas. However, they do cause some problems, especially Khaya senegalensis, because of their root systems. Since the tree roots are not well adapted to the thin tropical soils, they tend to fall easily.

The British also established public parks and botanical gardens in cities. Taiping Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur Lake Garden and Penang Botanical Garden are some of the historical gardens that were built during the colonial era. These green spaces served as recreation sites for the public. However, they were often landscaped to be primarily of aesthetic value.

Phase 2: Dawn of greening programs

A transition came about after Malaysia’s independence. The initial program ‘‘No Road Without Trees’’ was developed to bring greenery into cities via extensive tree planting and landscaping along the roadsides. Again, the trees were selected for their aesthetic values. Some examples include Angsana, mahogany, Samanea saman, Cinnamomum iners, Delonix regia, Mimusop elengi, Lagerstroemia specios. Some of these trees are non-native, while the native ones are either coastal or belukar (secondary vegetation) species.

The City Hall classified five areas of interest in the tree planting program:

  • roadside planting
  • planting in public parks and open spaces
  • planting along highways and expressway
  • planting within industrial areas & housing estates
  • planting or landscaping within major developments in the city center

Some tree selections, for example, the teak trees (Tectona grandis) along highways may not have been good choices as these trees do not grow well in such environments, and thus are not suitable for highway planting.

Phase 3: Towards a Garden Nation

This development program is a good start to bringing back forest species. There have been laws and guidelines made since 1995, such as the Tree Preservation Order from the Town and Country Planning Act, 1995, and the National Landscape Guidelines leading to this program. The program involved not only governmental agencies but also private sectors and the public. Tree-planting activities have been carried out nationwide.

Issues and Challenges

The emphasis on landscape aesthetic in plant selection results in neglect of native forest species. Also, Tree Preservation Act is poorly enforced. Some roadside trees are damaged by vehicles or construction equipment. The trees may not die immediately, but they slowly decline and eventually fall.

Improper pruning and care is another factor that causes tree mortality when citizens and tree planters lack adequate knowledge in tree maintenance.

Biology of Native Trees

To understand the trees in Malaysia, we have to learn about their growth habits and relationships with other organisms. The Tropical Rainforest Conservation and Research Centre (TRCRC) focuses on dipterocarp trees. These trees normally have a gigantic structure. They have unique branching and leaf patterns. They also have interesting relationships with members of the same species and with other species, especially fungus.

There is a type of fungus known as mycorrhizal fungus which develops a two-way relationship with the dipterocarp trees. As the trees shed leaves and provide shade, the soil underneath remains moist and cool. Such soil conditions promote proliferation of mycorrhizal fungi. The fungi reside on the root surface or within the root cells of dipterocarp trees. They absorb any available nutrients from the surrounding soil and send the nutrients to the trees. In return, the trees pay with sugars that they produce during photosynthesis.

When we want to bring native trees to our cities, we have to consider the relationships of these trees with other organisms in their original habitat. The existence of these mutualistic partners is crucial for the survival and development of the trees.

Dipterocarps also establish stratified relationships with other tree species in the forest. Each of them occupies a specific position in a forest. They are either:

  • emergent trees,
  • main canopy stratum, or
  • lower layer

The lower layer comprises shade-tolerant trees and saplings of the emergent trees and main stratum. The seeds that successfully germinate grow into small trees of around 1 to 2 metres. They will be at the lower layer until there is a canopy gap to fill up. When we go into secondary forests, we can sometimes see post-logging remnant trees. 20 years later, the initially 2 metre remnants grow into 30 m gigantic, mature emergent trees.

There are many species present at the lower layer of primary rainforest. Some of them belong to families like Annonaceae, Euphorbiaceae, Flacourtiaceae, Melastomataceae, and Rubiaceae. However, the dominant species are palms and bamboos. In belukar forest, where there is a general lack of shading from an upper story layer, these palm climbers receive plenty of sunlight and grow abundantly.

The height of the main canopy stratum is around 36 m. This layer forms a green blanket over the soil. The trees at the main stratum come from a variety of families, for example, Burseraceae, Guttiferae, Myristicaceae, Myrtaceae (particularly Syzygium), and Sapotaceae.

The emergent layer is up to 70 m tall and half of the trees at this layer are dipterocarps. Once a tree secures a suitable place to grow, it will keep its saplings around this particular spot as there are already beneficial underground microorganisms that can support tree growth. There are also trees from other families such as Dyera costulata from the Apocynaceae family, Koompassia malaccensis from the Leguminosae family, etc.

Since a forest consists of multiple layers and species, arranging plants in a similar way will make green spaces look more natural. This is a point to consider when planning the green spaces of a city.

As we walk in the city, we always see tree roots that are physically damaged. The roots spread out and cause cracks, punctures etc. This is because tropical soils are fairly poor in nutrients. The cycling and retention of nutrients take place on top of the soil. Therefore, the roots of tropical trees, for example, dipterocarps, do not normally grow beyond 2 metres deep. However, they extend their lateral roots up to 10 metres around the tree to search for nutrients. In bringing in these tropical trees into our urban environment, we need to consider their rooting strategy and figure out ways to prevent potential damage of infrastructure.

On the other hand, legume trees have root nodules that house nitrogen-fixing microorganisms. These microbes help to convert the atmospheric nitrogen into more usable form. Therefore, legume trees are good for mediating poor soil and increasing nutrient availability.

The two important microclimate requirements for nutrient cycling in tropical soils are the presence of duff (leaf litter) cover and shading provided by trees. The fallen leaves regulate soil temperature and humidity, thus promoting growth of fungi and bacteria, soil microbes. In turn, these soil microbes help to decompose dead organic matter in soil and recycle the nutrients. Also, the leaves prevent rainwater from washing away the nutrients and sending them straight to the river.

When we plant trees, we also need to think of creating habitats for both plants and animals. Natural layers and clumping of species are needed, as many rainforest trees tend to grow close to one another. As ecosystem engineers, they create conditions that are perfect for their growth. It makes no sense to have spacing among trees as it does not appear natural, nor does it allow trees to function as they do in natural environments. We need that entropy (randomness) to make a forest a forest.

Tree diversity is important in sustaining wildlife. We need to have a variety of trees that provide different functions. For example, trees for perching and hiding, fruit trees, nectar-producing trees, trees that provide nesting materials, etc.


  1. Strategic planting

In designing public parks or gardens, we can allocate some spaces for dense vegetation that mimics forest diversity and complexity. In between those, we can still have our picnic areas and neatly arranged ornamental trees, preferably the native species. We also need to support stakeholders such as the National Landscape Department, as they are driving for the use of native trees in landscaping efforts. This can be done by appreciating local species and recognising their importance as part of the natural history and identity of this nation. Other stakeholders, for example, Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM) are also developing helpful resources such as lists of indigenous species which would be suitable for growing in an urban environment.

  • Infrastructure solutions

We need to develop infrastructure solutions to fit the complexity of these forest species. The evolution of trees occurs in populations over generations. If we want to use the urban environment to conserve Malaysia’s native species, we need to be able to adapt to them; for example, the design of built surfaces that allow for root growth. This is where interdisciplinary support is needed to find the best way of coexisting with native forest species.

  • Training urban foresters/arborists

We have to invest in professional urban foresters, arborists and horticulturists. These professions are popular in other countries. Yet, they receive little attention in Malaysia. Without enough professionals, the trees often suffer from excessive pruning and end up dying.

  • Allow nature to exist

Stop raking everything. The wild grasses, thick layers of fallen leaves, large dead trees are integral for natural processes to occur. These dead organic materials contribute to the survival of trees and other wildlife.

Important stakeholders

  1. National Landscape Department (JLN)

JLN provides guidelines on landscape planning and design, planting form, crop selection and landscape reserves requirement. It drives the implementation of National Landscape Policy (Garis Panduan Landskap) which aimed to turn Malaysia into a “Beautiful Garden Nation” by 2020. It has a good focus on preservation and conservation of natural resources, including our native species. However, JLN does not have the main control on tree planting, as the trees actually belong to the states.

  •  State policy

Here, we focus on the Kuala Lumpur City Hall or “DBKL”. The city hall owns the trees. We definitely need its support in order to incorporate native species and green spaces when designing urban landscapes.  Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan is a good example of a plan that proposed an ecological design framework for Kuala Lumpur’s urban landscapes.

3. Private sector

Greening efforts require the commitment of the private sector as well. For example, Sime Darby Property has collaborated with TRCRC to operate the Elmina Rainforest Knowledge Centre (ERKC), which focuses on environmental education, research and development, eco-tourism and other green activities. Also, Sime Darby Property published the Malaysian Threatened and Rare Tree Identification and Landscape Guideline, which provides information for landscape architects, students and others to identify tree species, understand their growth form, aesthetic value and environmental needs.

4. Community/NGO

There are many organisations that contribute to conservation and urban greening. Some of the examples include TRCRC, Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) and Free Tree Society (FTS). Every organisation has its own way of promoting conservation. Some offer their experiences and expertise, while others engage with the public to create awareness.

5. Individual

We can start planting trees. Also, record observations and contribute your data to citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist. This will help to gather information of forest species and improve conservation effort. Individually, we may not be able to do much, but together we can create pressure to drive changes. As we bring in the native trees, we make our cities repositories of seeds and diversity.

Further reading:

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop

Soil Conservation and Indigenous Farming by Chan Zi Xiang

from Biodiversity Gardens Capacity Building Workshop with Chan Zi Xiang, Langit Collective (Co-founder and Chief Financial Officer)

Langit Collective is a social enterprise that primarily works with paddy farmer communities in Sabah and Sarawak. It was first started in 2015. However, the team really started to learn about agriculture in 2017. Aside from agriculture, they also learn the language and traditional knowledge of the local communities. 

The Lun Bawang farmer communities are based in Long Semadoh, Sarawak. It is a highland which is 800m above sea level. The average temperature there is around 16 to 28 degree Celsius. The temperature difference is big between day and night. 

The Lun Bawang communities are mostly subsistence farmers. They plant crops for their own consumption. Therefore, the way they farm is very different from the way of conventional farming. The communities started to plant wet paddy 70 years ago. Before this, they implemented the hill paddy system, which is also known as swiddening, slash and burn or shifting cultivation. There are still people practicing this method. However, wet paddy is the main crop. 

Heirloom crops

Basically, heirloom crops are ‘’what you see is what you get’’. It is not hybridised. Instead, it is open-pollinated. We can collect the seeds from the plant and propagate them. The properties of the next generation will be similar to its parent generation. In contrast, a hybridised seed may lose its desired properties in the next generation or generation after that.

The farmers in Long Semadoh do not buy seeds from the store. Instead, they plant more than 30 varieties of heirloom rice which have been passed down for more than 70 years. They acquired the varieties from the local regions and this goes back hundreds of years. The rice produced is black in colour, but it is not the black glutinous rice that we usually see. 

Job’s tears is also one of the heirloom crops in Long Semadoh. Job’s tears is native to Southeast Asia. It has two varieties. One is edible; the other is wild and not edible. Seeds of the non-edible variety can be used as beads to make bracelets. This plant is now purported to be the new Quinoa. Yet, most of us do not know that it is native to Malaysia. The Koreans and Japanese use this plant in their skincare products due to its whitening properties. 

The another heirloom crop is the foxtail millet. It is not native in Malaysia, but has been naturalised for a long time. The local foxtail millet is very fine and glutinous, which is different from the millet we usually eat. The millet that we commonly consume is imported from countries like China and India.   

It is a saddening fact that most of the Malaysians do not know the existence of these plants. Even among the Lun Bawang communities, there are less and less people planting these heirloom crops. As these crops are annuals, their germination rates drop drastically if they are not planted immediately. Because of this, the communities have lost some of the varieties as they no longer possess the seeds. In fact, these heirloom crops are the farmers’ asset. This is also where we can find new ways of fooding in this era. 

Aside from Job’s tears and foxtail millet, there is a more commonly-known heirloom crop: pineapple. The Sarawak pineapple is quite famous and has been naturalised since a very long time ago. None can remember where they got the pineapple from. According to Zi, the pineapple tastes extraordinarily good. Once you taste it, you will never go back again. The fruit is not available elsewhere as it is produced at a place four hours off-road from the nearest town, Lawas. 

The heirloom crops are very diverse. For example, there are more than 30 varieties of rice being cultivated by the Lun Bawang communities. Unfortunately, the Malaysians nowadays hardly recognise these varieties. We probably hear of foreign varieties e.g. Basmati rice and are able to name few local rice brands e.g. Cap Rambutan, but not the local varieties. Maybe some Kelantanese can remember the purplish rice that they use to cook nasi dagang, which is known as beras dagang. Even then, we do not see much being planted anymore. Most of the farmers in West Malaysia are using hybrid seeds that are sold commercially. 

One good thing about heirloom crops is their huge biodiversity.

The Lun Bawang farmers can tell you that among three types of black rice that they produce, which type is suitable for making kuih while which type is suitable for cooking porridge etc. The white rice that they produce has at least 7 to 8 varieties, and each has different flavours and culinary uses. This is just like a treasure trove and we have no idea that it still exists in Malaysia. 

As these heirloom seeds have to be planted every year, they are actually more resilient than the introduced crops or varieties. They acclimatise to local weather patterns and environmental changes. So, the crop plants that are being harvested are actually survivors. From an evolutionary point of view, they are the fittest ones. Zi is confident that when the other seeds do not do well, their heirloom seeds will not have any problem. 

As a social enterprise, Zi and his team see the heirloom crop as a specialty. These heirloom plants are so unique to them as well as to Malaysia. They believe that this is the opportunity to bridge the economy gap between urban & rural communities. 

Indigenous farming wisdom

The system that they incorporate is very concerted. There are a lot of features worth mentioning. One is the buffalo. The buffalo plays a very interesting role in Long Semadoh. It is not being used till the land. In fact, the buffalos are released into the fields to roam freely after the harvest. They will eat up the remaining paddy stalks in the field. At the same time, they fall in the mud and trample around. This is where the turning of the soil happens. Of course, they defecate. Their faeces go in and re-fertilise the whole field. 

The harvest is done by January or February every year. Then, the buffalos are released to the fields. They will be in the fields until July. These buffalos clean up the fields so that the soil will be just nice to start the planting. The farmers just need to remove some grasses that grow wildly during the resting period. The whole process is very labour-saving. Tilling is not needed. This is a surprising fact to us as we have always been taught that tilling is compulsory for farming. 

Without any input e.g. fertiliser or pesticide, the soil quality in the paddy field is good enough. It is naturally organic. Furthermore, the yields of traditional farming in Long Semadoh is actually quite comparable to the average yields of typical conventional farming, which consume a lot of chemical inputs. With much lesser input cost, the farmers in Long Semadoh gain good-quality rice to sustain themselves. They even feed their livestock when there is an excess of rice. 

Another interesting farming method is minimum intervention. The farmers in Long Semadoh do not uproot the pineapple plants after the first harvest. Instead, they leave the plants in soil and let them fruit again and again. Although the fruits subsequently shrink in size, the flavour actually improves. The farmers normally sell the firstly harvested fruits but keep the latter produce for their own consumption. 

The swiddening or slash-and-burn technique is often blamed for haze or greenhouse gas emission. However, it is unfair to accuse this traditional farming practice without understanding its actual process. Swiddening is part of the communities’ culture, and the way that it is being done is almost impossible to cause the kind of catastrophe. Farmers have been practicing swiddening for hundreds of years, while the haze issue only arises in recent decades. Also, the swiddeners may be used as scapegoats by many big-scale agriculture companies, especially the oil-palm companies. 

In the drier months, the farmers chop down big trees and clear the particular forest area. They dry the chopped materials before torching it. The whole process is done by a single person with a chainsaw. Each family will work on just a piece of land, so the swiddened area would not be large. As they torch the dry materials, they control the fire so that it does not spread to non-targeted area or land of other farmers. 

You may see the lush vegetation as a forest in Long Semadoh, but to the locals, it is their kebun. The forested land was probably opened by their older generation several decades ago. The same plot of land would not be re-visited for five, ten or even twenty years. Again, minimal intervention is involved as the swidden is left without adding any input. The farmers let the land regenerate itself before coming back to cultivate it. 

So, there is a natural system of applying the technique. And, as the land is cultivated by families, they do not consume much carbon. The farmers do not even use electricity, and they barely travel. Their carbon footprints are probably smaller than any of us. 

Aside from swiddening, they practice intercropping by collecting a cocktail of seeds. A single patch of land may be crowded by amaranth, mustard, corn, pumpkin, and many other crop plants. The farmers grow the plants altogether without beautiful raised beds. The crops mature and are harvested at different times.  There are some local varieties of plant. For example, the Brassica juncea variety which is known as Ensabi, Don Abi or Don Sadai. The local cucumber is similar in size to a huge lemon. It is very juicy and tastes like a bland melon. There are plants that rely on swiddening practice. These plants sprout only when the forest canopy is removed. One of the examples is the Don Likad plant. It has hairy leaves which are used as gloves or food wrappers. Another plant, Don Ipong, is used to cool the body.

Balanced ecosystem

In Lun Bawang, there are plenty of pollinators that help to flower the crop plants. These insects come from surrounding untouched forests. With the help of these beneficial insects, the communities get an abundance of fruits throughout the year. As they hardly export the fruits, the excess fruits just grow wildly in their gardens or farmland. 

“When you take care of the ecosystem, the ecosystem will take care of you.” This is how Zi describes the farmers’ mindset. After learning the language of local communities, Zi found that they have names for all insects, but do not have a word for pest. The concept of pest is not valid when you have a balanced ecosystem, as the insects do not cause serious problems as what they do in conventional or monocropping farming. 

This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

Watch a recorded version of this online workshop here:

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.