While organically grown foods continue to be a trend for the health-conscious, we all know that buying organic isn’t very budget-friendly, and variety isn’t always easily accessible. For the eco-conscious, sustainability and locally sourced produce are important, as we attempt to reduce our carbon footprint with less importing of produce and buying only from eco-friendly brands. But news reports in October 2014 state that 62 farms in the Lim Chu Kang area will be affected by changes in land use — the land will be converted for military use. Having to start from scratch may be a deterrent and Singapore may lose its farming population, and thus its local produce.
Of course we can play a small part in ensuring sustainable practices and acquiring organic produce if we start growing our own: Hello, urban farming.
Bring It Home
Urban farming is not a new concept in Singapore, with the likes of Comcrop by The Living Project and newer company, Greens, having set up rooftop urban farms where anyone can buy or learn how to grow your own produce. Even cocktail bar, Anti:dote, had its own rooftop herb garden at Fairmont hotel, so its bar crew has easy access to fresh ingredients for their drinks. And that’s precisely why an urban farm makes sense. As someone who loves to cook, but doesn’t always get the opportunity to cook often, buying up packets of basil or mint can be an exercise in wastage as only half packets are used and sometimes forgotten in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. Having live herbs sitting on a windowsill or in the balcony means you never have to acquire more than you’ll use.
Of course, maintaining an urban farm is another story altogether. There’ve been too many times when I’ve attempted to keep alive the bountiful mint and basil plants I purchased at the nursery only to have them die on me within the month.
But here’s the thing: Nurseries are said to pump their plants with enough chemicals to prepare them to bloom so they look attractive when you’re browsing for a new plant — chemicals that you are unlikely to use in your garden. Therefore, they are prone to dying off quickly. So don’t be discouraged. The best thing to do, as the women from Greens, Chuah Khai Lin and Evelyn Toh, suggest, is to the grow everything from its seed.
Start Small... Literally
It starts with how you choose your seeds — non-GMO seeds. Maintaining an urban farm includes ensuring your plants flower and seed in order to continue growing. (GMO seeds do not flower). But not all plants should be allowed to flower. The downside of herbs like basil flowering is that the leaves that you will use for your dishes will lose its sweetness, as nutrients are transferred to its flowers instead. To encourage the growth of herbs, you must harvest them regularly — Chuah tells us that plants grow in response to demand, and plants that are not harvested will die off.
Common herbs that do well in the home are basil and mint. Rosemary is more for the intermediate urban farmer and oregano is challenging to grow but not impossible. As you become more confident with your farm, try chillis and peppers, even tomatoes, eggplants and snow peas. Take things one step further with kangkong and bayam — both survive well in the urban farm but require more space for the yield you require. Once you get going, you’ll discover other little nuggets of useful information, like how tomato and basil are good buddy plants, as the scent of basil deters pests from the tomato plant.
If all this sounds like too much of a hassle, another way to get nutrient-rich, grown-at-home veggies is with microgreens. Those are the little baby sprout-like plants you would’ve seen decorating the plates of fine-dining chefs everywhere, but don’t be fooled by their size — those microgreens have as much as 40 times the nutrients of a fully grown version of that same plant.
If you’re not sure how to start your urban farm, attend a workshop or get in touch with the experts, like Greens, at www.greens.sg