Whenever Balan Nadarajan wants fresh vegetables, he just has to step out to his backyard to harvest leafy greens. In the back lane of his terrace house in Puchong, Selangor, he has a little farm of vegetables and herbs.
“I grow common vegetables like kailan (Chinese kale), bok choy and lettuce. There are also fruiting plants like eggplant, okra and tomato as these are my family’s favourites, ” says Balan, 42, during an interview.
Along the length of his 7m backyard and an additional 15m of ‘borrowed space’ from his side neighbours, the business consultant has 40 planter boxes to grow vegetables. There are also a few water containers for rainwater harvesting.
Some seedlings have just begun to sprout in a few boxes. Other containers have crops that are fully grown. In a few air pruning pots, vining vegetables like bitter gourd, tomatoes and cucumber are starting to creep.
“Thankfully, my neighbours don’t mind me planting vegetables in their backyard. As a token of appreciation, I always share my harvest with them. Over the years, more people around the neighbourhood have also started to plant vegetables in the back lane, ” says Balan, who has been an urban farmer for eight years.
The father of three is among a growing number of Malaysian urbanites who are embracing sustainable living through urban farming.
Urban farming is defined as “growing or producing food in or around urban areas”. Although the word “farming” usually refers to large scale activities for commercial purposes, the term “urban farming” has also been widely used to refer to community and home-based gardens.
Balan became interested in urban farming when he read about the dangers of pesticides in fruits and vegetables.
“There are many articles published on how synthetic colouring or hormone injections are used in vegetables to make them look fresher. After my eldest child, Gia, was born in 2012, I became concerned about the risk of exposure to toxic pesticides in her diet. That prompted me to plant my own vegetables.”
He then began reading about urban farming methods and surfed the Internet for ideas on planting vegetables in small spaces.
“Urban farming isn’t complicated. Items needed include seeds, planter boxes and gardening tools. I was very excited at first and bought the whole works – pots, soil, fertiliser and tools. I thought it would be easy, but I failed miserably.
“There were issues with the soil’s acidity and white flies. I experimented with different concoctions until I found an effective organic pest control recipe, ” he says, adding that it has been a good learning experience for him.
Currently, 60% of the vegetables consumed by Balan’s family are from his garden, which means saving on their food bill.
“Most people prefer to grab their greens from the supermarket because it’s easily available. Conventionally grown spinach (using chemical fertiliser and pesticide) is sold around RM3 per 200g.
“I grow organic spinach in my planter box, which I harvest within four weeks. Having four planter boxes means I can harvest one kilogram of spinach every week for my family, ” says Balan, who finds ladies fingers the easiest vegetable to plant.
He also ropes in his three children to maintain their urban vegetable patch.
“It is a great opportunity to get the young ones involved in the process of growing, maintaining and harvesting vegetables, all the way to their dinner table.
“I love how the kids enjoy being out of the house and none of the bugs gross them out. The kids understand how important worms are to the soil ecosystem, and have no issues picking up any lost worms and putting them back into the planter boxes.”
In the bigger picture, he is teaching his children how to plant greens with limited spaces.
“I want them to learn that with a little bit of creativity and effort, you can make the most out of your situation. My children are slowly starting to appreciate the important things in life. Through these activities, I have an opportunity to bond with them, ” says Balan, who also offers classes to people who want to learn how to start an urban farm.
Balan says his journey into urban farming has been both eye-opening and exciting. What he enjoys most is the crops growing well and ready to be harvested for his family.
“Growing my own vegetables has also got me hooked on cooking.”
Currently, he is in the midst of starting a home aquaponics system.
“Through this system, a symbiosis of aquaculture and hydroponics, freshwater fish is reared in tanks. Their wastewater is used to provide food for growing plants, and the plants act as a natural filter for the water.”
Pretty soon, Balan may be able to catch some tilapia fish from his backyard for dinner.