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Published: Monday March 10, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday March 10, 2014 MYT 8:28:03 AM

Salad from a car park

Urban farmers: Three of the four founders of ComCrop (from left) Kuah Zhen Shan, Allan Lim and Keith Loh, with vegetables from the urban farm at *Scape rooftop in Orchard Link, Singapore. A growing number of eateries are growing greens for their own kitchens. — SPH

Urban farmers: Three of the four founders of ComCrop (from left) Kuah Zhen Shan, Allan Lim and Keith Loh, with vegetables from the urban farm at *Scape rooftop in Orchard Link, Singapore. A growing number of eateries are growing greens for their own kitchens. — SPH

Rooftop farms in Singapore are sprouting greens.

Since the start of the year, Bjorn Low and his team of five have been growing small test batches of organic vegetables that can be used in mixed leaf salads – giant red mustard, mizuna, bok choy – and herbs such as basil and mint.

Like most farmers, they deal with pests such as pigeons nibbling on the plants. Team member Robert Pearce, 37, says jokingly: “I squirt the birds with water whenever I see them doing that.”

But unlike most farmers, the team’s plots are on the roof of People’s Park Complex car park – the latest rooftop farm to sprout in Singapore. Surrounded by high-rise buildings, the vegetables and herbs are a part of an urban farm, about 2,787sq m, slated to open on the sixth floor of the car park this year.

Last year, urban farming consultancy Edible Gardens, which helps restaurants and institutions build gardens, was approached by the car park’s re-development manager, Goldhill Developments, to see what could be done with the under-utilised space.

Low, 33, who co-founded Edible Gardens with Pearce in late 2012, says: “We’ve always been looking for a space like this to set up a commercially viable rooftop urban farm. This is our dream.”

Edible Gardens has helped set up herb gardens in places such as Marina Bay Sands and British chef Jamie Oliver’s outpost of his restaurant chain Jamie’s Italian at VivoCity. Consultancy fees depend on factors such as size and complexity of the garden.

Herbs grown in Marina Bay Sands' herb garden are used in the integrated resort's celebrity chef restaurants and buffet restaurant, Rise.
Herbs grown in Marina Bay Sands’ herb garden are used in the integrated resort’s celebrity chef restaurants and buffet restaurant, Rise.

High-rise garden

In the next few months, the vacant car park will be filled up with soil planters. About 1,000 pots of about 30 to 40 varieties of plants are already being grown there. Goldhill Developments intends to install solar panels on the roof to generate power for lights and such. It also plans to lease space to food and beverage outlets, and open an activity centre for residents and school groups.

The 279 sq m sheltered area next to the open air car park lots has been temporarily converted into a workshop, as well as a gallery and pop-up shop which stocks products ranging from potted plants to furniture. Edible Gardens holds free workshops in the remaining space on weekends, on topics including The Principles Of Organic Gardening and Propagating Herbs. Curious residents from nearby apartments have dropped by to check out the garden.

Last June, social enterprise ComCrop took over a 557.5sq m rooftop space at youth hub *Scape in Orchard Link and converted it into an organic vegetable and herb farm. Besides handling farm operations, ComCrop, formed last year, was set up to develop urban farming technologies and engage the public in urban farming.

One-fifth of the *Scape rooftop is dedicated to community projects such as gardening programmes with schools. The remaining area has been transformed into a commercial farm for herbs and vegetables, including basil, mint and tomatoes.

When the farm is completely up and running, most of its plants will be grown in A-shaped vertical frames that are part of a self-sustaining aquaponic system. They will be connected to tanks that hold tilapia. Waste produced by the freshwater fish is broken down naturally into nutrients that are transmitted to the plants. There will be planters to grow vegetables and fruits.

Keith Loh, 40, who is in charge of the sales and marketing strategies for ComCrop, says: “The biggest challenge is growing quality produce consistently while dealing with nature, such as torrential rain and overpowering heat.”

Interested buyers

The fresh produce of these urban farms have already attracted the attention of local eateries. About 20 to 30 restaurants and food and beverage chains have expressed interest in the produce from ComCrop. One of them is Jamie’s Italian Singapore.

“The freshness and convenience of being able to see where your produce comes from and who grows them is quite satisfying,” says executive chef Gary Clarke, 42. Jamie’s Italian also grows herbs such as thyme and rosemary in seven planters on its terrace.

Bjorn Shen, 32, chef-owner of Middle-Eastern restaurant Artichoke in Middle Road, has sampled some of the early herb and vegetable harvests from both urban farms.

“They brought the produce to me to test if it is up to industry standard. The herbs were especially spicy and the tomatoes were very flavourful. I got them just moments after they were harvested,” he says.

His restaurant worked in late 2012 with Edible Gardens to build its own herb garden, occupying about 80 to 90 vertical planters in its alfresco dining area. Tending it is hard work, says Shen. He and his staff have to pick snails off the plants almost every night.

But some customers appreciate the effort that goes into fresh home-grown ingredients. Post-graduate student Karen Koh, 26, who frequents Artichoke, says: “Getting the ingredients locally and growing it themselves is awesome.”

Early adopters of private urban herb gardens include Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel The Stamford hotels near the City Hall area, which built a 18.6sq m herb garden in 2008. The garden expanded last year to 55.7sq m and has more than 50 varieties of herbs, vegetables, fruits and edible flowers, supplying restaurants in the hotel.

Nine months ago, Marina Bay Sands converted the about 100-seater alfresco dining area of its buffet restaurant, Rise, into a 160sq m herb garden with about 50 varieties of herbs, vegetables and fruits including oregano, sage, guava and tomatoes. It supplements the ingredients at Rise, and the resort’s other restaurants including Waku Ghin and Sky On 57.

Urban farming is important for national food security as it helps supplement the country’s supply of vegetables, says Prof Lee Sing Kong, 62, director of the National Institute of Education. He has been involved in developing technology adopted in urban farming since the 1990s.

One reason urban farming has gained momentum here, he says, could be that people are becoming more aware and want to know where their food comes from. Projects such as the National Parks Board’s Community In Bloom programme, which have led to the creation of more than 600 community gardens, have made people more aware about food sources.

“If we were to depend totally on imports, we can be vulnerable when there are natural calamities that affect production elsewhere. Urban farming is the way to go so that we can partially meet our needs.” — The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Singapore, rooftop farms, farming, salads, vegetables

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