Urban Hijau: On a Mission to Meet the City Gardener’s Needs

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Impatient for your next crop of brinjal or chilli? Can’t wait for those delicious cherry tomatoes to ripen? Social enterprise Urban Hijau is here to help.

It promises to take much of the waiting – if not the work – out of gardening by delivering an “instant” crop of veggies. Urban Hijau does this by preparing seeds for germination and despatches “baby” versions of a chosen vegetable to your home, where they can be placed in gardens or on balconies. As a result, gardeners can enjoy the results of their labour in a much shorter time – something site manager Muneeb Yousuf, 35, says is particularly important for those new to gardening.

“We found that most of our visitors are not keen on starting with seeds themselves, they want to see fast results,” says Muneeb. “When they see faster results, you get them excited and hooked and then they will be back for more.”

He struck on the idea after noticing most nurseries were selling flowers, trees or ornamental plants but few had vegetable seedlings. Urban Hijau was set up to fill the gap in the market.

More than a garden

But Urban Hijau – which means “green” in Malay – is more than just a park or garden, a farmer’s market or a source of seedlings. Broadly, Urban Hijau wants to encourage permaculture – an form of agriculture that emphasises design to minimise the impact on the environment – as a means to bring people together, generate profit and preserve the planet at the same time.

Urban Hijau markets itself as a living, breathing example of sustainable farming right in the middle of Kuala Lumpur. It’s hard to argue with the location: the farm is on a steep slope at the fringe of Penchala Village (Kampung Penchala), next to Taman Tun Dr Ismail – an affluent suburb just 10 kilometres from the city centre.

Measuring almost one hectare, the Urban Hijau site was initially intended as a private home. However, the owners instead decided to work with permaculture practitioners and gardeners to cultivate it. Entering from the bottom of the slope, visitors climb up steps made out of concrete and old railway sleepers, and encounter various fruit trees and vegetable patches almost immediately.

The garden is separated into several areas: a market garden, a pond stocked with tilapia for both fertiliser and consumption, an aquaponics section and nursery, and an event space.

“We are installing many elements from the permaculture practice on this site so when people come over they have loads of experience to witness and talk about. They will also have many examples to replicate at home,” Muneeb says.

New gardeners are also encouraged to learn about composting through their use of a vermicompost. Urban Hijau’s vermicompost has been set up in a disused bathtub, where waste is broken down by earthworms. “The rich soil produced by the worms will be transferred onto the vegetable beds,” Muneeb says.

The plants are often watered with rainwater collected from the roof of the building. He says Malaysians often take water for granted and forget how this important resource can be used instead of simply allowing it to wash away.

Encouraging urban farming

Urban Hijau is one of many farms encouraging city residents to adopt urban homesteading, a practice that the United Nations says can be up to 15 times more productive than rural holdings. What began as a volunteer-driven movement is now moving towards a vibrant social enterprise, complete with market garden, activities and a nursery.

Muneeb says they’ve found low awareness about food sources, nutritional qualities and supply chains. “We have had teenagers attend our workshops and not even know what is kangkung (water spinach),” he says.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, vegetables have a short production cycle and some can be harvested within 60 days of planting. An area of just one square metre can provide as much as 20 kilograms of food a year.

While traditionally they were grown on plots in rural areas, urban farming is becoming more common. In an effort to get more residents growing for their own consumption, the Malaysian government last year included urban farming in the People’s Housing Programme (PPR), which provides affordable housing to low-income households. Several pilot projects have been launched in suburbs around Kuala Lumpur.

While Urban Hijau sells organic food through its market, Muneeb says the organisation wants to encourage more people to produce their own food and deepen their understanding of its origins and growth cycle.

Appealing to city dwellers has been a challenge. When households in cities like Kuala Lumpur shop for food, they tend to prioritise speed and convenience.

But appearance is also important. Muneeb says that after a meeting last year with a British permaculture consultant, Geoff Lawton, Urban Hijau began rethinking the site layout based on Lawton’s feedback..

“He told us, this place looks like a junkyard. In an urban setting you can’t have that, people expect better. Even though they may be spoilt, we have to cater to their needs,” Muneeb says.

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