Home-grown harvests

When country borders closed six months ago because of the coronavirus pandemic, an immediate concern here was food security, as most of what is sold here is imported.

That – combined with most people being stuck at home with time on their hands during the circuit breaker period from April to June – saw a flurry of interest here in planting edibles at home.

The National Parks Board (NParks), which encourages the community to enhance the environment through plants and gardens, also fanned the flames of the growing movement by sending out free seeds under the Gardening With Edibles initiative from June to this month.

The initial plan was to send out 150,000 packets of seeds for vegetables such as kailan, cucumber and lady’s finger. But the response was so overwhelming that they were all taken up on the first day. More were added and, by the end of this month, 400,000 packets will have been given out.

NParks has been sowing interest in growing edible plants for a long time by providing support to community gardens around the island. Residents adopt plots of land for free in these gardens and 80 per cent are used to grow edibles.

In a huge nursery in HortPark off Pasir Panjang Road, where many edible plants are cultivated for the country’s parks and gardens, a small number are earmarked to be sold at its Gardeners’ Day Out event, where workshops and bazaars attract hordes of hobbyist gardeners.

NParks also runs an Allotment Gardening Scheme, where people can adopt a 2.5m by 1m raised planter bed for three years at $57 a year and receive gardening advice. The planters are found in 12 parks, including in Ang Mo Kio, Bedok and Clementi, and are fully subscribed.

In recent years, attention has also been given to growing edibles that are not often planted here or thought to be impossible to propagate in Singapore’s tropical climate.

Dr Wilson Wong, deputy director of NParks’ Jurong Lake Gardens, who specialises in edible plants and helms the weekly Root Awakening column in The Straits Times, is collecting such uncommon varieties for an upcoming garden at the former Chinese Garden.

He is growing Jerusalem artichoke, which is native to North America; elephant foot yam, which is popular in Indian cooking; and peter peppers from the Americas, among other exotic plants. He also has 150 cultivars of mint, some of which have an unexpected smoky or chocolate flavour.

He says his showcase helps to pique the interest of gardeners.

Among these are the community gardeners, who are regulars at NParks events and are old hands at growing familiar vegetables such as xiao bai cai and kangkong.

At the 420 sq m Marine Crescent Ville community garden, for example, stevia, Indian lettuce and curly leaf kale grow among the more familiar pandan and curry leaves.

There is rice too, with sheaves of grain waiting to ripen, and Dayak onion, which is eaten by the indigenous tribe in Sarawak.

Madam Gina Ong, 61, started the garden in 2002 from a former carpark and now runs it with about 20 other gardeners, each adopting a plot to grow what he or she desires.

She had no knowledge of gardening in the beginning, she says. “I liked to cook and used to buy a whole bunch of vegetables or herbs just to cook a dish. I wanted a garden so I could just cut what I needed,” she adds.

She started by growing herbs such as thyme and sage, but these failed. “It was all through trial and error. There was no website to do research then. I went to the herb gardens in Sentosa and Fort Canning to see what was grown there.”

Madam Ong also tried – and succeeded in – growing imported vegetables she bought at the supermarket, such as curly leaf kale.

The garden now hosts more than 100 varieties and harvests are shared with residents. There are no fences and anyone can help himself or herself to the herbs and fruit.

Fellow gardener Rosita Cedillo, 79, says: “We just let them know that they should cut what they want with scissors instead of uprooting the whole plant.”

The avid cook experiments with the produce in the kitchen, including making mulberry jam from fruit grown in the garden.

Meanwhile, at the 930 sq m Cosy Garden in Bukit Batok, exotic edibles such as figs, scotch bonnets, red Russian kale, asparagus, jujube, white brinjals and Brazilian grapes thrive. There is also a coffee plant, though there are no berries yet.

Garden leader May Lee, 64, takes it as a challenge to cultivate these uncommon varieties.

She tried to grow broccoli as well, but discovered it did not fare well in wet weather. Another failure was pipa, which grew but did not fruit.

But she managed to coax other temperate plants, such as kale and grapes, to prosper by shielding them from the hot sun with gauze or growing them under taller plants that provide shade.

The community garden is open to the public. Before the pandemic, students – from pre-school to university – would visit almost every weekday.

The harvest is shared with residents. Previously, it was also cooked at a small kitchen in the void deck of a flat next to the garden for block parties.

Hobbyist gardener Alex Ng, 48, did not manage to subscribe to the community garden near his Housing Board flat in Yishun.

So he rented a 100 sq m private plot in Sembawang three years ago for $400 a month, where he has been growing blackberries, figs, strawberries, edamame, radish, purple carrots and pumpkins.

His interest in growing exotic plants started when he saw grape saplings selling in a nursery one day and bought one to grow in the corridor outside his apartment.

“Surprisingly, it grew very well. After half a year, it was blocking the light, so I pruned it and it started flowering and fruiting,” he says.

That sparked his curiosity to find out what else he could grow, but not everything was as easy. The strawberries turned out to be sweet but small, and the blackberry plant sprouted only after three months.

Mr Ng says his biggest challenge is growing tomatoes, which are prone to disease and pests, and considers the pumpkins and blackberries to be his most satisfying successes. He plans to plant raspberries next.

The plants are grown from seeds and cuttings, some of which he orders through the mail.

He visits his plot every morning to water the plants and spends about three hours there at a time. On very hot days, he returns in the evening, making the 2km journey each way by bus.

The home baker, who lives alone, does not cook and has not tasted the vegetables he grows. They are given away to his siblings and friends.

But he enjoys the fruit, including his grapes, which are related to the Kyoho cultivar and taste “sweet and fragrant”.

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