On a tiny patch of land in Sentul, Kuala Lumpur, alongside a busy road and a tightly-packed row of shophouses, something green is growing.
Beneath the shade of several towering trees, behind a small rock wall and a hedge of shrubbery, is the Dignity Kitchen Garden, an urban garden comprising several herb and vegetable beds and a nursery.
Step in and be greeted by a verdant abundance of local plants, from sweet potato leaves and long beans to kacang botol and daun kesom (laksa leaves).
Marigolds pop their brightly coloured heads up at rare intervals along the garden beds, their striking colours useful to protect the other plants from pests. Water spinach (kangkung) and brinjals emerge from silver ring-shaped containers of galvanised steel, while behind them bittergourd and Brazilian spinach plants sprout around wooden trellises as tall as a man.
Having a herbaceous oasis like this in the heart of an urban hotspot is a truly wonderful thing. But what’s even more wonderful about the Dignity Kitchen Garden is how it was built by a community working together.
Its creation came from the collaboration of an unlikely trio: welfare outreach group The Dignity for Children Foundation, landscape architecture firm Seksan Design, and social enterprise Eats Shoots and Roots.
“It was great to see different parties come together with different contributions. With gardens, there are so many aspects to consider,” says Low Shao-Lyn, one of the co-founders of Eats Shoots and Roots.
“It’s not just simply about planting whatever you like to eat but also about making the right choices in terms of the design of the space, allocation of resources, maintenance, and so on.”
Established in 2012, Eats Shoots and Roots’ aim is to empower urban individuals and communities with skills and tools to grow their own food and build a sense of resilience in the city.
It offers a range of workshops and courses, edible garden design consultancy, and organic garden build packages for homes, organisations, institutions and businesses. Helping to establish a community garden, therefore, was right up their alley.
“We support the building of edible gardens because we feel they are a great way for people to reconnect with each other, and to make good environmental choices as well,” says Low.
The genesis of the garden
It may be hard to believe now, but the space occupied by Dignity’s garden used to be an empty, barren field. Its only users were the infamous cows of Sentul, that often grazed there.
It was a place Dignity For Children Foundation founder Reverend Elisha Satvinder is very familiar with: it’s right next to Project B, a café and social enterprise hub run by his foundation.
“There was this empty space that could be used to make the environment and our surroundings better, and help to connect the community. And it was just across from Project B! Just perfect!” says Satvinder.
Not only that, but if it was successful, the garden could help the foundation with its food supply.
“We have a centre located in the same vicinity of the garden, where we cook for about 500 children daily. The idea was to grow stuff that could be used in our kitchen to complement what we were already purchasing outside,” explained Dignity for Children teacher Benjamin Yap.
Inspired by the thought of transforming that space, Satvinder shared his idea with his friend, landscape architect Ng Sek San.
“A few years ago, I was in Japan for a conference. There, every small space is everybody’s responsibility, and they grew wonderful things there! That planted a seed in my head. Couldn’t we do that here?” Satvinder says.
Ng, the founder of Seksan Design, not only encouraged him, but also put him in touch with Low, who felt that having an edible garden close to Project B was a good idea, as it meant there was an incentive to keep maintaining it.
“A garden close to a restaurant would be good for simple things like herbs, and perhaps other supplementary things,” Low says.
“For other public spaces, I wouldn’t really recommend a garden unless there is an economic or educational incentive to put one in. Maintaining a big garden takes a lot of work, and doing it just with volunteers is difficult.”
Planning the planting
The three then went to see Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur for approval for the garden. According to Satvinder, the authorities were very helpful and accommodating when they were told about the project, and were open for further collaboration on larger projects to green the city.
After about a month of planning, it was then time to get to work on the project. As noble as their intentions were, however, the three couldn’t do this by themselves: building a garden would require a lot of manpower, and ultimately, the support of the community.
And so, calls for help were sent out through social media. The public was invited to a “garden royong”, the event’s name coming from a play on the English word “garden”, and the Malay phrase “gotong royong”, or communal cleaning session. Would anyone be willing to give up a Saturday morning for what was basically strenuous labour? To make things worse, it was the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast.
Things, however, turned out much better than expected.
“The response was fantastic. People were all responding, saying they would come, they would buy this, and they would buy that, all that sort of thing. It was very encouraging,” Satvinder recalls.
Eventually, about 100 volunteers turned up for the first ever garden royong. Parents turned up with their children, and a lecturer from an architectural school even brought his entire class to help out!
Satvinder found the level of support amazing, he says.
“We had a bunch of Muslim friends who were fasting but they came and worked! They were such an encouragement. In the hot sun, they were sweating and working, and they even stayed on longer than anyone else! It was just wonderful,” Satvinder says, the memory triggering a smile.
The session, which doubled as a gardening workshop, was divided into two parts. The first, coordinated by Eats, Shoots and Roots, was the building of a “no-dig” garden, which involved creating raised vegetable beds, seed planting and composting.
“We made it a no-dig garden because it requires less effort. We encourage people to do this, because instead of digging into the soil, you add fertility to your beds,” Low says.
“We brought in materials like concrete planks and rebar to build the beds. Around the neighbourhood, there were brown leaves that were usually collected by the gardeners, and thrown away or given to DBKL. But we used these resources instead.”
The group planted many perennial plants (plants that live longer than two years) such as Brazilian spinach, sweet potato leaves, and laksa leaves; as well as a few annual plants such as cucumbers and brinjals. Volunteers worked on beds in groups of about five people, each group taking about an hour to complete a bed.
“The whole point was also to teach everyone how to build a garden. It’s something the volunteers can also take back and implement in their own homes,” Low says.
The second part of the garden royong, facilitated by Ng Sek San, was the building of a cow-proof stone wall.
“That was a bit challenging. But, thankfully, since so many people came, we finished it quite fast,” Low says.
Despite ultimately needing some digging after all, in the end, the garden royong was a resounding success.
“We started at seven in the morning. By 2pm, we had eight beds done! We had the stone wall put up. We had cut off a lot of the excess lalang. It was amazing! In six hours, that place was transformed!” Satvinder recalls.
Digging the activity
After the event, photos from the garden royong were shared on social media, which attracted considerable attention.
Encouraged, Low and her friends soon made plans for another such event. The “No-Dig Garden Royong 2.0” took place on Nov 7 last year. This time, the goal of the event was to plant more garden beds, and erect a “living fence” of plants.
“The fence was actually to keep the cows out. We had actually tried planting a living fence the first time around, but it didn’t turn out that well. So we tried different plants the second time around, and it turned out a lot better,” Low says.
Over 60 people turned up for the event. And DBKL also turned up, contributing about 50 bags of compost.
“They delivered very promptly, after we asked them just the day before. It was very nice of them,” Satvender says.
Subsequent activities saw the garden being expanded and a few more beds added to it. An investor company, Investor’s Trust, was also kind enough to help them install an irrigation system.
“We had some help from them as part as their corporate social responsibility programme. Basically, it’s a simple automatic irrigation system that waters the garden once or twice a day. Before this, we had to water by hand, so this saves time and lets us concentrate on other activities,” Low says.
Today, the garden is maintained by volunteers and the Dignity For Children Foundation, which uses it to train disadvantaged youth.
The garden currently consists of over 20 garden beds growing four categories of things: roots, legumes, leafy plants and herbs. Many plants also sport helpful labels created by Eats Shoots and Roots that contain useful information, such as harvesting times and (most importantly!) how best to eat them.
“We have a few pest issues sometimes. And sometimes, we still get cows! says Low.
“Sometimes stray animals can wander by and cause trouble, but when it comes to human intervention, like vandalism, we luckily haven’t had much of that,” she adds.
According to Low, finding out which plants would grow successfully was a matter of trial and error, but overall, they are satisfied with what has been grown so far.
“The herbs were very successful. After we planted them, people were coming from all over and taking them,” Yap says.
“The Malabar spinach was growing very well, but people didn’t take to it very much. Chilli consumption, on the other hand, was very successful,” Low says.
While not all their plants may have been successful, there is still a lot for Low and the team at Eats Shoots and Roots to be proud of. It is no mean feat, after all, to grow something from nothing.
And while its many thriving herbs and vegetables may be delightful to look at, the true treasures of the Dignity Kitchen Garden are not those you can grow from seed packets. For among its cultivated crops and carefully trimmed plants, rarer things have taken sprout: The spirit of togetherness, for one thing, and selflessness, and love. And those, perhaps, are the most beautiful blossoms of all.
Growing important life skills
Urban gardening can implant skills that will help in many aspects of life.
The Dignity Kitchen Garden is growing strong, and is currently being maintained by students from the Dignity for Children Foundation.
Formed in 1998 by Reverend Elisha Satvinder and his wife Petrina, the foundation’s vision is to empower underprivileged children to break the cycle of poverty through quality education, allowing them to positively transform their lives and the lives of the community around them.
Teacher Benjamin Yap leads an urban gardening class, comprising about 10 students aged 15 to 18. They meet twice a week to maintain the garden’s general upkeep. This includes watering, spraying natural pest repellent, and cleaning the garden, especially if there has been any damage by the neighbourhood cows or dogs.
The students also created a small nursery in the garden in between the first and second digs, as well as an “experimental bed” to try growing new plants.
“We have a roster in place for watering. Prior to the rainy season it was very hot daily, so in the morning one group would go, and in the afternoon, another group would go. We had students of all ages coming. Upper secondary, lower, primary, even toddlers came to help out,” Yap says. “The teachers even brought them tiny watering cans, it was so cute.”
Yap says the urban gardening sessions are useful for students as it teaches them how to grow their own food.
Many of his students are city people, he says, who don’t know the names of various plants and vegetables, and these sessions help educate them.
“Beyond that, they also learn responsibility. If something goes wrong with the plants, they know it’s because someone has not done something properly. They learn to care for their garden,” Yap says.
Yap says the Dignity Kitchen Garden is only the first phase of their urban gardening planning. The foundation has also experimented with rooftop gardening at another of its centres.
“We’ve got plans to set up another garden in another plot of land, which will be Phase 2. We want this to be a community place, so there are ideas of bringing in a container to set up something like a tree house,” he says.
As for the present Dignity Kitchen Garden, it will continue to be nurtured.
A “Harvest Party” was recently held there, with the community coming together to enjoy the literal fruits of their labour.
More “garden royongs” will definitely be planned in future; in the meantime, anyone is welcome to help the garden grow.
“People can come and just hang out, and help from time to time. The students aren’t always there, they come only twice a week.
“There’s no one here on the weekends. So if there are people living nearby, and they have the time, they can come by and help, especially if they don’t have a garden of their own,” Yap says.
“It’s not just our garden, even though we started it. As Reverend Elisha says, it’s all about community. So people can come by to help if they can.”
The Dignity Kitchen Garden is located at 25-G, Jalan 11/48A, Sentul Boulevard (next to Project B), Kuala Lumpur. To arrange a visit or to make donations of time or goods, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.