How to cultivate an edible garden in your backyard
This is the first article in our new gardening series "Ready, Set, Grow!" brought to you by Eats, Shoots & Roots, the social enterprise that champions urban edible gardening. Each month, we will feature a gardener's journey in the hopes of inspiring more Malaysians to grow their own food.
Over a year ago, Dian Lee, 33, embarked on her gardening journey to feed her family with food grown in her backyard. Here's a Q&A telling the story behind her edible garden, the challenges she's faced and the successes she's reaped.
What do you do?
I am a mother of three kids, yoga teacher, and founder/managing director of boutique development company The Clearwater Group.
How long have you been interested in gardening?
I used to keep bonsai pots in my apartment during my university days, that was the only gardening exposure I had before starting the edible garden.
What made you want to start an edible garden of your own?
I love nature and the idea of sustainable living. Then, when Chef Jeff Ramsey worked with Eats, Shoots & Roots to build a rooftop edible garden for our restaurant Babe, I thought to myself, "Why not have one at home too?" I think it's also a great opportunity for our kids to be exposed to nature and learn how much nurturing goes into growing food.
Tell us a little bit about your edible garden.
I started the garden in February 2016 with 13 Grow Tong bins. A year on, we are now using whatever flat land we have to plant and grow, and we have also recently started our own patch of corn. (Grow Tong bins are metal containers of various sizes used to create raised beds.)
How did you choose what kind of vegetables to grow?
Planning what to grow in the garden was easy as my family and I focused on vegetables and produce that we usually eat at home like kangkung and sweet potato leaves.
My kids love to eat carrots so I experimented: I obtained carrot seeds from Thailand and managed to sprout them but when I transplanted the seedlings from their tray to the Grow Tong, it proved unsuccessful due to Malaysia's hot tropical climate.
My husband and I were recently in India and brought back seeds of plant that we love to eat over there, like mustard leaves, non-GMO multicoloured corn, and tulsi.
What has it been like taking care of the garden?
It's been a steep learning curve for me , researching the dos and don'ts, what works and what doesn't. The trial and error doesn't faze me, though, as I'm still continuing to experiment with different types of seeds and plants - at this very moment, I am experimenting with different types of melons (like winter squash).
Has the garden changed your lifestyle?
Having our own edible garden has made us so much more appreciative of food and all the effort that goes into growing it.
I have so much respect for organic farmers everywhere, and now we are very mindful about not wasting food and trying to recycle or compost as much as we can.
What challenges did you face taking care of the garden?
Growing fruiting plants like okra and eggplant is the trickiest because they attract more pests. Because of this, they require extra love and care. Keeping pests from attacking the vegetables and plants was one of the biggest challenges; snails used to be the biggest issue but we have managed to get it under control.
There was an overproduction of Brazilian spinach in the first few months of starting the garden. We had to pull out half the bed because it became too much for us to keep up with. We replaced it with kangkung because it's easier to grow and maintain, and we harvest more of it compared with the Brazilian spinach.
What is your go-to pest control/pesticides?
My favourite (and most consistent) pest control method is to use fossil shell flour (crushed shells). The shells' sharp edges help get rid of pests when they come in contact with them or eat the pieces.
Before discovering the fossil shell flour, I used organic pesticide spray but it washes away every time it rains.
I still use neem spray as a pesticide because it works well to get rid of certain pests, but I mainly use fossil shell flour - I sprinkle it on the garden beds and it stays for a few days, even when it rains.
Any plans to expand?
We now grow almost 30 different types of herbs, vegetables and fruits in our garden with the help of our amazing gardener, Prem. We want to make sure we give the plants we have the care and love they deserve so there are no plans to expand for now - although if my husband and our neighbours agree, I would love to have a cow so we get fresh milk every day!
Do you have urban livestock?
We have a chicken coop just below the Grow Tong bins with a number of happy chickens.
Other than cooking, what do you do with the produce that you grow - do you use it for teas, herbal remedies, etc?
Right now, we mainly grow to cook.
What do you enjoy the most about growing your own food?
Ever since we started this garden, we rarely buy vegetables from the market or store anymore, with the exception of carrots and broccoli, which are the kids' favourite.
Apart from that, everything else is from the garden. From Malabar spinach and kangkung to sweet potato and amaranth, we rotate between the vegetables, in terms of consumption.
We really love the idea of knowing where our food comes from and the sustainability part of eating what you grow.
This is also a great way to stay in tune with nature specially for our kids who live in an urban environment - our three-year-old son Jaan is the watering police, while our nine-year-old son Jedi is the pest/snail hunter.
In your own words, why do you think urban gardening is important?
Because it brings awareness of our environment and the ecosystem in the city. It's not just about growing food but being really eco-conscious in the way we live.
In our household, we are always looking at ways to recycle and reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can. For instance, our food waste and gardening waste go into the composting bin to make compost for our garden.
We also try not to use any toxic products in our household; instead of mosquito fogging, for example, we recently added lotus ponds around the house to attract dragonflies as they are a great mosquito predator.
Do you have any advice for someone that's just getting started?
Be patient, and have fun with it!