Food for the body, heart and soul is sometimes found in one’s own backyard. Take inspiration from these talented, green-fingered women on how and why a little plot of love can so easily offer both nature and nurture for the family.
Digital Content Specialist + Beneath The Beans Instagrammer
It was exactly a year ago that Samantha Choong and her husband decided to try their hand at growing a small, edible garden. “It was just after we moved into our new home,” she recounts. “We had an open area on one side of our porch and I thought: why not have an edible garden?” The reasons behind growing a garden are many but being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labours and harvest, not to mention knowing exactly where your food comes from and how it is grown, is a definite plus point. “We just wanted to have some fun but I believe a garden can be both ornamental and edible,” Choong adds. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to harvest fruits and vegetables at their peak, and throwing them straight on the grill or raw in a salad.”
There was, of course, a greater motivation to start an edible garden. As with many people, children are the ultimate cause, the best motivator and the idea of being able to provide the freshest produce for their young son made Choong set things up post-haste. “Gardening and simply being outdoors is so good for children,” she remarks. “We wanted Ryan to have a better connection with his food as well as being involved in the whole growing process, from sowing seeds, watching them sprout, watering, weeding and, of course, harvesting. Seeing your lunch hang on a vine can be very exciting when you’re little! Gardening is also a wonderful sensory activity for both adults and children — it awakens all the five senses, from the shapes and colours to even the sound of buzzing bees and rustling leaves.”
Setting up the edible patch was also a cinch for the family, whose plot measures 6m by 3m. “It’s more of a micro-garden, actually,” Choong laughs. “We simply purchased our grow ‘tongs’ from Eats, Shoots & Roots (a social enterprise that empowers urbanites with the tools and skills to grow their own food). They then helped us set it up and off we went! We began with almost 40 sq ft of growing space and have slowly increased it to 60 sq ft, growing things in raised beds and large pots.”
Currently, the household enjoys a bounty two to three times a week. “Everyone enjoys a homecooked meal, more so if it’s homegrown,” says Choong, who also believes in the power of sharing good things. So, those who have an Instagram account would do well to follow her and her gardening tales on the handle, Beneath The Beans. “I created the account in a hurry, to be honest,” she admits. “I came up with the name simply because long beans were among the first seeds we sowed in the garden. They proved so vigorous that they soon took over half the garden and upper fence, leaving everything else to grow ‘beneath the beans’. But credit for the idea has to go to the folks over at Eats, Shoots & Roots. They encouraged me to document my adventures on Instagram, even when I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up with the postings. But I’m really happy that I did for I’ve virtually met so many kind, inspiring and supportive people out there. Ultimately, growing our own food has made us more mindful, appreciative and flexible. Half the time, what we have for dinner is what’s ready to be harvested from the garden. And that’s a nice feeling.”
TOP 10 TIPS
Samantha Choong’s tips and encouragement for newbie gardeners
- First, know that no garden is too small!
- Start with easy, low-maintenance crops to build confidence. We began with long beans, roselle, white eggplants, malabar spinach, water spinach, sweet potato leaves and herbs like Thai basil and mint. Most of them grew quite well and helped build our confidence in growing our own food.
- Healthy, happy plants are stronger and attract less pests. It also helps to choose plants that are well suited to the climate. What you choose to grow depends on factors like growing space, the amount of sunlight your garden gets and, most importantly, what you enjoy eating.
- I personally love cut-and-come again crops, like amaranth, spinach, spring onions, bok choy, rocket greens and parsley. Eggplant and okra are also fairly easy to grow and with the right care, they will give you delicious, abundant harvests.
- I also read up on permaculture, companion planting and garden guilds (planting plants that support and grow in harmony) and slowly tweaked the garden from there.
- Building good, living soil is easy. With patience, you’ll be able to create soil that’s rich in organic matter which will, in turn, help you grow healthy, nutrient-dense food.
- You can compost almost everything, from vegetable scraps, egg shells, used coffee grounds and tea leaves ... even pet fur! If you think about it, it all makes sense: what comes from the ground should go back to the ground, to create and sustain new life.
- Here’s a helpful tip I found online: if you grow it for the fruit or the root, you need full sun. If you grow it for leaves, stems or sprouts, then partial shade is all you need. Even if you have minimal experience like us, you’ll learn as you go along. Try not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you read in books or online.
- Don’t forget the flowers that support the bees and other pollinators. These will, in turn, help you increase your garden’s yield.
- One of the main challenges for organic growers is pest management. Everything thrives in warm, humid environments. We try to minimise intervention by manually picking or simply hosing the pests off! We also plant companion plants like marigold, chives and garlic to repel them and grow a good variety of herbs and other plants to attract beneficial insects like ladybugs, bees, praying mantises and spiders. It was hard at first but now we’re used to letting nature take its course. Before you know it, you’ll notice tonnes of beneficial insects and micro-organisms helping you do all the work, from biological pest management to improving soil fertility and pollination.
SOPHIE CHONG, Architect, and WENDY KHAW, Landscape Architect
ZDR Sdn Bhd director Sophie Chong and Pentago principal director Wendy Khaw have known each other since 2005, having worked on projects together as architects. However, it was the planning of a herb garden in the midst of Kuala Lumpur’s concrete jungle cityscape that united them on a common mission. Chong, who resides in one of Bukit Ceylon’s one-tower condominium developments, starts off by explaining how the condo’s small playground had become derelict with broken equipment and filled with mosquitoes and overgrown plants. When the issue of upgrading the playground was raised at one of the condo’s management committee meetings, along came the suggestion to transform it into a herb garden.
“The consensus was that it was a good idea as the concept of urban farming is important. When you buy herbs, you buy too much and you end up throwing half of it away. With a herb garden, residents can have the convenience of coming to cut whatever they need, however much they need. I asked a friend, Wendy, to help as I’m not a landscape architect and she very kindly designed a garden for us,” Chong says.
Helping out pro bono, Khaw sketched a plan for the herb garden. She is no stranger to farming as her family owns a 55ha “hobby” farm that is an hour from Melbourne where they grow their own herbs for the restaurants they run there, in addition to heirloom pears and apples, vegetables and other produce.
The next step for Khaw was to propose a list of herbs to be approved by the management committee and for the condo community to decide which ones they wanted from the list that they would use. In the end, it was a combination of Asian herbs like daun kadok and pegaga, and Western herbs that are more experimental to grow due to the local wet weather.
Chong and Khaw concur that two months into the creation of the herb garden, most of the Western herbs are doing well, courtesy of the latter’s expert knowledge that went into the planning. Khaw says, “You don’t think rosemary and other herbs will do well, but with the right understanding, they will. Rosemary doesn’t like too much moisture and if it gets too wet, it becomes prone to fungus attacks. So it is imperative to understand what herbs require, whether it is aeration or a certain degree of sunlight.”
As the task of starting a herb garden is a labour-intensive endeavour involving the preparation of the ground, sourcing the herbs and planting them, landscape contractor Desa Hijau, a family-run company, was awarded the tender for the execution of the herb garden. Khaw explains, “With the design of the herb garden, people envision it as very boring with straight rows of plants. But we created it to give a nice pleasant view when seen from the top. It has become a nice garden rather than just herbs. Besides that, the way it has been designed ensures we have access to each herb, together with a layout that is aesthetically pleasant and organically shaped. When I design, I make sure the permanent and the temporary plants are well spread out so you don’t get bare patches right through. Because some temporary herbs like ulam raja, which grows and dies very fast, is not going to look very pretty when it’s being pruned, you need permanent plants like ginger flower (red button ginger) and all that next to it.”
The project has since created a positive effect apart from its primary role of giving residents a ready supply of fresh, organically grown herbs. “The landscape contractor was so inspired that he is now planting his own herb garden. Yesterday, I was so happy to see a nanny with a little toddler of about a year and a half just walking up and down the garden. The nanny told me they like this garden and come down all the time as the child gets bored in the apartment,” Chong says. “Because the condo sits on a very small piece of land, we don’t really have a garden except the back corner and the front areas. Residents can now come down to the garden not just for the herbs but also to sit there and relax.”
Further down the road, when the garden gets more established, Khaw says the condo residents can come down to do some gardening to renew, reseed and replant as not all the herbs are permanent ones. For now, the garden is still covered by the defects liability provided by the landscape contractor for the first six months. After this period, there are plans to start a residents’ community garden group to handle the garden, by which time the types of herbs may change according to the residents’ preferences. Khaw is also keen to introduce some Thai and Vietnamese herbs that are not available locally.
“Because we don’t see these herbs in our markets, we don’t use them but if we know they are good for our health and all that, we can actually bring them in. Just because you can’t find them in our markets doesn’t mean you can’t grow them,” she says. Chong chips in, “The layout of the garden might change later because if we find some herbs don’t do well, we can replace them with herbs that do better and with what people want.”
To disseminate information about the herb garden, a residents’ WhatsApp group chat has been set up to share information about the herbs, ranging from their uses and health benefits to how to harvest them. One of the best things about growing your own herbs is that the produce is totally organic sans any pesticides, says Chong. “You must eat the herbs once you harvest them, otherwise they will wilt. Can you imagine when I buy basil from the supermarket, it stays in my fridge for two weeks without any change, which shows how much pesticide or preservative there is in our food. Urban farming is a very important thing these days for us to think about.”
Moving on, there is talk of extending the urban farming activity to the flat rooftop of the condominium to grow vegetables, budget permitting. Depending on how things pan out, they could move the herbs up and grow vegetables in the current ground-level garden plot. “That’s why I’m so glad I know someone like Wendy. Because it is very important to know what can be planted and where it can planted, and where the sun is coming from, and where it’s dry and where it’s wet. I found out that for pegaga, there is a big plastic sheet under where it is planted because it likes to sit in water in a very damp place,” Chong explains.
Khaw says, “So when I do the design, I have to make sure we don’t put the herbs that like water with the ones that like to be dry because they are not going to grow well. In a big area like this, it is unlike home environments with one pot of herbs here and another pot there.” Chong acknowledges that the herb garden would never have materialised without the expert advice of a landscape architect, in this case, Khaw’s.
Another factor that enabled the herb garden to come to fruition is the spirit of cooperation, sacrifice and volunteering amongst the condo’s management committee — which represents 120 units — in working towards a common goal that benefits the community at large. In every group, there will always be the 10% detractors but according to Chong, the majority or 90% will go with the flow. “The management committee is proactive and we are talking about having a get-together or potluck where everybody brings a dish inspired by a herb from the garden.”
Finally, having a professional landscape contractor like Desa Hijau that was willing to go the extra mile — not only to source more than 30 herbs to be planted in the garden but also to care for them with the fertilising, weeding and watering — is key. For this particular case, it was an instant herb garden as Desa Hijau helped to source grown herb plants of a certain size as specified by Khaw to be replanted in the herb garden. For plants that cannot be found, like tomatoes, Khaw brought the seeds in from Australia. The seeds are now being germinated in a nursery by Desa Hijau before being transferred to the actual herb garden.
Khaw says she has proposed herb gardens to a lot of her residential clients. “There are different ways of doing herb gardens. Herb gardens do not have to look like farms and they can be very aesthetically pleasing to look at. There are so many benefits like the scent of the herbs which help ward off mosquitoes and other insects. Herbs can also be planted on balconies, whether in pots or wooden boxes. For a lot of the new apartments, from a design perspective, ornamental plants can be replaced with herbs to create an edible garden. Now daun kadok is commonly used as ground cover instead of grass as it is easy to grow.
Chong reiterates, “Urban farming is so important. You don’t need a lot of land or even if you’ve got a small patch, you can make it useful instead of not. I think people should really experiment with the possibility of growing their own food.” Khaw adds, “It’s also a health thing. When you add herbs to your food, they act to naturally flavour the food without the need for much bottled sauces and MSG.”
Sophie Chong and Wendy Khaw’s compendium of herbs for the community herb garden
- Piper Sarmentosum (Daun Kadok, Wild Pepper)
- Musa SP (Pisang, Banana)
- Pandanus Amaryllifolius (Pandan, Screwpine)
- Etlingera Elatior (Bunga Kantan, Torch Ginger)
- Cymbopogon Citratus (Serai, Lemongrass)
- Murraya Koenigii (Daun Kari, Curry Leaf)
- Citrus Hystrix (Daun Limau Purut, Kaffir Lime Leaf)
- Capsicum Annuum (Chili Padi, Bird’s Eye Chili)
- Alpinia Galanga (Lengkuas, Galangal)
- Centella Asiatica (Daun Pegaga, Asiatic Pennywort)
- Cosmos Caudatus (Ulam Raja)
- Polygonum (Daun Kesom, Laksa Leaf)
- Costus Woodsonii (Red Button Ginger)
- A. Barbadensis Mill (Daun Lidah Buaya, Aloe Vera)
- Ocimum Tenuiflorum (Daun, Selasih, Holy Basil)
- Ocimum Basilicum (Daun Selasih Manis, Sweet Basil)
- Ocimum Var. Thyrsiflora (Daun Selasih Thai, Thai Basil)
- Origanum Vulgare (Oregano)
- Coriandrum Sativum (Ketumbar, Coriander)
- Allium Fistulosum (Daun Bawang, Spring Onion)
- Salvia Officinalis (Sage)
- Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary)
- Stevia Rebaudiana (Stevia)
- Petroselinum Crispum (English Parsley)
- Anethum Graveolens (Dill)
- Mentha Piperita (Daun Pudina, Mint)
- Melissa Officinalis (Lemon Balm)
- Petroselinum Neapolitanum (Daun Sup, Flat Leaf Parsley)
- Thymus Vulgaris (Taim, Thyme)
- Psophocarpus Tetragonolobus (Kacang Botol, Wing Bean)
- Clitoria Ternatea (Bunga Telang, Blue Pea Flower)
- Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato Ceri, Cherry Tomatoes)
- Zingiber Officinale (Halia, Ginger)