My grandfather had a garden where he planted flower bushes, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. Before I was born, he reared chickens and geese, but I suppose he gave those up with age. He made his own compost in a raised mound (it had worms crawling all over it, in a time before I developed a phobia for them) and collected urine from the bedroom potty (he, either intentionally or not, kept the dark yellow liquid in a Zappel bottle and put it out in the open) as fertiliser.
He was recycling before it became a fad, loving to work with his hands as he did. He made water ladles out of old cans; bottles were rarely discarded; rainwater and drain water were harvested; he even made his own yoghurt! – which tasted comfortingly sour. Nothing went to waste – not even the waste.
I was very little then, but I remember fat, ripe starfruits hanging from the tree; my grandfather cutting aloe vera stalks that grew next to the drain and using them to moisturise his bald head; my grandmother picking kaffir lime or the leaves, or curry leaves, or lemongrass – depending on what she was cooking – from the garden. Their neighbour had a flower garden, and I would see stalks of orchids on the altar every so often. I can only imagine that they were swapping produce – leaf or fruit for flower.
His garden grew wild in time. His children took after him in their own ways, but none were as prolific or productive as him.
Dave Richards (standing, first from right) at the award-winning Erleigh Road Community Garden.
I hadn’t known then that he was doing a form of permaculture, which is in essence “the design of an ecologically sound way of living – in our households, gardens, communities and businesses. It is created by cooperating with nature and caring for the Earth and its people.”1
I wasn’t too familiar with the concept either until I attended a talk by permaculture proponent Dave Richards at Hikayat in George Town. Richards, who was visiting, designs and builds community gardens in Britain. He is responsible for the forest garden on the roof of the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) in Reading, England, which I had unwittingly visited years ago as a student. I was there merely for a pint.
During his talk, aptly titled “The Power of Growing”, Richards walked the audience through the permaculture concept, and screened the film, Eat, Grow, Love. It was fascinating to watch how permaculture can be carried out in any climate, in any part of the world, by virtually anybody. In the film, we travelled to India, Iceland, England, Australia, Palestine and the US, and saw how individuals and communities found ways to grow their own food in a sustainable manner, using natural elements as much as possible – in the process empowering them. This also raises awareness on the alarming rate food is wasted and the importance of establishing community ties – and how permaculture can be a tool to cultivate this, and increase understanding of other cultures. All very holistic, really.
While the concept is gaining traction here, it is yet to be widespread practice. I wonder if this is because a third of Penang live in high-rises,2 and folks have less access to land for growing things in. But then again, the concept of rooftop gardens is hardly new – Richards’ edible forest garden atop RISC has been around since 2002; in population-dense Singapore, its urban greenery scheme was first introduced by the government in 2009. “There is a lot of information available on rooftop growing, from simple self-irrigating containers with ways of preventing loss of water from evaporation, to low-cost methods using recycle materials,” says Richards.
“I visited some of Singapore’s sky gardens – food growing is promoted by their National Parks Board, and I was shown some of their community and school projects. They receive funding from the government – it’s part of their education project because they see the advantage of doing this. They have community food spaces in the vicinity of their flats. Because of urban temperatures, it gets too hot for cars to park at the top level of multi-storey carparks, so they’ve turned some of these into community allotments. It’s big open space, and it’s a perfect way to repurpose spaces.”
In Malaysia, people are doing it as well. “I know a guy who does compositing ground control in KL, growing on roofs using his system. At Hin Bus Depot in Penang, there are demonstrations on what you can grow in a standard-sized balcony. There’s expertise in Malaysia you can tap into – it’s getting the landlords to buy into it as well.” There are many others who grow on the ground – Tropical Spice Garden, Sevenoaks Green, Wonder Wilderfarm, Pop & Chee; and in more urban settings The Pharm and the work that Jawi House chef Nurilkarim Razha is doing; are some examples.
Lebuh Armenian's tidy back lane, with daun kaduk growing in a row.
Urbanity is not an excuse not to get started, as Nuril can attest for. When I visited him for a separate article (“Jawi Pekan Cuisine – Unique to Penang, Yet So Evocative of the Other Foods”), he took me to the back of Jawi House, to the back lane, which had been rejuvenated as part of Think City’s pilot Armenian Street back-lanes project. That it was neat and was rather spacious was one thing; that daun kadok were thriving at the side was another. This, in the heart of George Town!
“There was daun kesum as well, but that didn’t survive,” says Nuril, explaining that it’s not easy to grow the herb alongside other plants. He also uses the back lane to grow potted chilli plants, okra (the ones he grew at his house shot up to an alarming six feet, he says, which he had to trim), pandan and other herbs, directing condensate water from the air-conditioning unit to water the plants.
Back at home, he has more space to grow things – and to compost. “We collect the organic waste from Jawi House in drums and bring it home to compost. The process takes some time, of course, but once it’s done we use it to grow our produce. It rejuvenates the nutrients in the soil, and at the same time reduces waste from the restaurant itself – that’s one aspect of permaculture that we try to practice. That kind of cycle is quite satisfying, and we’re trying our best to reduce our waste which goes to the landfill, and to recycle as much as we can.”
And there should always be a sense of curiosity and willingness to learn for any seedling to sprout – metaphorically speaking. “I was always into gardening, and my mum as well – we’ve always grown up around plants. My manager, Danial, introduced me to the permaculture concept; and I read this book by Masanobu Fukuoka called The One-Straw Revolution – that got me really excited about it, and from there we just did a little bit more research, basically reading and watching YouTube videos and such. And then I met Richards – someone who’s actually forwarding the movement in the UK, and I thought it was quite interesting.”
It all begins with education, naturally. “I run training courses for schools and teachers just to get them to see that it is worth their time to invest in it,” says Richards, “and with imagination and a little bit of money, you can see successful examples in schools: the academic scores of the schools increase, the sense of well-being increases, and there is good engagement between the parents, the children and the teachers. Working together breaks down barriers.
“It does require people with experience in community development, which is tough because people’s sense of community has diminished. Be it a school community or not, community development is a long and ongoing process – it’s not a one-off event, it has to be built upon, so it requires people who can do that kind of work, with the patience to achieve that long-term goal.”
Outside of school, Richards reveals that one way to propel the movement forward among working-class communities is through single mums and their children. “If you are offering them a place where they can go and meet other people who are perhaps in the same kind of situation – maybe other mums – the gardening becomes secondary. It’s actually about people coming together – the social aspect of gardening is the most valuable.
“It’s about sharing things – whether it’s looking after the vegetable plot and then harvesting and eating the vegetables together. We offer cooking lessons for single mums, primarily, and provide crèche facilities where they don’t have to worry too much about their children. Through cooking, they get to know the ingredients – and the gardening.”
Richards says that in the UK, the city-farm movement goes back 40 years, and that the most successful ones have developed, with some luck, into community centres with a bit of farming and gardening. These provide all sorts of education – such as literacy classes for people who do not have English as their first language; and training courses on how to process food and meat. He sees parallels with Tropical Spice Garden and Hin Bus Depot, in particular.
Nurilkarim Razha makes his compost from organic waste collected from his restaurant.
“Another thing which could come out of a good community food-growing project is a way of educating – particularly young people – about the importance of food culture in our identity,” says Richards. “There’s a real danger that it’s being lost because people have lost that sort of connection with the soil and with plants. That’s another yield in permaculture.”
Loo Lymun of Ecocentric Transitions in KL, which he co-founded with Firdaus Nisha, conducts children’s programmes and community programmes on environmental concerns, such as saving water and growing food. “We’ve incorporated some of the values and principles of permaculture into our programmes, and we teach people about it.
“One programme that really worked for us was when we worked with a home for troubled children and children from poor families. The home had a small plot – about a quarter acre – where they started planting. After three months they harvested everything and sold their produce in the market. It was very rewarding for us to see that the children were actually able to do that, and it gave them more confidence to do more things like that.”
But to keep up the effort and to make it sustainable, Loo thinks a champion is needed – be it in the form of a school principal, residents’ associations or politician. He cites a community garden in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, a suburb in KL, which is run by retirees; and a recycling programme run by a residents’ association; as examples. In Penang, Member of Parliament for Bayan Baru, Sim Tze Sin, recently initiated an urban farm at his service centre, and has identified four other places – two of which are schools – where urban farming projects will be conducted.
“Sometimes it takes just one or two people to really tip things,” says Richards. “Incredible Edible Todmorden was initiated by two retired women who began asking people for every spare piece of land – just little pockets of land – where they planted food. They did this in the local churchyard, graveyard, schools. It has become an example to other communities, and people are now doing Incredible Edible everywhere.”
It starts from the ground up. The results, as with all things that grow, are not instantaneous, but they will leave a long-lasting mark. I know that my grandfather’s garden did – the starfruit tree still flowers, all these years after his death.
For further reading on permaculture, visit permacultureprinciples.com. Find out more about Dave Richards’ edible rooftop garden at risc.org.uk/gardens.
Julia "Bubba" Tan is editor of Penang Monthly and Head of Penang Institute's Publishing Unit. Some of her earliest memories are of her running rampant in her grandfather's garden.