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Urban Farming Workshops: Helping First-Time Gardeners Grow

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Contributor Jo-ann Huang reflects on learning how to grow fruits and vegetables through trial-and-error planting and YouTube videos. Today, personalised help is at hand. Classes for urban farmers are sprouting up everywhere.  

Caught up in the idyll of harvesting fresh produce from my balcony, I planted my first batch of tomatoes last October. Encouraged by the results – two of my 10 plants have produced a small number of tomatoes already, while the rest are flowering and should bear fruit soon – I’ve since expanded into local favourites like chilli padi, peppers and coriander. I’ve also planted kale, one of my favourite superfoods. These seedlings are sitting under red and blue LED lights in my bedroom until they can be hardened off and planted outside.

As an amateur home gardener who was born without a green thumb, I am proof that growing fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit on your balcony or in your corridor is not as difficult as it looks. Because my friends and family don’t share my passion, I learned from YouTube videos, internet forums and some trial-and-error.

But the few problems I had could have been avoided easily with the right guidance. Although I’ve had success with my tomatoes, I also tried growing rockmelon, butterfly pea and sunflowers. All died from various complications such as insufficient light, overwatering and transplant shock.

Another mistake was planting the wrong type of tomatoes; only certain varieties thrive in tropical climates. The humidity and high temperatures have caused many of the flowers to fall off, resulting in a low fruit yield. It seems my tomatoes survived because of their resilience rather than my skills as a gardener.

A beginner’s course would have saved me a lot of time, and spared me the sadness of watching several seedlings and young plants wither away. Help is now at hand: A growing number of urban farming courses are now available so that home farmers can get a head start on this rewarding – and sometimes challenging – pastime.

Avoiding common first-timer mistakes

Faith Foo set up The Living Centre, an urban farming school, after studying nutritional farming in Australia. She realised that while there was a growing interest among Singaporeans about growing fruits and vegetables, there were few reliable sources of information to guide them.

“While some people have success starting from scratch on their own, many struggled with identifying the right crops to grow in our local warm weather, and understanding the foundations to a strong and healthy crop,” Foo said. “For example, identifying the right soil to use, how to fertilise and water the crops appropriately and effectively manage pest in the garden.”

[quote]Some students also told us that before they attended our workshop [that] they were very confused by the information found on the internet[/quote]

The magnitude of information available – little of it tailored to Singaporean conditions – can be overwhelming for some beginners, she said. “Some students also told us that before they attended our workshop [that] they were very confused by the information found on the internet, including the wide array of tips shared in social media,” she said. “It can be very beneficial to be trained within a structured and engaging urban farming curriculum.”

The Living Centre’s full-day urban farming courses cost about SG$200 and cover topics like growing fruit and leafy greens, hydroponics and composting. The Living Centre was the first urban farming course to qualify for SkillsFuture, a government initiative that funds self-improvement and mid-career courses for Singaporeans over 25, making it a more affordable option. Since then, CarbonInq and Gardens with Purpose have also set up courses recognised under the SkillsFuture programme.

Foo said participation in urban farming courses has grown significantly in recent years, with many people signing up because they want to grow organic vegetables. “People are getting more conscious about having a better quality of life, and that includes eating well with fresh produce. That includes pesticide-free vegetables and fruits which they can grow at home,” she said.

Tips and tricks from the experts

It’s important that beginners don’t get ahead of themselves. I learned this the hard way – I planted too many types of crops when I first started and gave little thought to their individual requirements. For instance, melons do not like their roots to be disturbed; my seedlings died because I transplanted them too many times.

“For beginners, we would suggest that they grow crops that are easier to start with, such as kang kong, and start with growing in containers in their balcony with a good amount of sunlight,” said Foo.

Bjorn Low, founder of organic farming outfit Edible Garden City, said that while most people know the basic requirements of gardening – soil, water, light – the importance of patience is often overlooked.

“It takes a lot of learning – everyone has their own journey. Sometimes you hear of different methods and you try them. Some things work for you, some don’t. For the things that work, you can come up with your own successful formula,” he said.

Edible Garden City holds urban farming workshops at both its retail outlet Nong, at HortPark, and Citizen Farm, its farming headquarters at Jalan Penjara. Courses such as gardening basics, growing your own microgreens, and introductions to hydroponics and permaculture are held frequently. It caters mainly to school and corporate groups, charging SG$20 to SG$40 per head for a minimum of 20 people.

Individuals who want to improve their gardening knowledge can volunteer on the weekends at Citizen Farm. While not strictly a workshop, they can network with other gardeners or ask the professionals leading the volunteer sessions for valuable pointers.

Low advises that beginners grow vegetables and herbs suited for the local climate. In Singapore, that would mean spinach, Asian green and eggplant. If you try to grow something like rosemary – a popular herb that grows well in temperate climates but is difficult to maintain in tropical weather – your gardening adventure is more likely to end in disappointment.

“If you don’t have a lot of light, you can grow ginger, which is a root crop. Ginger does have beautiful flowers, but you would need a large enough pot,” he said. Other native herbs to try are Indian borage and curry leaf.

“Being patient is all part of gardening – rushing certain things to grow might not always be the best. Take it as it comes,” said Low.

Tips and tricks from an amateur

While I’m no expert – I certainly don’t pretend to be in the same league as the experts mentioned above – I do have some humble advice for budding gardeners.

1. Start off with an ornamental plant so you can familiarise yourself with water, sunlight, temperature and soil requirements, as well as issues like pests and diseases. I would recommend a low-maintenance plant that can handle some common mistakes, such as pothos, philodendron and snake plants.

2. When you feel confident enough, grow leafy vegetables such as kang kong, arugula, bok choy and spinach. Make sure that the varieties are suitable for tropical climates. If you want to move on to fruiting edibles, such as tomatoes, okra and snow peas, make sure to take note of their fertilising requirements. You will need to supplement potassium, which is required for flowering.

3. Beginners often coddle their plants and end up overwatering them, more so than underwatering. This can lead to root rot, which pretty much means certain death. Water only when the top two inches of the soil is dry, and water deeply, or until water flows out of the bottom of the pot. If you use a pot saucer, empty out the excess water. Use a well-draining potting medium. These days I prefer using coco peat, as it’s lighter than soil and drains much quicker.

4. I recommend grow lights for first-time home farmers. Other than strengthening seedlings with more light, you can speed up the growth process significantly. They are rather inexpensive – you can get a two-foot red-and-blue LED light for SG$30. Plants require mostly red and blue light spectrums to grow. Set it up with a timer to take the hassle out of switching the light on and off manually. You can start seedlings indoors with little space.

5. My final and most crucial piece of advice is to persist – if you fail, take stock of what went wrong, and try again. I must have killed about 20 to 30 plants, both ornamentals and edibles, in the six months I have been gardening. I no longer feel guilty about it, as it often delivers the best gardening lessons.

Photo courtesy of The Living Centre

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