In late 2016 we were invited to take part in the NTU CCA’s Ideas Fest, where we worked out what turned out to be a good fit – the facilitated ‘ideas-marathon’ we’d been wanting to have, with the food experience of a lifetime – with 449 other guests at a dinner curated by Lucy Orta of Studio Orta. In a workshop bringing together 14 resource persons and many more participants, Lucy and us elicited a list of provocations for a night of conversations.
In late June, I had the fortune of attending a tour of urban gardens in Toronto, conducted by the Toronto Urban Growers. This was a day before the Scarborough Fare, which I was also attending (and which is the subject of another post!).
We visited 4 gardens by bus, subway and walking–lots of walking and talking! I took lots of photos, so let’s zip through what I saw.
Garden #1: Ryerson University’s Urban Farm
- With the passing of a new by-law by the Toronto City Council, all buildings over 6 stories and 2000 square feet now have to have a green roof. Rrun off into the sewage system was getting so bad that they had to make garden plots mandatory.
- Seeds travel by birds, so the roof was colonised by natural spontaneous vegetation.
- Ryerson had a group of people and students who worked cross faculty to identify underutilised spaces, they were invited to also look at roof top spaces. They started with a 100 sqaure foot plot (with the help of some engineers).
- Farm size: Quarter of an acre
- Sheet mulching first – let weeds grow to knee length, and cut and covered with tarp.
- Made raised beds and cut paths. Soil went from 6 inches to 10.
- 2 inches of compost are added every year.
- 30 inches with 18 inch path, following the concept of Human Scale agriculture (Quebec based Jean Martin-Fortier, with his Acre and a half farm that makes a 100,000 dollars without tractors.
- Grew vegetables – they grow better here than on the ground, maybe because the weeds have been growing and dying here and the soil is more alive – in that the bacteria on the roots of soil (rhizosphere), in the top 2 inches of soil is more alive. Sheet mulching means you keep the soil layer intact which is better for the soil.
- 5 year crop rotation. Each section is one plant family. Plant families share the same pests and diseases. They also share similarities in how they use the soil. Legumes – beans and peas Nitrogen fixers. Clover as a cover crop. 15 to 20 degree Celsius. When it gets colder- they grow winterlife (which, I just realised, is recreational cannabis!) which scavenges nitrogen.
- Also grown: Borage, nasturtium, kale, calendula
About the Green Roof
- After the 50s, most modern buildings are built with less infrastructure. Green roof has to have less stuff on top and higher load bearing capacity).
- Green roof – water roofing membrane (geotex, dimple board, rocks, roof membrane – usually needs to be changed every 10 years but with green roofs some in Germany are 100 years and going)
- Safety for humans working on it is paramount.
- They are a market garden – that means they go to market.
- CSA model: 25 dollars a year for members. Member farmers pay 5 or 10, and work a few hours or days a week.
- Once a week, 30 CSA members help on the farm. Same complexity as a 1 or 5 acre farm.
- Member farmers are students and staff. The staff can cross the street and show up to get something. The students come during exams because they want to be here. It’s de-stressing to work on the farm.
Check them out here.
Garden #2: Allan gardens
Allan Gardens worked with architects to create gabion boxes capable of storing upcycled materials. Nifty and pretty! Great design in our opinion.
- Managed by a coordinator at Building Roots, the garden came together around multiple moving components and eventually settled around 13 groups, a conservatory where events could be held, and the concept that it should be a public space open to all. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s inspiring to see how these threads have come together.
- Greenhouse from University of Toronto where some food plants are grown.
- Building Roots worked with a group to design the space, including Friends of Allan Gardens.
- Building Roots tries to collaborate with developers and others to do projects that one can’t do alone. 13 different groups have adopted the plot. There is a club with homeless men, an after school programme, a people with aids group. MDPs office.
- Decided to have a presence in the park NOW, rather than wait for longer term plans.
Garden #3: Spruce Court Public School
Managed by Green Thumbs
Green Thumbs started with the garden when they realised the teenagers who had started the garden didn’t know what they were doing. Strawberries are planted outside to encourage people to pick. There is a lot of taking but they are sure it’s by people who need the food. They have a full time crew, 6 jobs paid for by the federal government under a summer programme that is part of the community engagement strategy (harvesting and planting, youth rotate and run programmes for the community).
Garden #4: Regent Park gardens
And last but not least, possibly our favourite for the work it does in a historically rich and challenging place.. but it’s hard to pick a favourite!
Regent Garden is a public housing community that was built on the–at that time–cutting edge garden city model developed by Ebenezer Howard in the 1960s. Sounds similar to the Singapore model, only this community’s gardens were actually tended to by the communities living within it. Over the years, garden produce reflected the ethnic communities that came and went – till today where South Asian Bengali produce comes up next to Chinese Pak Choy and sweet potato leaves.
In recent years, revitalisation was called for, and the City Council decided that it would be good to develop property downtown. Now, it has 4 market units for every social housing unit.
It’s not been smooth for the community–along with losing their homes, people feared losing the community gardens that had become a vital part of the area. Of the things people wanted most to stay were the community gardens, or at least, a space to continue gardening. Gardens were not a hobby but a way of having healthy meals, not needing to buy low-nutrition, fast food.
To draw the different groups working in the area together, and to allow for this transition, Regent Park Community Food Centre was opened, along with a park – meant to be a neutral space that brings the market flats and social housing flats together.
Community food centre: Defined as a community centre where everything is around food. Grows, shares, advocates around food.
Focus area: Social justice and food access
- Downstream problem – people are hungry: emergency meal program. What this space provides: 1) Healthy food, served with as much respect as possible. Community meal cooked with a permanent chef on staff, cooked from chef. Good produce from local farms and good produce the equivalent of that which goes to good restaurants. No judgment. Volunteers craft meals and serve. 150 to 250 for lunch, 250 to 300 dinner, recently in summer the meals have gone up, word has gone out. And, 2) Space to hang out. With supervision, families and women started coming too. Totally free, no means testing, no keeping track.
- Mid-stream – Food skills programme. Capacity building. Healthy cooking and recipes with broccoli. Breakfast that you make yourself. Community kitchens with different groups. Community cook-in – open to all to get together to prepare a meal and cook enough for 2 days. 10 weeks of this. Peer teaching programme – sharing skills that are useful: Showing people how to demonstrate while letting them do their own thing. Ask the group what they want to learn at the start. Asks people to teach each other.
- Way upstream. Advocacy even though government doesn’t provide funding. Identifies people who need support, come for 15 week training to get through the bureacucracy (housing, work skills etc). Train 15, hire 6, and they continue the next time. [Structural and emotional support.] It wants to solve the upstream problems that lead to people needing food. Raising awareness about the support that is needed.
Check them out here.
As revitalisation is happening a lot of garden plots are being lost. A lot of people living here from Bangladesh and are used to having their own plots. Now they are going to have communal plots as a compromise solution.
So a non-profit, Friends of Regent Park, partners with 15 local agencies to work with the communities that are already attached to them, to use this space. These are highly diverse, but gardening is a common language. 50 languages spoken in this neighbourhood, and different social milieus beside – some groups include a South Asian group, maternity club, and people with AIDS.
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Foodscape Collective connects growers to chefs and designers creating experiential events for others. But it’s not always easy going from one part of the island to another to deliver fresh produce. So why do it?
In a conversation one day, Cuifen and I realised that it was probably a good idea for me to share more about why I’ve decided, on several occasions, to spend good parts of my time delivering produce from gardens to kitchens. I stick to the route of ‘doing it myself’ because only by experiencing it and putting in the time for it, can I really know the value of this work that customers at the end will not see. And we would like to involve others in this, someday soon.
You can join us as a volunteer in being a Connector – to learn more about what farm-to-table really means, and to get to know the individuals that are building the momentum for a real food revolution, right here on this island. For now, read more about our experiences in Connecting others!
In our last outing at the Open Farm Community social market, we asked many of you to add a pin to our offline map. A few of you also shared a bit on your motivations for going to the market, and what you would like to tell our local farmers.
It’s a bit delayed, but here’s a simple story map on the market visitors, made using online tools: http://arcg.is/1SK24ch
Help us make this a better map! Tell us what other layers you want to see in a story map like this. If you were one of the people at the market, share with us your photos, videos and perhaps a short memory or two, and we will help you add them into our story map.
We look for reasons to plant, but what if we do so without any at all . . . . .
The weather is getting wetter nowadays but the morning sun is still as comforting as can be. We have to be thankful that we are not robbed of the opportunity to connect to the earth, at least. The early few hours of bright warm light is generous enough for urban farmers like me to get into some serious action.
I was so delighted to plant my Vietnamese mint cuttings, or what we call laksa in local context, this morning. It was the second variety of laksa plants that I have collected. That moment, I saw the next door uncle at my gate gesturing for me to go over.
“Okay, my plants have crossed the boundary yet again. I have to promise him to trim it,” I thought. Feeling guilty, I walked to him pretending to be relaxed. But I felt really relaxed when I saw a plastic bag in his hand as I knew I was about to receive some goodies!
Twelve nice okras, not too long and not too short, of the exact size and ripeness that an auntie like me would like to pick up in the wet market. Uncle said to me in Hokkien, “These okras are for you. They are from the seeds that you gave me a few months ago. And these few seeds are for you to plant.” I was speechless but I knew I had to say something so I told him to keep it for his family, and . . . . . and so on so forth . . . . , but my disobedient arms reached out for it.
When I started serious gardening five years ago, I did not expect an exchange of harvest to happen between me and my neighbours. It has since become a common scene between us. So, why give yourself a serious reason to plant, when planting will yield some unexpected significance in the later part of your lives? Well, just plant it!
Before uncle left for home, I asked him “Does auntie cook laksa? I have plenty of leaves!”
While visiting the garden of a friend last week, we came upon the topic of community fruit orchards and the tragedy of the commons. In this case, unlike the usual parable (popularised by Hardin), it wasn’t an orchard that gradually became barren through the selfish acts of fruit-pickers, but a grove of trees that slowly accumulated sweet fruit that rotted from neglect–because no one dared to pick the fruit.
This was lamented at some length by our friend, P, who said, “The breadfruit trees near my house are always bearing fruit, but no one picks them, and when I tried to, I was told by a passer-by, ‘you can’t pick it!'”
Singapore is home to many trees–just how many is a question for the public, but not one the National Parks Board is alien to. Each tree is an administrative unit governed by the NParks. While heritage trees are marked out on OneMap.sg, the location of each tree isn’t considered public data–though it’s hard to tell if this is simply due to the extensive nature of the database or high security protocols (around trees). Who knows?
During our conversation, different people spoke about the consequences of planting trees on the walkways outside your home, which are legally public property:
- Warnings are given by visiting authorities.
- Not all officials seem to mind. Anecdotes were shared of rogue trees growing peaceably in certain wards.
- After a few warnings, the tree is cut down.
The felling of trees seems relatively harmless in Singapore; no one really gets injured. This takes on quite a different tone in countries where trees and crops are an important source of income and food for people (also see this).
In Singapore’s context, it’s baffling and slightly ironic to think how good fruit is simply going to waste.
Having people look after existing fruit trees also provides a service to the community (so we don’t slip on rotting fruit, and fruits don’t fall on parked cars or passersby). Looking back in history, the government of Singapore planted fruit trees in abundance (while legislating fines to make sure people didn’t uproot or deface the trees) until realising that fallen fruits were rotting, with insufficient manpower to pick them (see Nature Contained for more on Singapore’s greening policies).
Yet, as someone pointed out when we continued our conversation later in the week, some interesting initiatives have been initiated, by a range of actors, to do more with the fruit of our soil:
- With the dry spell in 2009 (the same one that caused sakura blooms all over the island, for those who remember) NParks held their first charity give-away of mangoes picked from the roadside trees of Tampines.
- Community gardens have initiated fruit tree harvests in the areas surrounding their gardens
- Individuals are considering the possibility of starting neighbourhood community fruit harvests, or of beginning plots of fruit orchards on the grounds of private charities.
- We most definitely aren’t the first to think of this! These concerns have been raised over the years (as in this recent discussion organised by SMU). The only thing different now is: we definitely know there are communities of people interested, and we aim to spread this circle as wide as possible.
There are plenty of new ideas we can work with. I’ll leave you with an inspiring piece on fruit foragers, maps and biking trails in Germany–one for cyclists, health and map nuts!
- about local medicinal plants,
- the difficulty of learning how they complement each other,
- what quantities to use them in,
- that regulations on how dried TCM goods are imported, are not clear in Singapore,
- and that a lot of the plants used by Uncle Tan are native herbs.
Bitter ones are usually for high blood pressure
Chinese knotweed–funny because it apparently has become seen as a weed in Britain. Its quick growth has been the cause of much government spending, trying to race against the growth of the plant
Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, Third Edition is the latest update endorsed by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). It talks about the 5 Levels of conversion to sustainable food systems and agroecology.
Special Ops, Special Write-ups. We accept ideas for articles, videos, images and any other work that you have made about food, ranging from the mundane everyday bit of information, to the creative and metaphorical. We are not only interested in growing our plants, but in the life cycle of the food product, as it goes from seed, shoot, to fruit, market, our mouths, our heads and stories. Pitch your ideas for this section to us at email@example.com with the subject heading: Special Write-ups.