In 2016, the community garden in Kuala Lumpur’s affluent Taman Tun Dr Ismail neighbourhood – or TTDI for short – was facing an uncertain future. Set up three years earlier as the TTDI Edible Project by residents with an interest in growing their own vegetables, many of its original volunteers had since migrated abroad or moved on to other commitments.
The 20,000 square foot, L-shaped community garden in TTDI, about 10 kilometres from the city centre, had been used to grow a range of vegetables, including okra and chilli. But now it was overgrown and abandoned.
Enter TTDI resident Kee Joo Yee. The 33-year-old’s love of gardening encouraged him to take over the project and work with former members, a local residents’ association and City Hall (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur) to breathe new life into the garden, renaming it the TTDI Edible Community Garden in the process.
“Since my involvement in the garden in early 2016, I am happy to see the change; from an abandoned garden to now, where we are in the midst of completing our very own barn,” says Kee, who has an accounting background.
One of Kee’s first steps was to “legalise” the garden’s status. The first team squatted on the land with informal support from the local council but left the project in a precarious position. Technically, the council could evict the gardeners at any time.
To rectify that, the new team connected with City Hall’s Local Agenda 21 department to find out how to collaborate with the local authority.
This section, also known as LA 21, was formed by the Malaysian government to localise the Agenda 21 initiative developed during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Agenda 21 is a global action plan that provides guidance for local authorities or governments to promote sustainable development. The plan encourages partnerships between councils, communities and the private sector to plan and act on issues involvement development, environment and sustainability.
Engaging with the authorities
After meeting with the LA 21 team, the community gardeners secured a RM15,000 (SG$5,000) grant from the local authorities that helped to get their activities off the ground.
Margaret Lee, 59, a member of the TTDI Residents’ Association, says the funds from City Hall were used to build a barn to hold public events and a nursery to grow seedlings.
“It’s very encouraging that LA21 always pushes us to keep going and the volunteers involved here are committed as well,” she says.
Shortly after, the garden also received a private donation of the same amount from Touch ‘n Go, an electronic payment company.
These funds helped support workshops, and seed exchange and knowledge sharing sessions. In the future they hope to launch cooking classes, too.
Lee says that the partnership with City Hall’s LA21 was made easier because the community garden team had drafted clear plans for the future.
“You have to provide them with what you want, so we told them we wanted to have workshops and activities to get more participation from the public to learn about growing food,” she says.
Volunteer Malika Raghavan said the support of the local authorities was important – not only in terms of securing the land, but also to form a long-term partnership and keep the garden sustainable.
She cited as an example the cooperation with City Hall workers to ensure a supply of green waste that is composted and used as fertiliser. The garden needs about 100 kilograms of this organic fertiliser – which volunteers refer to as “black gold” – to nourish the plants. “The council workers in the area regularly provide us with grass cuttings or dried leaves for the compost,” Lee says.
Garden waste from the neighbourhood adds richness to the kitchen waste from nearby homes and restaurants in the area that is also used. Private enterprises in TTDI, such as cafes and juice bars, also give away fruit peel and coffee grounds. To make it easier for residents, the garden has an accessible bin where they can dump vegetable waste. Other local community groups, such as Transition TTDI and Zero Waste, help to spread the word about its recycling efforts.
The fertiliser has helped the group grow corn, beans, roselle, mulberry and various types of spinach and amaranth across more than 20 vegetable patches. The garden produces Brazilian spinach in abundance and volunteers use it in stir fries or to make pesto.
“Whatever we are able to harvest, we will share with volunteers that have helped us out in the garden,” says Malika, a 61-year-old retiree.
Learning as they go
Not everyone who volunteers at the TTDI Edible Community Garden is an outdoors expert; what unites them is their love for locally grown food and the environment.
Many garden members have taken courses or workshops held by LA21, universities and other urban farms in order to improve their knowledge.
“In order to know, we have to participate. We are not experts and I admit I’m not good at that [gardening], but we all learn from each other. That’s the best part [of the garden],” Lee says.
After their first farming workshop, the core volunteers were feeling “adventurous”, Lee says, and ventured out of Kuala Lumpur to learn about professional composting techniques at FOLO Farms in Ulu Tiram, Johor.
The trip not only equipped the volunteers with important knowledge but built up a strong bond between them.
Excited at learning new skills, they visited other farms in Ulu Yam to gain techniques that would benefit the TTDI Edible Community Garden.
She adds that while it all seems smooth sailing, it was important for the garden to have structure first to guide new volunteers. “Without it, people won’t know what to do.”
The group welcomes new volunteers; as Lee and Malika note, the garden always needs more hands to battle weeds, grow vegetables and enjoy the fruits of their labour.
Kee says he is very grateful to be part of such a dedicated team. “They put in their energy and time for this community garden, all without expecting something to be given back to them,” he says. “Their efforts are to be applauded and should be taken as an example by others.”