Never Did I Expect To Get This In Return

The Twelve Okras
The Twelve Okras

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.

Just Plant 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!”

Community fruit forests: picking (un)wholesome fruit?

Credit: P. Gonzalez

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!'”


A breadfruit tree in a neighbour's yard.
Breadfruit trees in the neighbourhood.

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, 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:


  1. Warnings are given by visiting authorities.
  2. Not all officials seem to mind. Anecdotes were shared of rogue trees growing peaceably in certain wards.
  3. 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.


Jolly old breadfruit!
Jolly old breadfruit!


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:


  1. 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.
  2. Community gardens have initiated fruit tree harvests in the areas surrounding their gardens
  3. Individuals are considering the possibility of starting neighbourhood community fruit harvests, or of beginning plots of fruit orchards on the grounds of private charities.
  4. 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!

A visit to Geok Kuan’s: Preparations for a farmers’ market

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, I and two others made our way over to Geok Kuan’s place in the east.
Our aim that day was to learn about the work that she and some others have been diligently doing for the past 2-3 months in documenting the knowledge of local medicinal plant varieties.
At the same time, it was also for us to get to know one another. I’d been meeting each of them in different places and situations, and was eager to introduce them all to the work and ideas that they each had. I think I felt underlying currents of similar interest amongst them. And if nothing else, we would at least have gotten to spend some time in a beautiful garden!
We settled into a very comfortable pace, introducing and sharing our stories. Along the way, Geok Kuan gave us tastings of teas she had been brewing. We cycled through them: Honeyed Roselle with its natural red tint, mulberry with red dates and gingko nut, with a little density and sweetness from the dates, and finally a drink made of lime, lemon, cactus and yellow rock sugar, which refreshed our senses.
We talked a lot that day:
  • 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.
All of them interesting for further thought!
Geok Kuan and the team will be creating a website featuring recipes using common herbs on the street, herbal teas that he commonly dispenses (all with fresh herbs) and uses as general remedies,  teas using the plants available in the market, tips on when to add sugar, and recipes for externally applied salves.
We also took a walk around her garden, and I managed to take some notes. Please note that the medicinal property of these plants differ across people and it’s best to read up first before deciding to use a herb.
Nan fei ye-lowers blood pressure
Bitter ones are usually for high blood pressure
The less bitter ones are good for overall wellness.
Black face general used to clear toxins
 Wild strawberry
Huo tan mu
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
Xia gu cao, self-heal, good for teas, mild, palatable flavour
Plantain. Ce qian cao.

What are Special Write-ups?

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 with the subject heading: Special Write-ups.


We have more ideas than we know what to do with at present! We know what we want to do, we just need more hands and heads to do them all!

Many people have been asking how they can get involved in our work, so we’ve decided to put up this list. If you are keen on seeing this project as it develops and want to contribute to it in any way, big or small, fill in the form below or email us at Big ones and little ones can all do something! Looking forward to hearing from ya!

Here goes:

Small tasks:

  1. Scribes/note-takers. Ad-hoc, whenever we go on a garden visit where we will ask questions and conduct informal interviews with the gardeners/farmers.)
  2. Simple video recording and/or editing. For archival and documentation of the gardens and gardening/farming practices when we conduct our visits

Bigger tasks. We need people who want to volunteer their skills in:

  1. Website design and creation. Help us in setting up a wiki microsite (we are looking at MediaWiki) and linking it to our current site.
  2. Data geek. We need someone with some expertise/experience in working with open-source databases, who can give pointers on the data formats we should offer on the website, and suggest improvements to our platform to make it more readily available and accessible to public use.
  3. Graphic illustration. Create a logo for Foodscape Collective.
  4. Events. Help with coordination of events, posting on Facebook and our Google Calendar. We’ll usually liaise directly with the gardeners and handle all programming, so we just need help making sure things go up online so people know about them! If you want to help with programming though, just say so 🙂
  5. Maps. We’ve gotten some preliminary data, we want to visualise what we already have, and improve our data collection questions to deliver more information about gardens in Singapore. Help with creating map visuals, having some GIS skills in ARCGis, ARCGis Online, Google Maps, or BEST YET: JOSM and OpenStreetMaps would be a great help because we want to work on open source platforms as far as possible. Cuifen and Huiying have some experience with different software for maps, but we’d love to have someone join us who either wants to gain experience, wants to mess around with data, or has an idea for something s/he wants to explore with us relating to gardens, the people and economies associated with gardens, land use, rivers, soil etc.
  6. Data, research leg-work. Supporting the basics of research (cleaning data, transcribing, translating data into machine-readable or software-readable formats) and also interviewing, possibly analysis

Value for volunteering with us: get to interact with like-minded people in the grow your own food movement, get to hone a skill!

Garden visit ~ Open Farm Community

Huiying & Cuifen of Foodscape core team went to check out the edible garden at Open Farm Community, and of course we had to try the delicious food served at the restaurant too!

But first, the edible garden. It’s been quite some months since we visited the place, and the food garden has taken shape. Edible plants are being grown and landscaped into the area surrounding the restaurant. There’s a mandala garden at one corner, and terraces in another… A handwritten note on the wall proclaims >40 types of herbs, and >12 types of vegetables can be found in the garden.

Amongst the green, are mysterious-looking clay sculptures designed by a local ceramist and fired at Thow Kwang, one of Singapore’s historic dragon kilns. The sculptures were designed by the ceramist, Steven Low, as part of his exploration of seed metamorphosis, as life emerges from within. Love how the garden blends 2 locals – local food, local art, and even local history into a single space!

And then garden to kitchen. Right at the doorway, there was a hand-written board proclaiming what’s harvested from the garden. There’s cat whiskers! and also basil, thyme, rosemary… We got to try 4 different dishes, and what can we say… they are good!!! Will go there again, just to sample the food again.

We learnt that some of the restaurant staff are into learning more about local food farming too. It’s interesting to hear that they have local farm visits every 2 weeks, just so that the chefs really get it, get it!

Black boards with quotes
Black boards with quotes
art sculptures amongst the green
art sculptures amongst the green
fhe restaurant
fhe restaurant
eggplant from the garden
eggplant from the garden

Singapore Young Farmers’ event – experiential learning at Quan Fa Organic Farm

We chanced upon Singapore Young Farmers’ write-up on a recent experiential learning volunteering experience at Quan Fa Organic Farm. It is one of SYF’s series of events to drive a comeback in farming through active volunteerism.

The Singapore Young Farmers have an upcoming event to bring participants to Metropolitan Offshore Fish Farm on 7 Nov 2015. If you are interested, do register with them at

Giving Ourselves a Reason to Grow

To kickstart Geok Kuan’s column, which is a series of articles written in both English and Mandarin, we present this: her thoughts on her potluck party!



20150711 Geok Kuan's report

More on Geok Kuan’s Columns

  • Focused on herbs/vegetables/fruits that are easy to grow and can be grown in urban settings.
  • Each article will start with how to grow the plant, medium used, amount of watering, fertilising and harvesting, i.e basically the entire growing process and end with a recipe that makes use of it
  • Motivated by her belief that most urban farmers start gardening with the simple thought of “Giving myself a reason to grow”.

Potluck: Geok Kuan’s Home Garden

We had delicious food and great conversation that evening!


On the Menu That Evening

Blue ginger drink and laksa pesto pasta, from Terence

Suzanna’s beetroot salad

Tofu and homemade chilli from Auntie Theresa

Geok Kuan’s drinks: Blackface General drink and two others 

Cui Fen’s leafy greens

Chickpea salad from Huiying


LG's homemade bread
LG’s homemade bread
Auntie Theresa's beancurd broth
Auntie Theresa’s beancurd broth
Terence's Laksa Basil Pesto Pasta (what a tongue twister!)
Terence’s Laksa Basil Pesto Pasta (what a tongue twister!)
Edibles from Cuifen's garden
Edibles from Cuifen’s garden













Evening’s Events

Our garden visit and dinner wrapped up with Geok Kuan handing out sampling of shoots to propagate, and a conversation about Foodscape Collective’s work and ideas for the future.

Ideas and conversationDSCN9270

After introducing our work, Cui Fen shared about her interest in learning about others’ gardens. Hang Chong gave input on why learning about food security locally is important, giving lots of anecdotes.


Some highlights of the conversation:

  • Reiterating that the offline component is integral to our work, much as we are trying to build an online community for knowledge sharing. Farming isn’t only about one thing; we want to understand individuals’ motivations–everyone has their own interests, and understanding these interests, and creating a sustained knowledge community around these interests, helps us work towards a common goal.
  • Why is our work different from other online communities like Facebook groups on gardens? Responses: there is a diversity of questions and interests (e.g. what heirloom plants do we still have? everyone has a different interest in food. an online collaborative platform helps us share information about this)
  • LG pitched in, talking about her interest in gardens, and some work she has recently started doing, wanting to document the deep knowledge that a 70+-year-old gardener, Uncle Tan, has
  • Lots of sharing from Terence, Kian Wee, Geok Kuan and others that evening, which was very heartening!

Possibilities that have opened up

  • Huiying shared about Edible Gardens’ interest in working with community gardeners to plant and sell or barter harvests, with a moderately good response
  • Sharing excess produce for cookout at migrant worker dormitories with Geylang Adventures
  • Working with LG’s team to support archival of oral and video recordings about plant knowledge