Urban Farming

okra ladybird beetle pest

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

Low Shao-Lyn from Eats, Shoots and Roots has shared with us her personal journey on urban gardening. She was first exposed to a permaculture garden of Sabina Arokiam in Batu Arang. Then, she started to explore and grow things from a balcony in a very small space. She documented the process of growing plants and looked for more information on how to grow them. Shao-Lyn mentioned that a good way to learn is by starting and working with your own hands.

She soon paid visits to several sites in Europe to learn about farming. Along the journey, Shao-Lyn discovered that there is a big network of urban farms in London. However, 8 years ago in KL, people saw farming as something for backyards that they did not want to do in the city. Nonetheless, Shao-Lyn felt that it was important to reconnect with gardening. She then established the first edible garden in Bukit Gasing. She and her partner spent 6 years to establish the garden, starting at a small scale as that was what they could handle at the time.

Farming in urban areas

Shao-Lyn and her team started to teach and produce kits and educational materials for people who may not able to find the right materials or don’t know how to start growing plants. They now design compost bins that are more suitable for urban settings. They also sell microgreens in small containers. They have also created planter boxes to manage gardening spaces.

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

Shao-Lyn suggests that it is good to install large garden beds to share resources among plants. Besides, if you have large space, grow different things in different areas to manage them better. She also mentions that it is important to have a diversity of plants so that pest insects get distracted. Shao-Lyn stressed that manpower is the most important element in urban farming. Therefore, it is good to get a community together that would commit to a space to work on the land properly.

Realities of urban farming

  1. We have to understand the life cycle of plants as plants will eventually die. Therefore, manage your own expectations.
  2. Choose plants that are suitable for the tropical climate.
  3. Pests love the plants that you love too. We have to learn how to manage them.
  4. Maintenance is essential. We have to prune leaves to keep the plants upright.
  5. A good farm can only exist with a good farmer. The farm is actually a reflection of you. Hence, make sure you have enough time to take care of your farm.  

Tips on how to start growing plants

1. Seeds

Understanding the typical life cycle of an annual plant: The plant starts to grow from a seed and it soon develops into a seedling. It then matures, flowers and dies. Then, we harvest the seeds and grow the plants again. However, we can also choose perennials that can grow for a longer time period such as pandan, lemongrass, daun kadok.

Choose plants that are suitable for our climate. Choose the local variety. For example, choose Thai Basil instead of Italian Basil as Thai Basil grows better in a tropical climate.

Choose fresh seeds. All seeds have an expiry date and they just can’t last forever. Therefore, check the expiry date of seeds before you sow them.

Heirloom vs Hybrid vs GMOsHeirloom seeds are seeds that may not be a commercial crop. They are non-famous ( may not taste good) but with interesting properties. So, it is okay to use them but they may not be for the same purpose as the common varieites. Hybrid seeds can be found in nurseries easily and are okay to use if you know what to expect. Hybrids are good for consistency. Nonetheless, the second generation may not have the same quality as the first generation. GMOs are mostly commercial crops e.g. corn and cotton. Therefore, do not worry if you just grow your sawi or pak choi at a small scale.

2. Preparing Your Vegetation Bed

Make sure the plants receive sufficient sunlight so that they can grow food. Full sunlight is the best.

3. Preparing the Right Soil

Mix simple topsoil with compost and cow manure. Topsoil provides the basic structure to hold the roots while compost and cow manure provide nutrients and ingredients to make the food. Good soil mix has a moist and nice texture. Sometimes we need to modify soil to make sure it has a good structure to hold nutrients and moisture.

4. Planting

You can sow the seeds directly into the ground (for large or ‘cheap’ seeds).

For more expensive seeds, you can grow them in trays so that they get the best chance of growing and would not be eaten by birds.

5. Care

Watering – You can use watering cans in a small area. However, it is good to install an irrigation system if you are farming on a large scale. Use drip irrigation instead of sprinkler irrigation to ensure the water permeates the soil.

Shade House – Create a shade house instead of a greenhouse as the shade house would keep the bugs out while still allowing ventilation.

Fertiliser Natural fertilisers release nutrients slowly while synthetic fertilisers release nutrients quickly and are specific. However, synthetic fertilisers may cause pollution and kill aquatic animals. A third option is microbes which unlock the nutrients for plants to absorb, and help plants to grow better

Pest management – Manually removing the pest is the best way of controlling it. If it doesn’t work, then only look at using natural repellent e.g. chili or garlic spray, so as not to repel beneficial bugs too. You can grow flowers or plants that attract predatory bugs e.g. ladybirds, praying mantis or spider that help to control pests. The last resort is to destroy, burn and start afresh.

Butterfly Gardens: Key Concepts

Butterflies are nice to have in a garden, they help to make it feel alive with colour and movement. They also become food for birds and carry out important pollination of plants.

To have butterflies in a garden, you have to meet the requirements of butterflies. In no particular order, the requirements are: host plants (for caterpillars), flowering plants (for adults) and suitable amounts of shade.

Host plants

These are plants that caterpillars feed on before they become butterflies. Many butterflies have specific host plants, while some common species have a variety of plants that they can feed on. Sometimes the host plants of butterflies are plants that we eat or use for decoration.

coromandel and pollinator
Coromandels are host plants for many urban butterflies

If you are preparing a butterfly garden, please tolerate a few chewed up leaves. Natural predators like wasps and birds can help to keep caterpillar numbers manageable, so preparing habitat for them too can help to bring a balance to your garden.

Flowering plants

butterfly feeding on Bidens alba nectar
Allowing wildflowers to grow in your garden is a good way to ensure a consistent source of nectar for butterflies

Plants which regularly flower are very attractive to butterflies. These flowers are not necessarily big, but they usually occur in clusters that the butterflies can walk across.

Wildflower patches are a simple way to make habitat for adult butterflies to feed, although edible plants such as Ulam raja and some ornamental flowers such as Lantana, Ixora and Saraca are attractive to butterflies as well.

butterfly and a cluster of flowers
Clustered flowers are very attractive to butterflies

Shade

Butterflies are cold blooded creatures, so they control their body temperature by exposing themselves to sunlight. However, too much sunlight can be harmful to them. Many species of butterflies prefer shadier conditions where they can rest and cool off. Some forest butterflies never leave the shade of the forest, while open area butterflies can tolerate intense heat from the sun. 

Keeping these three things in mind will help make your garden a suitable habitat for butterflies. However, you can meet the requirements of some species of butterflies and still not get a desired species. This is because butterflies have to get to your garden, and usually, species that are more sensitive to urban environments may need pathways from forest patches that they can safely migrate through. So it is good to keep in mind that connectivity to forest patches is a good way to ensure that butterflies can establish themselves in home gardens.

If you want to experiment with these concepts, you can try planting a beginner butterfly garden that attracts very hardy urban butterflies.


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

See also

Wildflowers: Purple composites

wildflowers, goatweed, siam weed, cupid's shaving brush, tropical fleabane

Top (Left to right): Siam weed, Chromolaena odorata & Goat weed, Ageratum conyzoides

Bottom(Left to right): Cupid’s shaving brush, Emilia sonchifolia &
Tropical fleabane, Cyanthillium cinereum

Plants with small, fluffy purple or white flowers. It is found almost anywhere, favoured by beekeepers for the pollen and nectar it produces. It is grown to prevent Lalang growth but it can crowd out native plants. It is poisonous to vertebrates

Status: Least concern, invasive

Habit: Herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies, flies, wasps

Soil: Sandy, loam, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

Wildflowers: Monkey’s potato

wildflower, monkey potato, rimanji, plectranthus monostachyus

Monkey potato ~ Rimanji

Plectranthus monostachyus

An upright plant from the mint family. It has oval leaves that occur in pairs opposite each other, and at right angles to the following pairs. It produces small purple flowers at the top end of stems. The common name comes from nodules found on the roots of the mature plant.

Status: Least concern, Introduced (Tropical Africa)

Habit: Annual herbaceous

Cultivation: Planted by seeds or transplanting

Ecological Function: Attracts pollinators, ground cover, host plant for butterflies (Junonia orithya)

Pollinators:  Large bees, small bees, butterflies

Soil: Loam, clay, organic soils

Moisture: Well drained soils

Shade: Partial shade, no shade

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Centipedes and Millipedes

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Millipedes

Ecological function: decomposer

Level in food chain: decomposer

Feeding behaviour: detritivore

Microhabitat:  usually found in rotting material.

Centipedes

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Level in food chain: secondary consumer 

Feeding behaviour: carnivore

Microhabitat:  usually found in rotting material.

Urban Invertebrates: Snails and slugs

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These animals crawl on a single muscular foot. Most feed on plants, but sometimes they eat fungus and decomposing material. Snails help to break down decomposing material and become food for birds and other animals. Snails have shells, while slugs don’t.

Ecological function: herbivore, detritivore, decomposer

Level in food chain: primary consumer

Feeding behaviour: herbivore, fungivore, detritivore

Microhabitat: moist soil, under leaf litter

Urban Invertebrates: Flies, Midges and Mosquitoes

Flies

They usually have a round body and large eyes. They are important pollinators, decomposers and food items for insectivores.

Ecological function: pollinator, decomposer, scavenger

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: coprophagous, necrophagous

Microhabitat: near rotting material

Midges

They can be mistaken for mosquitoes, but they do not suck blood. Their hind legs are not larger than the front legs. Midges do not have a long needle like mouth-part. They are important pollinators.

Ecological function: pollinators, decomposer, 

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour: carnivore, detritivore, nectivore, coprophagous

Microhabitat: damp areas with a lot of shade

Mosquitoes

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Ecological function: parasite, pollinator

Level in food chain: secondary consumer

Feeding behaviour:  nectivore, blood feeder

Microhabitat: damp areas with a lot of shade