LAST_UPDATEMon, 21 May 2018 11pm

Living In The City, Have You Ever Dreamed Of Growing Your Own Food? Here's How

Wouldn’t it be simply blissful to step out to your garden, pick your own fruits, vegetables and herbs just before you begin cooking?

Perhaps you can recall your grandmother doing the same back in the ‘kampung’ or a neighbour popping over to ask your mother for some chillies as she is fresh out.

Those memories use to remain in the distant past but thanks to the growing interest in urban farming amongst city folk as the world moves towards a more sustainable way of life, more Malaysians are now eager to try their hand at growing their own food even though they grew up and live in the city.

In a random survey conducted on 50 Malaysians hailing from Klang Valley, Malaysian Digest found that surprisingly, many expressed an interest in growing their own vegetable and herbs.

Prepared by Malaysian DigestPrepared by Malaysian Digest

And while some have voiced their reservations that they are not sure how to start, we decided to speak with a few urban farmers to gain insight as to how they got started growing their own produce.

Urban Farmers Share The Joys Of Eating What You Grow With Your Own Hands

For Maria Elizabeth Lee, the 27-year-old noted that she began planting her own vegetables and herbs after she picked up the habit during her decade-year residency in the United States of America (USA).

“In my backyard garden I’m growing tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms, while in the kitchen I’m growing chives, parsley, basil, cilantro, basil, thyme and lemongrass,” the Digital Marketing Manager listed.

“For me it wasn’t so much about cutting costs. It was more about having control over what I consume because I’m confident that the vegetables and herbs that I grow are fresh and toxin free.”

While the Petaling Jaya-native underlined that being an urban gardener does not save money as much as one would hope, she did relay that it saves her from wasting excess ingredients.

“Honestly, planting your own vegetables and herbs will cost you more as you need to buy necessities such as flowerpots and fertilisers,” she pointed out, and emphasised that patience is required.

“But after all that time and money, I find it satisfactory as I’m able to consume the ingredients as much as I need to and needn’t worry about the excess growing rotten.”

36-year-old Geraldine Allagu on the other hand communicated that her routine of cooking four times a week encouraged her to plant her own vegetables – subsequently enabling her to cut up to RM50 from her bi-weekly (grocery) expenses.

“Before I decided to grow my own chillies, tomatoes, potatoes, mushroom and a few herbs, I would roughly spend close to (or sometimes more than) RM50 on vegetables alone,” she recalled.

“But I didn’t go down that route because I wanted to cut cost; it was because I didn’t enjoy going to the grocers too often, and the cost cutting came as a surprise for me.”

Sharing that she was initially unsuccessful in being an urban gardener, the mother of three conveyed that her tenacity led her to read books on gardening, joined various groups on Facebook and watched video tutorials on YouTube.

And as soon as she realised that her plants are growing well, she professed that she was enveloped with a sense of accomplishment and blessed her with a new hobby.

“I started growing my own vegetables three years ago, and you can say that since then I’ve been somewhat addicted to it thanks to my success.

“It’s something like raising my children – it’s so satisfying to know that I can create life outside and inside my womb,” she laughed.

While gardening is a newly found hobby for Geraldine, Nafisah Ahmad relayed that gardening is more of a way of life rather than a hobby, especially for those who grew up outside the city.

“Urban gardening is not a new trend as those who reside and grew up outside the city have always grown their own vegetables and fruits,” she opined.

“Because I grew up seeing my parents planting their own vegetables and plants, I picked up the habit and followed their footsteps when I moved to Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s.”

But the 56-year-old’s garden in Kuala Lumpur is not only blessed with an assortment of vegetables and herbs; the mother of four also shared that her family land in Negeri Sembilan is being used as a farm – growing chillies, and is in the midst of planting more vegetables and fruits.

“We didn’t know what to do with the empty land. So, we all decided to turn it into a family farm,” she said, and confessed that it can be costly.

“Going down this route has not helped my family and I cut our costs in an immense way. But it did allow us to bond over gardening and farming, and gradually instilled a sense of responsibility amongst us, especially my children.”

Growing Your Own Food Can Bring Neighbours Closer Together

With Nafisah conveying that gardening and farming has helped her family bond, Malaysian Digest spoke with Thalia Amirah Maliki, who stated that together with fellow residents in her housing area, they are planning to start their own community garden.

“One of the RA representatives proposed we convert an empty land space into a community garden, citing that it will be beneficial for us all as it will foster a sense of altruism amongst the residents,” she stated.

“Initially we were all sceptical as gardening or farming is not an easy feat. But after much thought, and with many expressing their agreement, we decided to go for it.”

After the RA obtained more than 70% signatures from the residents, the committee proceeded to speak with a local council representative, to seek permission to move forward with their plan.

And with the local council’s blessing, the committee then spent months of tedious planning – from the layout of the garden, to what vegetables, herbs and fruits to plant as well as attending courses to strengthen their knowledge on sustainable urban farming.

“We’re still in the planning phase and we’re hoping to start execution by April,” the mother of five hoped.

“So far my fellow residents are excited and cooperative about the initiative – let’s hope it continues that way until we established the community farm.”

But perhaps the on-going initiative in a gated residential area in Bukit Jalil will grace Tahlia and the RA a sense of assurance, as Melanie Yong emphasised that the community farm at her residential area is responsible in uniting the community.

“What began as an effort to clean up the cluttered mess to prevent dengue evolved into a community garden,” the 42-year-old reminisced.

“I think one of my elder neighbours started planting papaya and banana shoots just for fun. Then gradually, the RA decided to turn it into a community garden.”

With a garden that is blessed with various fruits, vegetables and herbs, the Financial Accountant graciously relayed that the garden took immense time, effort, patience and dedication as it was an effort that often tested your commitment.

“Starting this effort, let alone going through it wasn’t an easy task – especially when some of us want to see immediate result,” she sighed.

“But the moment you see your plant beginning to shoot, or to grow, you feel satisfied and happy because you begin to realise that all that hard work and money was worth it.”

And as soon as the garden continue to bloom and grow, Melanie observed that her residential community slowly grew closer as they all had a hand in the success of the community garden.

“We plant the fruits, vegetables and herbs; we water and fertilise it; and when it’s ready, we can easily go to the garden and harvest it,” she shared.

“But beyond saving money and time from visiting the grocer, it also permitted us parents to teach our children on how to grow life with your bare hands as well as teaching them the essence of responsibility whilst being outdoors.”

On that note, Melanie vehemently stressed that every residential community ought to start their own community garden, to promote altruism and strengthen community harmony amongst neighbours.

What You Should Know Before Starting Your Own Edible Garden In The City

Pic: PopTani AsiaPic: PopTani AsiaIn recent years, the trend of urban farmers has caught on in Western countries and as highlighted earlier, there is growing interest among urbanites in Malaysia too.

With the advent of hydroponics and farming start-ups geared towards urban gardens and even balcony ‘farms’ for the growing legions who live in high-rises, the dream of urban farming is becoming more accessible to those whose lives revolve around a concrete cosmopolitan jungle.

Malaysian Digest caught up with Mohamed Ashaari Rahmat of PopTani Asia, which is a social enterprise that aims to put a farm in every house by simplifying farming for urbanites.

“When one of the co-founders dabble his hands in aquaponics, he realised that Malaysians don’t oppose the idea of growing their own plants, fishes and so forth,” Mohamed Ashaari revealed.

“But by and large, it’ll (the aquaponic system) will look like a mess, and one of the challenges we noticed was that Malaysians want something that is integrated into their homes as more of a lifestyle product.”

In fact, the General Manager of PopTani Asia opined that Malaysians have been growing their own fruits, vegetables and herbs long before urban farming came into the picture, especially for those who grew up and resided in rural areas.

“I’m pretty sure some of us have grandparents or even parents who grew their own papaya, curry leaves, pandan and many more,” he relayed, and added that now there is a growing awareness on Malaysians wanting to eat healthily.

“Because of this, we can also see more and more community urban gardens slowly popping up, such as in Shah Alam and even in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.”

Pic: PopTani AsiaPic: PopTani AsiaWhen asked about the benefits that urban farming may bring, Mohamed Ashaari stated that to a certain extent it will help it reducing financial costs – but not in the way that most people think.

Underlining that some still deem purchasing vegetables from the market is an effortless and pocket-friendly chore, he emphasised that planting our own fruits, vegetables and herbs can be costly as we need to purchase the necessities such as pots and fertilisers.

“So maybe if you’ve been growing your own produce for a long time, then maybe, yes, you can cut cost to a certain extent – but in the beginning, it will cost you money and it will take time,” he clarified.

“But the thing about urban farming is that we require the proper understanding, knowledge and mechanism to ensure that our produce will grow. We need to understand how nature works prior venturing into urban farming.”

Aside from the potential of cutting cost, Mohamed Ashaari emphasised that urban farming will grace urbanites with a sense of assurance as they know and can see where their food is sourced from and how.

“I’m not saying that the foods in the market are harmful but planting your own will provide some urbanites with more assurance that the foods they consume are safe, as they know where their food is coming from.

“On top of that, it gives them more control of what they eat, and subsequently safeguarding themselves from certain diseases that could be developed in the long run,” he opined.

Pic: PopTani AsiaPic: PopTani AsiaMohamed Ashaari relayed that food is our direct connection to nature, though majority of us are disconnected from our food as we are not sure where it comes from; what it took to grow it; and to top it all off, most of us end up consuming a lot of processed food.

So aside from financial costs, he explained that the hidden costs behind all of this are not necessarily the things that we can see with our own eyes, as most of these hidden costs are covered by environment services – in other words, how nature keeps its balance.

“There’s an argument that the typical industrial way of monocrop agriculture is probably one of the most destructive environmental activities – despite it feeding millions.

“The amount of arable land is slowly and surely shrinking because of our current practises of food that has become commoditised.

“The irony is that we are producing more food on the grounds of feeding the hungry, but, actually we are wasting a lot of food that are still edible,” he lamented.

As a matter of fact, Malaysian Digest previously reported that the amount of food that Malaysians waste can feed up to two million people on a daily basis, and offered Malaysians with a few alternatives on how they can combat food waste.

Additionally, Mohamed Ashaari pointed out that if we take charge of what we consume and how we produce it, we can reduce our carbon footprint as one of the best way to combat climate change is to reduce meat consumption and eat more local greens.

“I highly encourage Malaysians to start jumping on the green bandwagon, and you can do so by reaching out to people like us (PopTani), talk and meet up with people who have ventured in urban farming and aquaponics,” he urged, and emphasised that the idea behind it is to always ask questions and continue to learn.

If you feel the need to rush out and start planting your own greens after being inspired by the urban farmers we interviewed, below are several useful links to help you get started:

  1. Grow Your Own Food: Vegetable Planting Guide;
  2. Growing Your Own Food At Home Is Easy, Here's How;
  3. Learn To Grow Plants And Food With Beginner Garden Projects;
  4. 10 Tips For Growing An Organic Vegetable Garden;
  5. 7 Veggies You Can Grow On The Balcony… In Malaysia!;
  6. and Top 10 Tips For Your Green Space

- Malaysian Digest