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The happy farmers in a concrete jungle

Whoever says you need a big plot of land to be a farmer has never met Kit Yong, 56.

Like 80 per cent of the population, she lives in an HDB flat. But tell her that you have a craving for the sweet and sour passion fruit and she might tell you to pick one right off a vine outside her flat if the fruit is in season.

The real estate agent grows more than 20 types of vegetables, herbs and fruits - from chye sim and kale to rosemary and passion fruit - along the 20m stretch of corridor outside her Tampines home.

Yong, who estimates she has 80 pots of plants, is a member of a growing community of individuals passionate about farming within an urban setting.

Community gardens, started by the National Parks Board through the Community in Bloom movement, now number close to 1,000. Residents are turning plots of land beside HDB blocks into vegetable and fruit patches.

Many residents have, however, taken up a trickier form of farming that comes with the challenges of limited space and variable sunshine: high-rise farming.

They grow their crops along HDB corridors, like Yong, with some extending their gardens into their homes where they set up racks of pots along their balconies and window grilles.

This breed of HDB farmers is also tech-savvy. Over the years, Facebook groups such as Urban Farmers (Singapore) and SG Container Gardening and Vertical Farming have sprouted up. Avid gardeners turn to them for tips from experienced farmers whom they call "shifu", Mandarin for "master". There are also virtual marketplaces for exchanging or buying and selling seeds.

Every day, requests for advice on growing specific types of plants and ways to get rid of pests flood the groups' walls.

Although it started only in 2012, Urban Farmers (Singapore) now has more than 8,100 members.

Yong joined the group about two years ago. She shares photos of her harvest there.

She describes gardening as a "journey" which requires a lot of patience. "A long time ago, even my cactus would die," she said, a surprise considering the state of her corridor garden today.

The Penang native, who moved to Singapore in the 1980s, started out planting ferns and flowers. But as her concerns about the use of pesticides grew, she decided to grow her own vegetables and fruits about 10 years ago. She has since grown lettuce, kale, chye sim and even avocado, just to name a few.

"I find peace and happiness in watching my plants grow," she said. Her daily ritual is to spend about 15 to 20 minutes watering her plants in the morning before dashing off to work, and then giving them the "pampering" they need at night.

This involves checking for pests, trimming off excess stems and so on. "Instead of going to the supermarket at the last minute for groceries, you can just go out to the garden, take what you can find and cook that," she said.

Her neighbours love her garden too and would use the herbs she grows.

Being able to eat the vegetables that you have grown yourself is one of the perks that another HDB farmer, Wendy Toh, 44, likes the most about farming.

Toh, who does Internet marketing, started her own edible garden three years ago, largely because her daughter Jessie, now six, loves munching on raw vegetables. She now has about a dozen different types of vegetables growing in her home.

She regularly grows red spinach, kale and lettuce by hydroponics, mostly against the window in her living room which gets the most sunlight at her Tanjong Pagar flat. These days, she grows enough to feed five people at dinner two to three times a week, and expects to be self-sufficient in about three months.

Her hobby has evolved into a family affair. Often, her daughter and 10-year-old son, Caleb, will help her water and harvest the vegetables, and turn them into salads or smoothies.

"They always ask if I have watered the plants, and they will get upset if I have already done it and ask why I didn't wait for them," said Toh, with a laugh.

Becoming a successful farmer requires tenacity, said the farmers.

Music teacher Sylvia Chua, 52, killed at least six pots of rosemary and three pots of lavender before realising she had been watering them wrong.

"At first, I thought it was just the weather, then I learnt from other farmers that these plants cannot be watered too much and they can't retain water well," said Chua, who now grows them well alongside other herbs such as coriander and basil along her Marine Parade flat's corridor.

Toh said she almost gave up farming because of tomatoes: Despite the enormous amount of effort she put in, including fertilising the soil with coffee grounds and egg shells, the plant failed to bear fruit.

"Eventually, I realised I did not have enough sun and decided to give my plants away, all 10 of them, and focus on others instead," she said.

Yong, too, recalled her failure at growing zucchini.

But ask these farmers how much they have spent on their gardens and they will say they do not keep track. "If you do, you will start wondering if you are spending too much," said Yong. "I prefer to just enjoy the fruits of my labour."

Published : March 30, 2017

By : The Straits Times Asia News Network