Joanna Chuah is a breath of fresh air, at only 22 years of age, she is a spirited young lady experienced in growing edible plants. While she specialises in edible flowers, she also shows a keen interest in medicinal plants. Her passion for plants is evident in the manner she speaks about them, there is an unmistakeable excitement in her voice as she introduces me to her garden. She lives in Ang Mo Kio, Singapore, where she grows a unique selection of plants on her rooftop garden, she also has an extended playground for plants in her grandmother’s backyard, and even grows some plants at her university.
My first interaction with Joanna was on Carousell, where there are many willing buyers and sellers of gardening related items. I was so impressed with the variety of plants on her shop and Instagram page that I requested to visit her without delay, I was certainly not disappointed. In her garden she is growing figs, starfruit, passionfruit (a variety found in Taiwan), banana, lemon, coffee, cinnamon, Japanese air yams, chilli, tomato, tulips, blue porterweed flowers, edible roses, among others.
Aside from plants, she sells produce which include edible flowers, fruit and vegetables. Joanna expands her collection of plants through propagation, some of them through a marcotting technique, commonly used for roses and fruit trees. It’s not all purely commerce for her though, she has previously dedicated 100% proceeds of produce for charitable causes that benefitted elderly people and her school’s janitors.
When it comes to fertilising her plants, Joanna mostly uses soil amendments like spent coffee grounds, tea leaves, and crushed eggshells, on rare occasions she uses organic chicken manure. She shared that her pots contain earthworms that help with soil conditioning also. Which then leads me to her penchant for breeding and raising of worms, caterpillars and moths – this is to do with her love of pollinators, and she keeps pollinator-friendly plants to cater to their needs.I spoke with Joanna to find out more about her love of gardening and where it all began.
My childhood home had a back garden, and was located in a forested part of Singapore. I was always surrounded by nature. One day my grandmas friends visited the house with seeds, being a curious kid I planted all of them and took to the hobby almost immediately. I started off gardening to harvest and try what fresh produce tasted like. But my first crops were carrots, corn and lettuce because we had rabbits and bees which I was keen on keeping happy in the garden. The rabbits would eat the carrot tops & the bees would be attracted to the male corn flowers.
Now I’ve moved to growing native edible flowers because its an unexplored territory for me. Its also a niche area in horticulture – many people don’t know what flowers are edible or how to use them. Its also interesting as many Singaporean chefs/bakers are starting to look at local produce and the ways they can incorporate that into their dishes. Rather than import pansies, violas, etc, why not grow our own? Using native flowers has so much symbolic meaning as we are showing that we have an autochthonous and sustainable culinary scene.
Books and magazines – a lot of them. I have about 200 copies of National Geographic in my personal library. But I’d say a good 40% of my plant knowledge comes from listening and learning from gardeners, private plant collectors, farm and nursery owners. You just have to ask and they’d be willing to share!
Because I started gardening from a young age, I’ve already grown most of the common edible plants. So I prefer to challenge myself by growing new plants. That doesn’t mean that I look to growing plants that are “exotic” i.e. better suited to foreign climates like blueberries, apples etc.
Rather, I’ve taken the unconventional path of reverting to TCM medicinal plants and native edible flowers to preserve our heritage.
I choose these plants according to their suitability to my location (whether they can tolerate sun & heat), use value (whether all parts of the plant are useful) and their aesthetic value (how beautiful the flowers/plants are).
As mentioned, I grew up with rabbits, dogs, fish, bees, earthworms and butterflies. So Ive seen the benefits they bring to the garden, but Ive also got a sentimental attachment to these creatures.
Many people who visit my garden are often shocked at how many lime caterpillars are on my lemon tree. I keep them on because they provide so many functions for the plant – they eat off old leaves (pruning function), fertilise (through their poop) and subsequently pollinate my flowers (when they become butterflies).
Also I strongly believe that all gardeners must necessarily believe that we co-exist with nature harmoniously – we shouldn’t be allowed to choose between what creatures should be in our garden. The reality is that every creature acts as a check on the other. Hence every creature is important for the garden’s ecosystem.