Biodiversity Gardening

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.

Butterfly Gardens

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

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

Why Butterflies?

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

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

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

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

Plant Selection

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

Food plants for adult butterflies

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

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

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

Cluster flowers

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

Exposed nectaries

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

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

Warm colours

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

Long stamens

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

Larval-host plant

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

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

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

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

Community-Assembly Approach

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

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

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

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

Challenges

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

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

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


This article is supported by The Habitat Foundation Conservation Grant

You can watch the entire session here.

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 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.