Home is where the kale is

The thing about eating healthily is that it isn't always easy. Having a salad for lunch can involve a 20-minute trip to the supermarket to stock up on greens, and you inevitably end up using only a third of your purchases, and then tossing the rest - in the garbage, not your bowl.

Donald Tan has got it all figured out, though. The 49-year-old urban farmer, undaunted by the lack of space in urbanised Singapore, began using his HDB corridor in Punggol to grow plants 13 years ago. He started with ornamental plants, and introduced edibles to his garden about a year ago, and now his family enjoys (corridor) farm-to-table produce on a daily basis.

The former IT manager laughs: "My wife Rachel doesn't really partake in the maintenance of the plants, but she harvests them for cooking. She enjoys the cooking part, and I enjoy the planting and eating part. So it's a great partnership."

Mr Tan's love affair with horticulture began when he was a child. He explains: "Having grown up in a kampung in Upper Thomson Road, it was like living in a literal farm environment. We even had ducks, chickens and geese."

His father's pride and joy was an orchid garden that Mr Tan helped maintain on a regular basis, and it was from him that he realised the joy that tending plants could bring. He says: "When I moved into my Punggol flat 13 years ago, it was barren. It was just this long empty corridor, and coming home to that kind of environment after a long day of working in IT was just sad. I immediately decided to build a garden from scratch and liven up the place."

Not knowing whether he was allowed to use the common corridor for his own purposes, the Curtin University graduate looked up the rules and regulations on the HDB website before starting his project. Being the first occupant on the residential floor, he also didn't have to endure complaints from neighbours, as he'd already started planting by the time they moved in.

He says: "We've actually never had any complaints about the plants, and some of our older neighbours even come up to my floor just to enjoy the greenery. I think there's a certain convenience of having a green area within the block to take pleasure in."

The success of Mr Tan's personal garden has attracted its share of admirers. Among them are Lisa Teh and Yong Shu Ling, filmmakers of the documentary Growing Roots. The urban farming documentary is part of a five-part series of documentaries titled Singapore Stories, a project by Discovery Channel to commemorate Singapore's 50th birthday.

Ms Yong says: "We've talked to people in Singapore about urban farming, and they cite lack of space or having the wrong climate as reasons for not giving it a go. Since over 80 per cent of people here live in HDB flats, we hope that Donald and Rachel's story will demonstrate it is possible." She adds: "We also hope that viewers of Growing Roots will be inspired to grow their own greens too, especially after they see the mouth-watering nasi ulam dish that Rachel prepares, made with ingredients freshly harvested from their corridor."

Along with the ulang raja leaves which contribute to the special dish, Mr Tan also grows edibles like the red leaf hibiscus and kale, and though the latter is typically associated with temperate climates, it has been growing well since it was planted six months ago. The main difference between it and what you would find in a supermarket is that its leaves are slightly smaller.

His advice for the horti-curious is to acknowledge the fact that there are constraints, and work with them. He says: "Our HDB or high-rise units are all designed differently, but anyone can take a process approach and figure out what works well in their own micro-climate. There's no substitute for experience because everyone's growing environment is different, but we can all grow something."

Mr Tan is also a full-time team member of Edible Garden City, a company which promotes growing natural produce in Singapore, and doesn't regret giving up his place in the rat race at all. He says: "After 20 years of being in IT, I just didn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I should have probably been a farmer from the start."

The seven-member team grows edibles for select clients who commission the company to grow and maintain gardens for them, and the collaborations tend to be tight-knit and long-term. The father of two jokes: "I think I'm the only one in the team who's a bit mad about growing stuff at home despite working in the field or on the rooftop all day long. I just don't seem to get tired of it!"


Catch the encore telecasts of Growing Roots on Aug 1 at 7pm and Aug 2 at 10pm on StarHub Channel 422 or Singtel TV Channel 202

This article was first published on July 31, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.