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City, Garden Stories

Garden Stories: Verge Farmers Justine & Scott of The Farmers

With so many under-utilised little pockets of land available on Singapore’s street verges, why not grow some food and educate others in the process? The Farmers, Justine Ong-Farmer and Scott Farmer – decided to do just that. After trying their hand at growing edibles less than a year ago, they have come a long way in such a short period of time with their trial-and-error approach and some helpful advice from Justine’s mother.

With this knowledge of growing and cooking with local herbs and vegetables, they started offering workshops to connect Singapore residents to local plants and food. After realising that local ingredients are more readily available on sidewalks compared to supermarkets and wet markets, they wanted to communicate that there is a value to eating and growing plants native to Singapore.

As part of their regular workshop, A Seat at The Farmer’s Table, participants pick ingredients from their garden and get involved in making nasi ulam and chilli chukka, and savour some of their tasty nasi ulam – I’ve tried it, it’s really good!

To date, they have grown cabbage, rosella, ulam rajah, bittergourd, Thai basil, pear and cherry tomatoes, marigolds, turmeric, okra, papaya, and blue butterfly pea among others, on this newly reclaimed verge alone. At home and on another more established verge, there are edible plants like banana, neem, soursop, pandan, wild pepper, torch ginger, lettuce, cucamelons, bayam, and more.

I sat down with Justine and Scott to find our more about their urban farming journey and their verge garden situated at Yio Chu Kang.

1. When did you both discover that you loved growing plants?

Justine: I was never really interested in plants until Scott and I bought our first plant together for his place in the early days of our relationship. We call him Lazarus (nickname ‘Lazzy’) because he has looked dead and then come back to life several times over the last couple of years we’ve had him. He’s alive and kicking today.

2. You both use a lot of natural farming techniques, which makes use of the materials already available to you. Where did you learn to grow edible plants?

Justine: My mum has been growing fruit trees and vegetables in our home garden for many years now. She’s usually the first person I turn to when I have questions. She’s very crafty and super innovative, always encouraging us to come up with solutions using what nature has provided or what we can find around the house.

Scott: I think we’ve learnt most of our techniques as we’ve gone along. Back in the UK, we always had a vegetable garden when I was growing up but I was never actively involved – I guess I may have picked up some knowledge through occasional digging, picking and watching. But really, we just make sure we spend a bit of time every day fiddling and talking to the plants – I don’t think there is any real secret!

Using coconuts to form a border around their verge garden
Using egg cartons as mulch
Dried palm fronds used as mulch
Making sure nothing is wasted

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City, Garden Stories

Garden Stories: Natural Plant Dyer & Textile Artist Agy Lee

Agatha Lee, or Agy, for short, is a long-time environmental advocate who raises awareness of environmental sustainability through her work with textiles. Formerly from Hong Kong, she has been living with her family in Singapore for almost two decades now. She spent half of that time here at the National Environmental Agency before finding her true calling in sustainable fashion, starting with an informative blog on repairing and upcycling clothing, and then co-founding Connected Threads Asia, which runs the local Fashion Revolution Day annually. She eventually moved on to focus on personal artistic projects.

After spending many years honing her craft, Agy developed into an artist, using natural materials and discarded fabrics to create wearable fashion or art pieces, always remaining true to her sustainability roots. She now goes by the name Agy Textile Artist. These days she also busies herself with The Green Collective, a gathering of local eco lifestyle brands in one place – offering retail, co-working office space and workshops.

I’ve known Agy for some years now in the environmental sector, but it was only last year that we began collaborating on workshops, mainly beeswax wrap classes. I’ve always admired the work she does and I love her refashioned pieces, especially her latest wardrobe addition – espadrilles made with fabric scraps. Agy is very creative indeed!

Apart from natural dyeing, she specialises in free motion embroidery, a technique she has used to create artwork from her Nature in Stitches series, and Ocean series, the latter being a collaboration with another artist, Arana Kennedy. Some of this work is documented on her YouTube page, along with other artistic endeavours such as various mending techniques, the natural dyeing process, as well as hand embroidery, so be sure to check it out!

I spent some time with Agy and created my first Garden Stories video on YouTube. Here’s my interview with her.

1. When did you discover your love for working with plants?
I enjoy working with plants and experimenting with their colours. I realised it when I started to explore the parks in my neighbourhood two years ago when I needed to slow down in life. As I reconnected with nature, I started to notice their different textures and how their beauty could be translated into stitches and colour in textiles. There are so many plants in Singapore, and I have to admit I have only touched the surface.

2. Where do you get your inspiration for your creations from?
Nature! There’s so much inspiration out there, you just have to look! I love observing my surroundings and how the public interacts with it. My first work was a series called Nature in Stitches, where I interpreted the bark of common trees in Singapore using natural dyes and free motion embroidery. I then worked on a collaborative piece called Ocean, which looks at how man’s interference with nature has a negative impact on corals.

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City, Garden Stories

Garden Stories: Edible Flower Enthusiast Joanna Chuah

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.

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City, Secret Gardens

Secret Gardens: A Guerilla Garden in Singapore

With a space constrained country like Singapore, it would be a missed opportunity and utter waste of space for land to be left untouched and not used grow something of value – be it for aesthetics, shade or consumption purposes. Over the weekend, I encountered this neat guerilla garden in a forested area, and I was very envious of the variety of plants growing here.

These plants are tended to by different guerilla gardeners living in apartments nearby, and once in a while, there are neighbours who come by to relax. I encountered a couple of friendly gentlemen, one a jogger, who invited me to come by anytime to visit and said I could come by to chill out, shoot the breeze, and watch the sky if I please. There was a very idyllic vibe to this space, and sounds of the city were inaudible, instead I could only hear bird calls, and what sounded like a frog.

With durian trees growing on one side, the guerilla garden features edible plants such as winter melon, luffa, pumpkin, rosella, eggplant, beans, tomato, pandan, sawtooth coriander, laksa leaf, basil, torch ginger, pineapple, papaya and bananas. Like many other community gardens, they are not immune to thievery – mostly humans, but sometimes wild boars and squirrels, the latter which enjoys a good durian tasting.

I am not able to disclose the whereabouts of this garden, and so I have decided that this would be the first feature of my Secret Gardens series. In some cases owners are publicity shy and do not wish to show their faces, and by having a Secret Gardens series, I am able to share more inspiring gardens with you.

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