Love for gardens rooted in childhood

Take a walk along urban farmer Donald Tan's HDB flat corridor in Punggol and you will find about 40 types of herbs planted neatly on the corridor ledge.

There are common herbs like mint, rosemary and thyme, as well as less common ones like blue pea flower, medicinal plants like wormwood, Okinawa spinach and Cuban oregano.

Rectangular plastic containers are cut to fit the ledge under the railing along the 20m stretch and are secured with cable ties to one another.

Mr Tan says: "They jut out but by not more than 30 per cent (of the container). Much of the weight is bound by the ledge, so there's no danger of them tipping over."

He is clearly passionate about his greens. He can rattle off the name of each herb, its uses, the story behind it and the best way to eat it.

Plucking a leaf from a random plant, he says: "This is stevia, or sweet leaf. It is a natural sweetener, 20 times sweeter than sugar cane.

"I take a bunch, boil it down to a concentrate and use it as an alternative to sugar. It's good for diabetics and has zero calories."

Mr Tan offers us the freshly plucked herbs to nibble on and indeed, the sweetness is intense.

His love for nature and farming stems from his childhood.

The kampung boy at heart recalls the days when he would wake up early to collect chicken eggs and present them to his mother.

After he got married, he moved to his flat, where he has been living for 11 years.

Mr Tan says: "I 'took over' the corridor fast. I focused on all the ornamental plants I could get my hands on. I spent about $1,000 on ornamental plants to see what would work."

Two years ago, he switched to planting edible greenery such as herbs, medicinal plants, vegetables and even microgreens - tiny edible greens used in salads or as a garnish. Mr Tan says: "You can't buy these off the shelves in the supermarket as their shelf life is very limited."

Although tiny, microgreens pack the most nutrients, do not need sunlight to grow and can be harvested within two weeks, he explains. His wife, Mrs Rachael Tan, 47, a programme executive, uses the greens from their corridor farm in her cooking. Mr Tan uses them in his daily salad lunch - a diet he has been on for six months which has helped him lose weight.

"I take a sampling from each plant and add them to the main salad. When the leaves come together, there is a lot to eat."

He advocates eating a large variety of herbs in small amounts instead of a large amount of only a few herbs.


Mr Tan's daughters, aged 17 and 25, also get to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

He says: "The concept of farm-to-table is for health, enjoyment and taste.

"It is fun. You can observe that each plant has its own beautiful aspect. As a hobbyist, that's what I look for."

His passion seems to have rubbed off on his wife, who says she has a lot to learn.

Mrs Tan says: "He has always had a love for gardening and what we have now in our corridor comes closest to having our own garden.

"It's amazing how he has managed to convert an otherwise lifeless corridor to a green one.

"He never ceases to amaze me with his creative (and inexpensive, but more importantly, safe) ideas in putting together all that you see."

The initial set-up cost is about $6 per container, estimates Mr Tan.

He says: "Once you have set it up, it is pretty sustainable."

The Tans neighbour, Mr Lawrence Chai, 32, an engineer, does not mind the corridor farm.

He says: "It is clean and it doesn't give us any problem."

This article was first published on Nov 30, 2014.
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