You see them sprouting across the globe. A burgeoning pantheon of edible deities. Short vines drooping from weighty brinjals, rows of jagung reaching tall towards the sky, bright yellow bitter gourd flowers trailing on rails.
There is a rise in the number of edible gardens mushrooming in buckets and planters on balconies, bleak and bland rooftop spaces turned into a hive of planting activity, back gardens dug up to become beds for tomatoes, long beans and four angled beans. A colourful display of fecundity.
None more so than during recent lockdowns, we noticed the heavy scent of longing and yearning for a connection to what was before. Even on social media, fashion content creators on YouTube were swapping their cocktail dresses for gardening garb, and trowels and spades rapidly replaced designer handbags and shoes. The rapid transformation to a home gardener.
Datin Dian Lee’s foray into the world of vegetable planting began when her three children were still under the age of 10. She had some empty space that would prove to be the perfect outdoor classroom. “I wanted to raise them to be aware of where the vegetables they eat come from and to feel less squirmy around dirt,” says Datin Dian. Her children were only too eager to oblige.
Enter Eats, Shoots & Roots, then a young social enterprise working to empower urban Malaysians with the skills and tools to grow their own food. “They came and measured the space, advised me on how many grow tongs I would need to get started, soil compatibility, what my intention was with my garden and they soon got my kitchen garden started with kangkung, chili padi, brinjal, ladies’ fingers, blue pea flower, cucumber, and purple and green amaranth,” recalls Datin Dian. “My children loved planting seeds in trays, watering them, and watching them sprout. There was nothing more joyous for them to see! It was a little miracle of life unfolding before their young eyes. The conversations that stemmed from that simple act of growing vegetables that they could harvest and eat was so special.”
In the last five years, and after observing and literally stalking her progeny; looking for garden predators and early signs of disease, reading, and learning by trial and error that if seedlings are left for too long, they become leggy and weak, Datin Dian has learnt the intricacies of sowing and growing and the requirements unique to each variety of vegetable—that sage and rosemary need sandy soil, kelp enhances the microbiome in the soil, crop rotation keeps the soil healthy and the benefits of composting kitchen waste. Today, her garden is truly flourishing and provides her family with kalian, choy sum, cherry tomatoes, corn, herbs, ginger, turmeric, lime, lemon, and several varieties of chilli padi.
“Planting vegetables forces you to be patient. There is no room for instant gratification. It is a slow and sometimes painful process to grow your own food, but it is also rewarding when you reap what you sow. I have so much gratitude for our farmers because I realise the effort it takes. We are very much like plants. If left in the dark, we too seek the light. Given the right environment, we are naturally encoded to thrive,” shares Datin Dian. “I find the time I spend planting spiritual. Nature provides abundantly and is the perfect canvas for introspection and to quiet the mind. It is about us being in nature without having to do. Just as the produce nourishes our bodies, the journey nourishes the mind and soul.”
Ung Yiu Lin was looking for an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to camouflage her neighbour’s house. Her brief was simple: a functional fence, almost a hedge wall of hanging edibles. “Putting up the green fence was a cheaper option than a concrete wall, though this proved to be easier said than done as different plants have different life cycles,” says Yiu Lin, entrepreneur, mother of three, and all-round superwoman.
To combat that problem, she chose to designate an area for her frequently used herbs like basil, oregano, curry leaves, ginger and pandan leaves. And for her cyclical vegetables, she has eggplants, four angled beans, lady’s fingers, and long beans. “My husband loves steamed lady’s fingers with sambal belacan. It is quite lovely and very convenient to walk out to my garden when we need chilli padi and kalamansi, both essentials in any Asian home.”
“We are now planting creepers that are perennials like passion fruit and butterfly peas. The garden is only a year old and is very much work in progress. I can’t wait for the passion fruit to flower and fruit. We haven’t had much luck with our lemon trees, so I am thinking of swapping them for avocados,” adds Yiu Lin.
All the produce from the garden ends up on the dining table. The abundant basil is quickly turned into the very adaptable pesto. The eggplants and lady’s fingers make for perfect partners in a much-loved fish head curry. Freshly harvested long beans and French beans stir fried with garlic, snap and crunch as the perfect accompaniment to a curry meal.
“Apart from it being an aesthetically pleasing wall of green, flowering plants, I wanted my children to learn how to look after a living thing, how to nurture little seedlings and just getting their hands dirty. I think this is an important aspect of raising city kids,” says Yiu Lin.
“Being stuck at home during the hard lockdown was like watching paint dry,” says Low Shao-Lyn, co-founder of Eats, Shoots & Roots. “That’s when we noticed people who weren’t into gardening before, come on board. People were craving a connection to reality. There appears to be a disconnect between nature and urban people, that needs to be addressed. Planting something and watching it grow helps bridge that gap.
“There is so much energy embodied in plants, and if you have the interest, you will want to layer that with understanding the subtleties and nuances of bringing a seed to life and what conditions they require to thrive. When you add the right intention to that equation, it is synergy. It makes you a holistic, more informed gardener,” adds Shao-Lyn, who with her three partners and team, help urban communities and individuals create edible gardens and outdoor learning spaces. From their humble beginnings in a tiny house in Petaling Jaya back in 2012, they have since crafted 24 edible gardens and trained 750 urbanites on the wonderful art of gardening.
“It is fascinating to see how with the passing of time, something transforms from seeds, to three months later a plant that feeds you. That is magical. Gardening is an easy entry for kids as young as two-and-a-half years,” she says. Kids are happier and more grounded when they are outdoors and in the garden. They are less pouty and less likely to exhibit spoilt behaviour. If space is an impediment, you can seek out community gardens that serve as a bond to those who live within it.”
Shao-Lyn’s pointers on how create a thriving edible garden:
- General daily observation. It’s a living thing so you need to make sure it is getting the necessary nutrients, sunlight, and water. You must troubleshoot if it’s not growing and seek out solutions. Sunlight is sometimes underrated, but is a key essential when planting vegetables.\
- Best to start small. Less overwhelming and disheartening if they don’t survive.
- Start with three pots. Plant three different types of vegetables, like one microgreen, one herb, and one leafy plant. Then you can observe what each plant needs and how it functions in your space.
Four tiers in vegetable planting:
- Level one: Sprouts and microgreens, from seed to harvest takes only two weeks, when they are an inch to two inches tall. These are the easiest to grow.
- Level two: Perennial herbs such as pandan, lemongrass, Indian borage, laksa leaf, daun kaduk are easy to grow and manage, too.
- Level three: Leafy greens. You can harvest them quite young too. Kangkong and amaranth are quick to grow and harvest.
- Level four: Fruiting vegetables like brinjal, chilli, lady’s finger. Start of planting to harvest is three to six months. Fruiting vegetables require more nutrients and care. If you have enough sunlight and don’t mind failure, start them all at one go!
Quite simply, we are what we eat. If we eat even the little that we grow, then nurturing a relationship between us and our vegetables is sacred. Whether you have hours of uninterrupted gardening or snatches between dropping and picking kids, the time spent sowing and growing is almost meditative. Be it at the crack of dawn cradling a steaming cup of coffee or pottering about at the end of the day with the last shaft of mottled light, watching and willing them, sending them positive thoughts, and encouraging them to live is fortifying to them and us. The lessons we glean are simple. Patience, love, nutrition, water, air, sunshine. It really isn’t rocket science.