Farming on their HDB flats' doorsteps
A new breed of urban farmers are turning their flats and corridors into little farms, producing enough to feed themselves and their neighbours
You can find kai lan, xiao bai cai (little cabbage), kangkung and even tomatoes growing in these planter boxes which line a 10m long corridor outside this HDB flat in Tampines.
Mr Derrick Ng, 33, a hawker, can get about 5kg of vegetables each time he harvests.
That is enough for him to feed his family, share with neighbours and even use the vegetables in the fish soup he sells at his stall, also in Tampines.
He has recently planted sweet potato leaves.
With that, Mr Ng hopes to create a permanently verdant corridor.
"That's the magic of sweet potato leaves. The more I harvest, the more the leaves will grow. The whole corridor will be forever green," he says.
Farming at home happened by chance for Mr Ng, who grew up in the concrete jungle.
He began experimenting with growing vegetables at home in 2010 because he wanted to "provide good food for my family".
He explains: "My son, then three, kept falling sick and was always on cough syrup and antibiotics."
When he heard about food therapy - the practice of eating natural foods to boost immunity - he turned to buying organic food and vegetables for his son.
But it was not sustainable financially as the price of organic food was constantly rising, he says.
The same year, he quit as a regular in the army and started researching on farming.
At the same time, he took over his father's fish soup stall.
He first tried planting vegetables in his kitchen, complete with indoor lighting at different frequencies and plants imported from overseas.
"But it was very costly and not sustainable. The need for artificial sunlight means using energy, which created a bigger carbon footprint," he says.
He then experimented with shifting his farm outdoors, using recycled polystyrene boxes as his planters.
It worked. Mr Ng says: "And sunlight is free."
From four planter boxes, he expanded to eight, then 16 and now 30.
He can harvest 12 times a year. Vegetables usually take 30 days to grow.
He has had parents with young children visit his urban farm, even though they were not residents there.
"Greenery is therapeutic - it creates a less stressful environment for the neighbours," he says.
His neighbour, Mr Quah Sin Chuan, 37, finds it interesting that Mr Ng grows his vegetables organically.
He even offered the corridor space outside his flat for Mr Ng to expand his farm.
Mr Quah says: "I'm okay, as long as it doesn't block the way. I don't know how to farm and if there's greenery, it is quite nice.
"He always offers us organic vegetables."
Mr Ng hopes to extend his farm to cover the entire stretch of corridor outside two other neighbours' units.
And he is happy to share his labour of love with his neighbours and promote the kampung spirit.
He tells them to pick the vegetables whenever they need them for cooking: "If you want to throw a hotpot party, just go to the corridor and pick, as long as you don't destroy the plant.
"Show love to them because they are feeding you."
'I've found myself through farming'
Tucked away in a corner of the rooftop farm is a small bunch of green grapes.
At the foot of the vine is a planter box of flowering strawberry plants.
These temperate-climate fruits are growing surprisingly well in tropical Singapore.
Mr Calvin Soh, 47, is growing them on the roof of a block of private apartments in East Coast Road where he lives.
They are his prized possessions.
The stay-at-home dad to daughter, Ava, 8, and son, Dylan, 12, says with a tinge of pride: “They are hard to grow and they take some skill to master. I’m still learning.
“My kids love eating them and I love watching them pluck the fresh fruits.”
He says he has to watch the amount of sun and humidity the plants get.
“Too much and they don’t fruit properly. Plus, I’m growing them in a pot, not in the ground.”
He says he chooses a spot where the plants get only the morning sun.
Mr Soh, who left his job as vice-chairman and chief creative officer of ad agency Publicis Asia to spend time with his children, started his farming adventure about six years ago.
He says: “Living in the heart of the city makes us disconnected from the nature. When we are disconnected, we can eat half a drumstick and throw the other half away.
“But if you rear chicken, you will understand the effort that goes into rearing it. To respect the chicken, you will eat every part of the bird.”
He also does not want his kids to grow up taking things for granted.
Mr Soh says: “I want them to see where food comes from and be more conscious of the world that we live in.”
He started off planting ornamental plants, such as orange jasmine blossoms: “When it blooms, the smell is very nice. But you can’t eat it.”
He then moved on to planting edible plants, with some know-how passed down from his mother.
“Once you get into it, you realise how easy it is. Nature will take care of itself,” he says.
He plants about 40 types of edible plants, including fruits, vegetables and herbs. He grows pomelo, green peppers, tomatoes, bok choy, spinach, long beans and even less common plants like arugula or rocket leaves.
Besides the space on the rooftop, Mr Soh also makes use of his living room balcony and even the bedrooms.
He says: “My mother has a ku cai (garlic chives) farm in her room. My son has tomatoes, lady’s fingers, cactus, brinjal and ku cai growing in his room’s balcony.”
So far, Mr Soh has been able to fulfil about 30 per cent of his family’s food needs. Sometimes, he can even produce enough to cook a meal for 15 people.
“Every day, we can go upstairs and pluck something for a stir-fry,” he says.
He shows us his long bean plants, which, when mature, can produce eight to ten long beans a day.
“My kids like it. We chop them up and fry an omelette with it,” Mr Soh says.
He and Dylan harvest two different types of spinach and blanch them to make a simple dish, paired with a homemade sauce.
Mr Soh says he spends about an hour a day maintaining his garden, with his children helping out with specific chores like composting.
In the evening, the rooftop farm turns into a romantic place he escapes to with his wife.
“It can be quite therapeutic. After the kids are in bed, my wife and I go up to the rooftop farm and spend some time with each other. It is very nice,” he says.
He hopes to expand his farm to the point where he can sustain about 60 per cent of his family’s food needs.
Farming has made him more connected to life.
Says Mr Soh: “It has given me a deeper understanding of life. I have found myself through farming. It opens up your mind. It is not just a hobby. It is a philosophy of life.”
Love for gardens rooted in childhood
Take a walk along urban farmer Donald Tan’s HDB flat corridor in Punggol and you will find about 40 types of herbs planted neatly on the corridor ledge.
There are common herbs like mint, rosemary and thyme, as well as less common ones like blue pea flower, medicinal plants like wormwood, Okinawa spinach and Cuban oregano.
Rectangular plastic containers are cut to fit the ledge under the railing along the 20m stretch and are secured with cable ties to one another.
Mr Tan says: “They jut out but by not more than 30 per cent (of the container). Much of the weight is bound by the ledge, so there’s no danger of them tipping over.”
He is clearly passionate about his greens. He can rattle off the name of each herb, its uses, the story behind it and the best way to eat it.
Plucking a leaf from a random plant, he says: “This is stevia, or sweet leaf. It is a natural sweetener, 20 times sweeter than sugar cane.
“I take a bunch, boil it down to a concentrate and use it as an alternative to sugar. It’s good for diabetics and has zero calories.”
Mr Tan offers us the freshly plucked herbs to nibble on and indeed, the sweetness is intense.
His love for nature and farming stems from his childhood.
The kampung boy at heart recalls the days when he would wake up early to collect chicken eggs and present them to his mother.
After he got married, he moved to his flat, where he has been living for 11 years.
Mr Tan says: “I ‘took over’ the corridor fast. I focused on all the ornamental plants I could get my hands on. I spent about $1,000 on ornamental plants to see what would work.”
Two years ago, he switched to planting edible greenery such as herbs, medicinal plants, vegetables and even microgreens — tiny edible greens used in salads or as a garnish. Mr Tan says: “You can’t buy these off the shelves in the supermarket as their shelf life is very limited.”
Although tiny, microgreens pack the most nutrients, do not need sunlight to grow and can be harvested within two weeks, he explains.
His wife, Mrs Rachael Tan, 47, a programme executive, uses the greens from their corridor farm in her cooking. Mr Tan uses them in his daily salad lunch — a diet he has been on for six months which has helped him lose weight.
“I take a sampling from each plant and add them to the main salad. When the leaves come together, there is a lot to eat.”
He advocates eating a large variety of herbs in small amounts instead of a large amount of only a few herbs.
FRUITS OF LABOUR
Mr Tan’s daughters, aged 17 and 25, also get to enjoy the fruits of his labour.
He says: “The concept of farm-to-table is for health, enjoyment and taste.
“It is fun. You can observe that each plant has its own beautiful aspect. As a hobbyist, that’s what I look for.”
His passion seems to have rubbed off on his wife, who says she has a lot to learn.
Mrs Tan says: “He has always had a love for gardening and what we have now in our corridor comes closest to having our own garden.
“It’s amazing how he has managed to convert an otherwise lifeless corridor to a green one.
“He never ceases to amaze me with his creative (and inexpensive, but more importantly, safe) ideas in putting together all that you see.”
The initial set-up cost is about $6 per container, estimates Mr Tan.
He says: “Once you have set it up, it is pretty sustainable.”
The Tans neighbour, Mr Lawrence Chai, 32, an engineer, does not mind the corridor farm.
He says: “It is clean and it doesn’t give us any problem.”
5 tips on starting a mini farm
- Understand the "microclimate" of your corridor - how much sunlight, shade or exposure to the wind there is at a particular spot.
- Ensure corridor is clean and unblocked. Occupy only one side and leave ample space (at least 1.2m) for emergency needs such as when a stretcher needs to pass through.
- Sample and plant a few seeds first. Expand if the plant grows successfully.
- Start with something easy that you like to eat. For newbies, kangkung is a good vegetable. You can grow it from seeds or its stem.
- Take care of the soil. Aerate it well.
Information from urban farmers, Mr Donald Tan, Mr Derrick Ng and Mr Calvin Soh.