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Garden Stories: Donald and Rachael Tan

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I had the pleasure of visiting Donald and Rachael Tan’s green haven and corridor farm in Punggol recently, and was bowled over by how space-efficient and creatively laid-out it is. Between the couple, Donald maintains the plants, and Rachael harvests produce for the table.

Even though his corridor gets only two hours of sun each day, he has managed to grow a wide variety of plants. Beyond ornamental plants, he grows microgreens, herbs like purple basil, chocolate mint, thyme, dill, pandan, curry, sawtooth coriander etc, he has fruit plants such as gooseberry, grapes, gac fruit, and vegetables like kang kong, amaranth spinach, curly kale. There are so many different plants that I can’t list them all… in fact, I can’t remember them all!

I got to know Donald better when I caught up with the Edible Gardens team one day for a lunch discussion. We bonded over the subject of Daiso and its small but useful gardening section, and how he, as well as my parents enjoy buying supplies from there to supplement our gardening needs. It was after viewing photos of his green corridor from his phone, that I felt like I had to pop by for a look. The plastic baskets sitting on his verandah are all from Daiso, and he has lined them with geotextile, which provides good drainage while keeping all soil in place when watered.

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Donald is clearly a bird lover, with his collection of finches, and his pair of quail. He has nestled them amongst greenery, and they are a pleasant addition to the flora and fauna in the corridor.

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With all that he is growing, Donald shared that he can easily fill a bowl with a mixed variety of salads, and takes that to work to graze on.

At this part of his corridor farm, he has chosen to grow climbing plants such as grapes, blue pea vine and cucamelon. Visually, it appears like a trail of cascading leaves, and looks lovely.

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Donald is highly knowledgeable and was very generous with gardening advice when I spoke with him. Here’s a little more about his journey, where he also shares some great tips!

1. When and why did you begin gardening, and then decide to become a full-time urban farmer? 
I really started gardening more seriously when I first moved to Punggol knowing that it was going to be home indefinitely. I grew up in a kampung environment and always had a close affinity with nature, so gardening is my way to keep the bond alive. I had no intention to become a full time urban farmer but my interest in edible plants lead me to Edible Garden City and their awesome team of farmers and the rest is history.

2. You have an awesome corridor garden full of edibles and ornamental plants, and even finches and quails. When did you begin to seriously furnish your corridor with foliage and edibles? Were some of these plants brought over from your former residence?
I pretty much started planting the moment I moved into Punggol. Looking back I probably spent a tidy sum of money buying and planting and failing and buying more and planting more, I tried everything I could lay my hands on, and slowly I learned what works and what cannot in the micro climate of my HDB corridor. I never thought that edible plants would work because I had the impression that they needed much more sunlight than the ornamentals that I was growing. Well I was wrong, and its been such a fun and interesting journey into this whole new group of plants. I have since ventured into seed propagation and micro greens, which I regularly harvest for my salads 🙂

3. Where did/do you mainly get your gardening knowledge from?
I would say that its 50% hands-on experiment and 50% research.

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4. You have an interesting container gardening system using lined plastic trays from Daiso. How did you come up with this idea? 
I basically ran out of space (as you saw during your visit) so I had to find a way to utilise the corridor wall without “eating” into the walkway anymore than I already did. I also did not want to rely on commercial solutions which were expensive and not user friendly anyway. I knew I wanted an overhanging planter box which was deep enough but more importantly safe and secure, so I made and tried a few prototypes and eventually created one that worked well and cheap too!

5. It’s incredible how much one can grow so much with only 2 hours of full sun each day, and your plants are thriving! What are some edible plants that you would recommend for shady corridors like yours? 
Quite frankly I am amazed too that it has work out so well all things considered. I suppose that is the wonder of nature. I would recommend growing mints, lemon balm, purple basil, purslane, talinum paniculatum, laksa leaves, sweet leaf, stevia, indian borage, ivy gourd and beans!

6. You mainly use chicken manure and compost to fertilise your plants. Do you have some tips to share when it comes to using compost? And how often do you fertilise your edible plants?
Keeping in mind that different plants have different “diets”, I would generally recommend that you mix 20% compost and 5% chicken manure into the fresh garden soil, and use this mixture to plant your plant for a start. You should then add a thin layer of compost to the top of the pot once every month with some chicken manure too. As you water the nutrients will gradually seep into the soil and make available for the plant to feed. Lastly buy only high grade organic compost and manure.

7. Do you have any advice for people who are new to growing edible plants, especially for those living in apartments?
Start by observing and understanding the micro climate of your home environment, especially the location at which you want to grow your plant, each house or apartment has its own unique set of climatic elements like amount of sunlight, wind, shade, rain etc. Once you have a pretty good appreciation of the elements at work there, then start sourcing for a suitable plant based on known characteristics, you can do this by searching the internet or visit a good plant nursery supplier, or better still get in touch with organisations like Edible Garden City 🙂 They frequently hold free community gardening sessions and talks where you can have your questions answered, and get hands-on training on growing your own food.The final advice I would give is not to give up!

Thank you, Donald!

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If you’re not already familiar with Edible Gardens, follow them on Facebook at Edible “Garden City” Project and Nong by Edible Gardens.
  • Alter Mellion

    Waouh! That’s great! I thought about trying something like that, but seeing make me want to do the step. Do you know what was the reaction of the neighbors? That would be my main interrogation. But maybe if we share a bit of the product with them, they would be pleased to have such a greenery seen before their door.

    December 8, 2014 at 5:07 pm Reply
  • Phyllis Pan

    How do I contact Donald & Rachael? I would like to seek their advice on planting creeper plants along my corridor railing.

    Thanks!

    Phyllis

    April 24, 2015 at 9:28 pm Reply
  • Anna

    Hi would like to knw Hw u made those plast tray planter box. Hw did u line them. Wad material did u use to line the tray?

    June 15, 2015 at 2:59 pm Reply
  • kannan kurusamy

    where can we purchase this geotextile material?

    July 3, 2015 at 4:50 pm Reply
  • GP CHUA

    Hi Olivia
    I am Mr GP Chua, doing a Video Documentary project on Organic Farming under S50 scheme and noted that your nature spirit and the awesome Donald Edible City Garden Singapore

    Can we meet with Donald at his place to tape your Value-add for COP 21

    I am contactable at 96391733 GP

    July 12, 2015 at 1:22 pm Reply
  • Aishah Jaffar

    Awesome write up! I just discovered your blog and am enjoying your posts and stories….I just started my balcony veggie garden and have always been keen to rear chicken although I have small space….I saw that Donald has quails & finches and would like to learn how he takes care of them successfully…. Can you connect me to him?

    July 26, 2015 at 6:13 am Reply

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