My friend, Pui Cuifen, has been working on Pavilion Edible Garden in her neighbourhood for over a year now. It’s a community garden which she had initiated in 2013, and it has really taken shape since, with active participation from neighbours, and voluntary help from permaculture designer, Debbie Han, and landscaping organisation, The Nature Company.
Having visited their community garden blog on occasion, and seeing updates from Cuifen’s Facebook page, I could tell it was a real labour of love and an inclusive space for residents and members of the public. Cuifen and neighbours, Dennis and Lydia kindly gave me a tour of the community space, which is nestled in a private estate in Bukit Batok. Mr Teo (the gentleman on the right), was diligently tending to plants all afternoon and is an active contributor to the community garden.
I’m a huge supporter of community gardens not just because I love gardening, but I feel that creating one is a great step towards building resilience in the neighbourhood. While Pavilion Edible Garden is still relatively young, they are off to a great start. They have a wonderful set up and variety of plants, which include fruits, vegetables and butterfly attracting plants, and they are quickly gaining traction with the community, with more neighbours taking an interest in the garden.
Featuring permaculture principles, the garden has a banana circle, herb spiral, and will soon have a 3 sisters vegetable bed. It also features wicking beds, and community members create their own compost where possible, although they started off with compost donated by The Nature Company. There is a diverse range of plants which include moringa, winter melon, collard greens, beans, yam, sweet potatoes, okra, chilli, bananas, papayas, and lots of herbs.
During my visit, I had many questions for them.
1. How did you all come together to decide on initiating a community garden to grow edible and ornamental plants?
Cuifen: I attended a sustainability course in Australia in 2008, and was really inspired by this street of edible food which I came across in the residential streets of Sydney. It became a long-time dream that didn’t look like it would come true anytime soon because I didn’t even know my next door neighbour (despite moving in 10 years back), I don’t call myself a gardener, and I feel I still have so much to learn. I was just experimenting with composting at home!
In January 2013, I happened to meet neighbour Steven, who is also a fellow member with Nature Society (Singapore). Over a Facebook conversation one day, I told him of this long-time dream. He invited me to share my dream at the upcoming Neighbourhood Committee (NC) meeting.
2. Was it easy to set up a community garden? What were the steps involved?
Cuifen: It was really difficult to share a personal dream with people who are really strangers even though we live in the same neighbourhood, but I realised that they were interested in what I had to say. Ricky, who chaired the meeting, shared that we already have two community gardens in the estate. They are situated in front of people’s houses, and in fact, I walk past one of them every day. After the initial excitement of creating those gardens, they are now maintained by only one person per plot, by people who do not even live in the estate. The NC wanted to bring this street verge gardens to every street in our estate. But seeing how the gardens are no longer maintained by the community, they had given up.
Ricky essentially said – we can apply to start a community garden, and invite the MP to launch. It is very easy to start a garden.
In my mind, I thought, “is it so easy?” There was something lacking in what he said – the community. We need a community of neighbours to start the community garden.
The question was how many neighbours do we need to ask to start a community garden? And how do we even begin? I realised that while I had supporters in the NC, it was really my own choice to make in going ahead with this community garden project.
One of the first things we did was to start identifying possible places for the garden
We looked at a few possible places, and came to some conclusions – we don’t want the garden to be too near to people’s houses, we want it to be open to the entire community, we want to get people in the decision making process. NParks agreed to allocate a section of our neighbourhood park to this new garden which will be open to the entire community.
We went door-to-door to ask if people would be interested to join the project.
Initially, I was really afraid and did not know what to say. Neighbour Steven was really nice, and basically demo-ed how to engage neighbours. I went with him and Ricky for a few rounds, before I gained enough courage to take the leap of faith and go on my own. I realised that Steven always asked people if they liked gardening, to decide if they would be interested. I told him, if he asked me the same question, I would say no and not be a part of this project at all.
Instead, I went around introducing myself, and asking neighbours what they want to see in Pavilion, and what how they would like to be a part of the vision. Many support projects for the community, events that bring people together, the idea of creating a space for neighbours to meet and interact (we don’t have a void deck!), easy access to nature and organically-grown food, nostalgia for kampung days. In fact, we found that there are quite a few neighbours who have really green fingers, and grow vegetables and edible plants at home.
It took us several months for we could only cover a few houses each time, but eventually we recorded support from 100+ residents within the community.
In August 2013, we organised a co-create garden design workshop with NParks
Maxel from Community-in-Bloom came to share what other gardens did, and we had Su Lim as our volunteer graphic facilitator to draw out the entire sharing & discussion that followed. Some 30 neighbours turned up for the event, some of whom had never joined any community events prior to this.
In our discussions, it became evident that neighbours wanted to do more as a community, and while there were neighbours who wanted an edible garden, there was also a consensus that a edible garden may be too boring – need flowers and some design planning to make the garden more interesting to more neighbours. We wanted something that is sustainable, that is open for enjoyment by all.
Based on the information collated from the walk-arounds and the workshop, Steven and I started drafting out ideas on how to create the garden
On the surface, it looked easy – we knew what we and the community wanted. We also had good ideas gained from other community gardens, including Comcrop. However, we are not designers… Debbie Han, an aspiring permaculture garden designer, answered our call for help on Facebook. She came down to survey the place, and gave the NC and edible garden planning team 3 proposals to meet our needs, as well as NParks (as park management, they need to vet our plans).
3. It’s been a year since the launch of this garden, how has its layout evolved so far, from the planning stage to what it is today?
Cuifen: The garden was launched on 7 September 2014. We started creating the garden (i.e. putting in bricks and digging) in November 2013.
The garden layout evolved a lot during the planning stage, and during the garden creation itself. Practicality, budget, and number of people available to help create the garden played a key part in how the garden design evolved.
Following permaculture principles, our original proposal was to first start with water. A long pond with pumps to ensure constant movement of the entire water column was designed, following the existing contours of the landscape and the natural water flow. The idea was to create a pond that allows for planting of aquatic plants with fish (that feed on mosquito larvae), and swales that re-direct pond water overflow to neighbouring beds so that 1) we don’t have to water plants manually, and 2) we don’t have to rely on water irrigation (save cost and make use of what is already available).
We submitted multiple proposals on the pond to the park management. They had so many questions for us – how will water flow if the rain is too heavy? How to ensure that the park user is not caught in a flood because of the pond? Or that there is no mosquito because of the pond? Or to ensure that people don’t walk into the pond, and so on. Some of these questions we felt we had already answered. Pond contractors said they would help us if it helps reassure the park management that the pond is created safely. However, the conversation went on to ponds being difficult to manage, and that we could demonstrate our ability to maintain it by having good housekeeping.
So, the water aspect which was a big part in our garden design had to be taken out. This led to a much “simpler” garden design as we didn’t have tap water supply in the garden.
We also tried asking if we could add gutters to the existing pavilion structure to facilitate rainwater collection. This was also a no as it would involve getting a professional engineer to endorse the gutter addition.
In the end, we focused on building one small area of the garden – the sunniest area where we wanted to grow vegetables.
“Phase 1” of the garden was essentially created over 5 months, with NParks-sponsored landscape workers helping us. We realised we constantly under-estimated the amount of time and manpower needed (e.g. digging trenches to create water reservoirs under our wicking beds took ~3 weeks). The hard work put off some of our neighbours who had initially came to help, and we saw less and less neighbours coming to help each week. Some weeks, it looked like the garden creation would never be complete!
In some ways, having the garden in the park helped – the park management constantly reminded us that we needed to complete our construction soon, so as to restore the lovely green spaces the park offers to neighbours who use the park for various recreational activities.
Besides the veggie area, we managed to add the banana circle, and two additional beds for “3 sisters” and fruiting trees before completing our construction work for now.
4. How do you manage resident expectations when it comes to where they wish to grow plants, since everyone has different ideas of a community garden?
Cuifen: Indeed, everyone has different ideas for the community garden! Even between the core “steering” group – Dennis, Lydia, Steven and myself, there are occasions when we don’t see from the same view point. Usually, it is because the things we focus on are different.
For me, it’s about learning to live sustainability by growing food we eat, and engaging through story-telling. For Dennis / Lydia, they understand the soil, what plants need – and I learn a lot about being patient, and seeing the big picture from them. Because of their in-depth knowledge of how plants grow, they plan what plants to grow next, and how this leads into the story-telling / sharing that I want to do. Steven focuses on plants that attract butterfly host plants, and is really good in networking with neighbours who are not already in on the project.
Several months after the garden was created, one of the neighbours who support the project asked on our Whatsapp group channel, “Why are we focusing on edible plants? Should we be planting flowers… instead?”
At times like this, my first response is to think, “Why are we bringing this up again? We had decided on this months ago.”
Then I remember that many neighbours who are more active in the project now, are actually the “newcomers”. Dennis and Lydia came with their mum to check out our garden, a few weeks after we started garden creation after they saw a flyer which we placed in the mailbox. They have been to the garden almost every week since. Just a couple weeks in after they joined, they started working on the herb spiral. It was really inspiring watching them.
5. How do residents get together to maintain the garden? Is there a system when it comes to managing this space, and mobilising the community?
Cuifen: We really have 8 “groups” of neighbours taking care of different areas of the garden now.
One of the most hardworking is Mr. Teo. He pointed out that if he was not allocated a space, he wouldn’t be a part of the team – so he was the first person with an allocated bed. Mr. Teo re-designed a wicking bed into a lucky 8, and then took care of a pergola next to it also. We would talk every time we meet – him in Mandarin, and me in broken Chinese, and he would also call me to tell me what is going on in the garden. The area he cares for now is quite big – but he has been very generous, giving out almost every winter melon he planted, and basically told us when to plan for harvest days, etc. The only big complaint he has was the winter melons being “stolen” before they had the chance to grow – many a time he would say he didn’t want to garden any more, because it is not meaningful to have your harvests stolen before they really grow to their full size.
The areas that are allocated are selected by the neighbours. There is this extended family who came by and said they wanted to grow veggies at home, but didn’t have the right sunlight, etc conditions. They chose a small bed to work with – and it’s an amazing sight, because the 3 generations will chip in in one way or another!
There is at least 1 neighbour “Auntie” who add plants at random, and would come by when she’s free (and no one else around) to add chilli spray and check the plants.
During the drought season and for many months afterwards, we had 5 neighbours volunteering to be part of the daily watering team. I am most proud of this team for we didn’t have tap water supply, and needed to wheel water barrels from our homes. But we survived the drought, and our garden remained green throughout.
There are also neighbours who asked why bother with raised beds, suggest we should build greenhouses… At least 1 also said we need to schedule at least 5 neighbours to tend to the community garden each week otherwise it isn’t really a community garden.
Every one who raised a question, a suggestion, a critique… is right in their own world. If we go down the route of arguing who is right, the project, its aim of bringing people together, will not meet its intention. Often, I remind myself to listen to what the person is really trying to say.
“At the very core, I think we agree on these principles – edible food. eco-friendly. neighbours first”
For mobilising the community, we are still working out an optimal means to update our neighbours, really. Some are really tuned in to internet or email updates, others prefer to be personally contacted. As administrator of our estate’s Facebook page (~170 residents), I would occasionally post our edible garden activities on the page, but am careful not to over-post as the FB is meant for everyone in our estate.
We try to have planned activities once a week on a schedule. 1st two weeks – Saturday mornings, rest of the month – Sunday mornings. Sometimes, I find that more people turn up when there’s a special occasion. e.g. breakfast in a park, celebrations, or when we have visitors! It’s always awesome when people turn up for one reason or another.
Once a month, I send out an email to interested neighbours (100+ residents) who have said they wanted to be updated on the goings-on in the garden. Some neighbours don’t help in the garden for various reasons (old injury, old age, allergy to pollen, etc) but would come by the garden to check it out. They would email or tell me in person, how it has inspired them and how much they appreciate that this project is being carried out in the neighbourhood.
Some neighbours prefer to be updated through sms, Whatsapp or phone calls. A core group of 20+ neighbours are in our group Whatsapp channel. Also, the happenings from the group sessions are blogged on http://pavilioncommunitygarden.wordpress.com/. Lydia and I have been posting this blog on a regular basis.
6. When it comes to harvesting crops, you said that a text message is sent out around two weeks in advance, informing residents that harvest time is coming. How do you ensure that everyone gets their fair share?
Cuifen: Neighbour Mr. Teo, Dennis and Lydia are really good with growing food crops – and they can tell when a crop is ready for harvesting. I get to know that “harvesting” can be done in two weeks’ time, one weeks’ time or even in a few days, and then it’s my role as Coordinator to go tell everyone who may be interested.
So far, our “policy” has been – if you have contributed to the edible garden project, you will have first priority to the harvests. So, the core members in our Whatsapp channel get informed first, and then those on sms / calls. They will come by to pick up the harvests, or we distribute them.
If there is excess, whoever comes along to check out the goings-on at the garden gets to take a share.
7. Do you have a favourite spot in the garden?
Cuifen: For me – the banana circle (the banana plants are so awe-inspiring!), the herb spiral and the 3 sisters’ bed. All 3 are based on permaculture principles (designing with nature), and there is so much stories that we can tell. I can’t wait to do a real learning journey for children at this garden! I love being able to harvest laksa leaves, etc from the herb spiral.
Dennis: I really like the herb spiral. I can’t get enough of aloe vera (especially in the form of a cold dessert with lemon juice, yum!) and fragrant herbs. Not to mention that my sister and I spent quite a bit of time working on that area in the initial stages of the garden formation.
Lydia: The herb spiral and Three Sisters Bed! I like that they both have a large variety of plants in a small space and that they are both educational spots.
8. What else would you like to see in this garden?
Cuifen: The pond, because it was meant to be the heart and soul of the garden, more neighbours coming to enjoy and also to learn and share, more activities themed around local food and sustainability, a learning garden that is so much more.
Dennis & Lydia: The pond that was initially in the early plans. It opens up quite a bit of opportunities in terms of what we can plant. We’re also thinking of making our own shishi-odoshi (rocking bamboo fountain) to place somewhere near flowing water so the pond might be one place to do it. Also, we would like to see more neighbours coming down to enjoy this space we’ve created.
9. What are some of the challenges you had experienced when setting up this garden?
Cuifen: Challenges… right now, the key topic in my mind is people, not so much on the garden pests and weather. But perhaps that’s because my perspective is that of the coordinator, and not so much the day-to-day care of the plants.
Our garden was damaged recently, with items from the garden broken or strewn around the park. Even items in the park such as the dog poo signage and a rubbish bin were not spared. We don’t know who did it as no one we spoke to saw it happening and there was no CCTV. We had previously incurred “damages” when children kicked football in the park, and used our garden items as their goal posts / targets. One of my worries is how park users who may not know much about the project view the edible garden. I take heart with the knowledge that there are neighbours who do understand what we do and our challenges.
Still on people, the challenge I feel is knowing when to stand firm on agreed upon principles, and when to let go and go with the flow. This, I feel, is where I feel most tested on in terms of my leadership skills.
Garden pests… Dennis & Lydia can certainly share more on it! One of the first plants we grew were long beans. We didn’t get to harvest any beans for the plant was infested by numerous aphids, and we had to take down the whole plant. I learnt from Dennis & Lydia that we had to remove the aphids or cut the stems carefully because they spread easily. We really appreciated the many lady birds that were in the garden when we planted long beans again. The aphids are back on another bean plant, and we hope that there will be sufficient lady birds again to feed on the aphids.
Weather wise, Mr. Teo shared that not a lot of new plants can be grown during the wet season. On the brighter side, the more established ones are growing fast and well.
10. What are some lessons that you’ve learnt from being involved in this building this space?
Cuifen: Personally, I felt we rushed the project was rushed into creation, in part because we wanted “action” after sharing with neighbours the dream, and also the need to produce detailed plans to the park management. So, after the initial design by Debbie was done, the NC gave their approval, and we immediately moved into detailing how much bricks, etc we need.
In hindsight, I feel that the neighbours who expressed interest would have appreciated the opportunity to give their stamp of approval as well.
One of the feedback we received after the first wicking beds were done was that they resembled tomb stones (which is not good feng shui). That led to Neighbour Teo turning his wicking bed into a much “luckier” figure 8.
I also talked to Social Creatives for a while, as we wanted the community to paint on the bricks to have a greater sense of ownership to the place in general. It didn’t work out in the end as there was significant costs involved.
One of the things I noticed in myself was after the euphorbia of manifesting the dream with the creation of the garden, I felt that I was no longer connecting with neighbours or even the dream in the way I did when I was house-visiting. I was focused on getting things done because there was a deadline we had to meet.
Having neighbours like Dennis, Lydia, Sharon, Jo, Ricky, Steven, is a blessing – because they saw the worst in me (when I wasn’t at my best), and when I’m trying my best to do more. I’m feel blessed the many neighbours I know personally now, I’m in contact with because of this edible garden project.
Dennis: Gardening at home compared to the community garden is quite different in the sense that resources are sometimes inaccessible (like water when we first started). It is much more challenging to care for the plants too as we are not able to rush down to the location to shield plants from bad weather. Because it is a community garden, having a general plan for the garden and letting the community be aware of that is quite useful because it becomes easier to coordinate who grows what where. That being said, sometimes neighbours still plant in areas where there seems to be empty spots – and we have to adapt to that in a community setting.
Lydia: We have to learn to compromise no matter what because of the different mindsets that exist within the community.
11. Do you have any advice for people who might wish to set up a community garden in their neighbourhood?
Cuifen: Various people have told me they are inspired to start a community garden, or had tried and failed. They contacted me because they heard of the edible garden through Facebook, the garden blog, or friends within the edible garden or sustainable communities.
I basically tell them – I haven’t seen a checklist on how to start a community garden really.
Based on my experience, my advice is this:
- understand why you want to start a community garden
- understand what “community” means to you – who do you need to reach out to?
- communicate this to your neighbours / interested indivduals. find at least 10 neighbours who share your “why”
- find a space that is under-utilised, check who owns it, and ask them if it could be turned into a community garden
- co-design the garden. get the community’s approval, and the land-lord’s (if needed)
- get funding if available (in Southwest CDC, we get $3000 for community garden creation as long as we commit to planting native plants)
- make sure your garden is sustainable in the long-term
Dennis: Gardening is not easy but what you reap from the hard work is worth it. Sometimes working a little harder at the beginning might actually save you quite a bit of effort later on. Always remember that the community is key, so communication, being willing to adapt, mutual understanding and learning are important aspects to look out for.
Thank you Cuifen, Dennis, Lydia and Mr Teo! To find out more about the Pavilion Edible Garden, visit their blog here.