City, Garden Stories

Garden Stories: Natural Farmer & Permaculturist Mr Tang Hung Bun


Meet Mr Tang Hung Bun, a joyful, down-to-earth and all-round lovely gentleman. An avid nature lover and experienced permaculturist, Mr Tang is a former physics teacher, and has co-authored a book titled “A photographic guide to the dragonflies of Singapore“. He has since retired from teaching to focus on his passion of farming. He now volunteers with Farmily, a social enterprise which works with senior citizens through farming naturally-grown, pesticide- and chemical-free produce, it is also the farming arm of non-profit group, Ground-Up Initiative (GUI).

I first learned of Mr Tang through his blog, where he shared a soul-crushing video of his established permaculture food forest destroyed by heavy machinery. His landlord decided to lease the land that he rented to a developer, and what he had created in almost two years was demolished in three days. I would later hear my urban farmer friend, Ong Chun Yeow, mention Mr Tang in many of our conversations, and it took me quite a while to make the connection that he was that same person.

I had the immense fortune of meeting him during my visit to Kampung Kampus, and he gave me an impromptu tour of a permaculture garden that he and other volunteers had been working on since mid-January this year, after a few of them discovered a small, temporarily unused plot on the premises. Here is a video of that plot before and after Mr Tang and other Farmily volunteers worked on it. Incredible and inspiring. One of the remarkable things about this garden is that they do not water it.

As you can see from the video, he grows wintermelon, eggplants, roselle, taro, chilli, currant tomatoes, okra, winged beans and bittergourds. Some of these edible plants are intercropped with marigolds, a wonderful companion plant, and the garden features several pigeon pea plants, a shrub favoured by permaculturists for its nitrogen fixing qualities and as “chop and drop” material, there is also a neem tree, which is also a nitrogen fixer, and has many medicinal properties, its small branches can be used as a natural toothbrush.

It was such a pleasure to spend time with Mr Tang. Please read on to find out more about him and his interesting perspectives!

1. When did you develop a love for plants? And how did you get interested in permaculture more than 30 years ago?
When I was about 5, my father bought me a pair of black baby goldfish. I kept them in a bowl and was fascinated by them. To keep them happy and alive, I thought I only needed to provide them with food and water. In just a couple of days, the two fish died. Since then, I have kept many different animals: frogs, jumping spiders, beetles, fish, silk worms, mud skippers, etc. Slowly I became more and more successful in keeping these animals. My great achievement was being able to keep silk worms to the 3rd generation.
That year I was in Primary 2, I think. I remember that in order to keep up with the growing appetite of the many silk worms, I even had to sneak into a nearby school garden at night to steal mulberry leaves for my silk worms. I wouldn’t admit that the animals I kept were my pets. I was simply fascinated by them and wanted to learn more about them.
Later in my life, instead of keeping animals, I started to observe them (mostly birds and insects) in their natural habitats. Through my experience in observing birds and insects, I realized that the habitat is the most important factor for animals to thrive. I also realized that the Natural World is being degraded by human economic activities at alarming rates. We humans are not only using resources at a faster rate than nature can regenerate them. Worse still, we are also destroying the natural systems that regenerate the resources.
Industrial and chemical agriculture is causing a huge negative impact on the Natural World, but I believe many individuals can do something about it – by growing food locally in a responsible manner. In 1989, in Hong Kong, I joined a small group of (then) young people to create the first organic farm in Hong Kong. In the following year, two Australians (not Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, though) came and introduced Permaculture to us. That’s how I got interested and excited about Permaculture, which is an approach of growing food by taking care of Nature, and not by destroying it.
2. During my visit, you shared your perspectives about weeds and that its presence tells us about the soil it grows in. Could you tell us a little more? 
The patterns of weeds in a farm/garden is an indication of how healthy the soil is. Healthy soil should support a variety of weeds. Poor soil and degraded soil only supports a few weeds called the pioneer species such as mimosa (a nitrogen fixer). In Nature, the role of these pioneer species is to enrich the soil by adding organic matter and nutrients to the soil. When the soil becomes more fertile, more weed species will start to appear.
3. What are some of your favourite plants to grow on a permaculture farm plot?
My eggplants are growing well in my soil. I think the microbe communities in the soil match the needs of the eggplants well and hence the eggplants are producing prolifically.
Pigeon pea is one of the Permies’ (permaculturists) favourites. I have 6 pigeon pea plants in my permaculture plot. They grow easily and are doing a great job, producing a lot of branches and leaves for me to use as mulching materials. It is a legume – a nitrogen fixer too. I checked the roots of a pigeon pea plant some time ago and saw healthy-looking root nodules, so I believe my pigeon pea plants are really enriching the soil in my plot.
4. I find it amazing how you can farm without watering your plants. What water-saving strategies do you use?
Mainly by mulching, the thicker the better. Not only does the mulching layer protect the soil (habitat for soil creatures) from strong sun and heavy rain, it also adds nutrients to the soil when the organic matters break down. The humus produced will improve the soil structure, which can then keep the moisture in the soil better. When this state is achieved, you have reduced evaporation (due to the mulch layer) and increased soil moisture (due to the humus).
5. Do you have any advice for gardeners who would like to know more about building a healthy soil food web?
Gather large quantities and varieties of mulching materials (varieties of weeds, varieties of leaves, varieties of grass), lay them on top of the soil and let Nature take its time to do the job. Fruit peels and vegetable scraps can also be used. I usually put them under the mulch layer.
6. Can you tell us what is next for you? Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
I am going to Taiwan in December and stay in a natural farm for about two months. The farm owner is rather well-known and has been giving talks on Natural Farming(秀明自然農法)  in different parts of China. I hope to learn from him by working on his farm. I will also visit other (smaller) natural farms in Taiwan because different farms have different situations and character.
When I come back to Singapore, I will work towards establishing a small natural farm in Singapore, which will serve as a base to promote natural farming in Singapore. My dream is that Singapore, although a small country, can have many small (0.1 to 0.5 hectare) natural farms in different areas, producing nutritious food while taking care of the natural environment.
I do not adhere to one particular approach of farming. Even in natural farming, there are different approaches. But the following two principles must be followed:
(1) Diversity
We need to have a diversity of crops, weeds, and wildlife on the farm. When you have biodiversity on your farm, you are actually managing pests. You don’t need to spray poison. When you have biodiversity, you are recycling nutrients, and the soil is getting all the fertility it needs, without us having to apply fertilizers. You can get rid of the herbicides, the pesticides, the fertilizers through intensifying biodiversity.
(2) Law of Return
We need to be giving back to Nature, giving back to soil. While we are growing food for human consumption, we must at the same time be feeding the living soil too. Hence farm wastes must be returned to the soil as much as possible, through mulching and/or composting. We must assist Nature in recycling nutrients and materials.
Thank you Mr Tang! To follow his journey, read his blog – Everyday Nature, or you can find him working the field at Kampung Kampus. I’m looking forward to hearing about his stay in Taiwan, and his plans for a small natural farm here in Singapore. Let’s wish him our very best!
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