'I've found myself through farming'

Tucked away in a corner of the rooftop farm is a small bunch of green grapes.

At the foot of the vine is a planter box of flowering strawberry plants.

These temperate-climate fruits are growing surprisingly well in tropical Singapore.

Mr Calvin Soh, 47, is growing them on the roof of a block of private apartments in East Coast Road where he lives.

They are his prized possessions.

The stay-at-home dad to daughter, Ava, 8, and son, Dylan, 12, says with a tinge of pride: "They are hard to grow and they take some skill to master. I'm still learning.

"My kids love eating them and I love watching them pluck the fresh fruits."

He says he has to watch the amount of sun and humidity the plants get.

"Too much and they don't fruit properly. Plus, I'm growing them in a pot, not in the ground."

He says he chooses a spot where the plants get only the morning sun.

Mr Soh, who left his job as vice-chairman and chief creative officer of ad agency Publicis Asia to spend time with his children, started his farming adventure about six years ago.

He says: "Living in the heart of the city makes us disconnected from the nature. When we are disconnected, we can eat half a drumstick and throw the other half away.

"But if you rear chicken, you will understand the effort that goes into rearing it. To respect the chicken, you will eat every part of the bird."

He also does not want his kids to grow up taking things for granted.

Mr Soh says: "I want them to see where food comes from and be more conscious of the world that we live in."

He started off planting ornamental plants, such as orange jasmine blossoms: "When it blooms, the smell is very nice. But you can't eat it."

He then moved on to planting edible plants, with some know-how passed down from his mother.

"Once you get into it, you realise how easy it is. Nature will take care of itself," he says.


He plants about 40 types of edible plants, including fruits, vegetables and herbs. He grows pomelo, green peppers, tomatoes, bok choy, spinach, long beans and even less common plants like arugula or rocket leaves.

Besides the space on the rooftop, Mr Soh also makes use of his living room balcony and even the bedrooms.

He says: "My mother has a ku cai (garlic chives) farm in her room. My son has tomatoes, lady's fingers, cactus, brinjal and ku cai growing in his room's balcony."

So far, Mr Soh has been able to fulfil about 30 per cent of his family's food needs. Sometimes, he can even produce enough to cook a meal for 15 people.

"Every day, we can go upstairs and pluck something for a stir-fry," he says.

He shows us his long bean plants, which, when mature, can produce eight to ten long beans a day.

"My kids like it. We chop them up and fry an omelette with it," Mr Soh says.

He and Dylan harvest two different types of spinach and blanch them to make a simple dish, paired with a homemade sauce.

Mr Soh says he spends about an hour a day maintaining his garden, with his children helping out with specific chores like composting.

In the evening, the rooftop farm turns into a romantic place he escapes to with his wife.

"It can be quite therapeutic. After the kids are in bed, my wife and I go up to the rooftop farm and spend some time with each other. It is very nice," he says.

He hopes to expand his farm to the point where he can sustain about 60 per cent of his family's food needs.

Farming has made him more connected to life.

Says Mr Soh: "It has given me a deeper understanding of life. I have found myself through farming. It opens up your mind. It is not just a hobby. It is a philosophy of life.


This article was first published on Nov 30, 2014.
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