COMMUNITY gardens play a special role in fostering closer ties among residents.
Being able to share the fruits of their labour with other needy residents as well as agricultural knowledge has helped community gardeners foster camaraderie and develop a sense of purpose, which has become especially useful during the Covid-19 pandemic period.
An earthworm farmer by profession, Ting Teck Loong never had much time for ornamental plants until the movement control order kicked in in March 2020 and he had to put all his work projects on hold.
With time on his hands and anxiety of an uncertain future weighing on his mind, the 46-year-old sought solace in his monstera deliciosas and coleus ati atis, the sale of which now provides him with an alternative source of income.
“Eventually I had 5,000 ornamental garden plants. They took up every inch of my home garden, and I had to park my car outside,” said the father of one.
The Taman Putra resident’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
About two months ago, Ting received a call from Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) councillor Chua Yew Chong to help develop the ornamental plant section at the Teratai Hijau Harmony community garden in Taman Putra, Ampang in Selangor.
It would be a nice addition to the existing vegetable patch for residents as well as a platform to showcase the efficacy of Ting’s earthworm castings which he used to fertilise his plants, said Chua.
Not only did Ting successfully fill up several beds with various ornamental plant species, he also helped the community garden chief Choo Yew Kee, 74, and his wife Doris Lee, 70, as well as another resident to set up water sprinklers and storm protection systems for their vegetables using PVC pipe frames and mesh cover.
Like Ting, tending to the Teratai Hijau Harmony community garden has helped Choo and Lee pass time productively during the lockdowns.
“My husband and I have grown even closer working in the garden. Planning for crops has given us a sense of purpose and kept us active,” admitted Lee.
“When land-clearing work started in July last year, people said the programme would never get off the ground,” said Choo.
A former dumping site for construction debris, the place was riddled with rocks and concrete blocks.
Choo said 16 large bins of construction debris had to be carted away.
Now that the beds are lush with vegetables and ornamental plants, naysayers are beginning to look at the garden differently.
Though it is a non-profit entity, visitors can buy fresh vegetables and plants.
In a month, the 17 beds can generate up to RM2,500 in sales Together with funds collected by members, the money goes towards sustaining the community garden.
“We don’t take money from everyone. We use discretion. Senior citizens and the needy don’t have to pay,” said Choo.
Aside from Ting, 11 other residents help Choo and Lee with the community garden.
An MPAJ project in the LA 21 programme, the two-year-old community garden has so far received RM20,000 from Chua’s yearly budget allocation of RM75,000 for set up, machinery and fertiliser.
Since the first planting of vegetables in July last year, 30 houses in Taman Putra have received free vegetables from the 0.2ha L-shaped plot surrounding Taman Putra Community Hall throughout the MCO.
Free seeds and mulberry trees
Over at the Sunway SPK Damansara community garden in Segambut, Kuala Lumpur, free seeds and plant seedlings are being given out to residents to encourage cultivation of edible gardens at home.
Sunway SPK Damansara Residents Association vice-chairman Yuan Loh Soon, 69, said that since the announcement was made over the community’s social media group of 200 followers in June, 10 residents have come forward to take up the offer.
“One of our recipients is nine-year-old Muhammad Idriz Ahmad Fairoz, who was given some mustard leaf seeds two weeks ago.
Muhammad Idriz’s mother Zarah Mokhlis, 43, had requested the seeds so that he would be kept busy,” said Yuan.
When met, the young lad readily admitted that his patience was being tested as the full results would only be apparent in another two weeks, though small sprouts could be seen in his planter boxes.
Provided the seeds do not end up being eaten by birds or the sprouts get washed away during the rainy season, Yuan is confident once Muhammad Idriz can harvest his own vegetables, the enthusiasm will kick in.
A good example can be found in former accountant Howa Oon, 68, and retired civil engineer Leong Meng Chow, 66, both active members of the Sunway SPK Damansara community garden project.
Their home plots of ladies’ fingers, tapioca leaves, yams, curry leaves, chillies and limes were the result of effort and patience, with their endeavours starting well before the MCO.
Leong and Zainal Aznam Mohd Jelan, 70, a retired Universiti Putra Malaysia professor of animal nutrition, are putting their knowledge to use at the community garden.
Zainal has planted 130 mulberry trees in the community garden’s hilly terrain and the leaves, in addition to being used by residents for tea, are used as cricket feed at fellow resident Au Yong Soon Kok’s farm.
The 60-year-old farmer, who was exporting his cricket frass to the international market, said his business was affected when the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in port lockdowns and disruptions in the container shipping industry.
Au Yong’s crickets are now being fed to tilapia fish at the community garden. The tank is filled with an overland rainwater harvesting system built by Leong.
The fish project is only three months old but residents are already looking forward to harvest once the fish are big enough.
As for the mulberries, Yuan has plans to turn them into jam.
A place for wholesome activities
As interstate travel bans continue to remain in place, more people are taking up gardening as a way to pass time, observed Burhanuddin Mohd Ghazali who is chairman of KK4 Precinct 14 Community Garden in Putrajaya.
This community garden is one of 11 urban farms in the administrative capital under the national Local Agenda 21 programme.
Located beside a five-block apartment estimated to house 750 units, Burhanuddin said the 35 members tending to the community garden were mostly civil servants.
“They still have their jobs, but many are experiencing work pressure.
“So, they are turning to the therapeutic benefits of gardening to de-stress.
“The satisfaction of seeing the herbs and vegetables one has cultivated grow, is something one has to experience to know how it feels.
“The feedback I have from them is that gardening is like a sport too. It can be a wholesome family activity,” he said.
To sustain the garden, members derive proceeds from the sale of surplus seedlings, soil and fertiliser. Most of it is sold to the community at below market prices.
“A daily price check with the Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) is done for spinach, bok choy, mustard leaves, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, turmeric, torch ginger, pandan, English parsley, lemongrass and coriander because these are grown in our garden. They are sold below the Fama listed prices,” said Burhanuddin.
To encourage more residents to cultivate edible gardens, members have come up with a solution --- hydropots.
“Our hydropots have built-in water level indicator that tells when a plant needs watering. It’s good for beginners,” he said, adding that hydroponic planting and fertigation method was widely practised at the Precinct 14 community garden.
Another reason that should motivate more to invest their time in home edible gardens was the cost savings factor, noted Burhanuddin.
“From feedback, members and some residents who started as early as 2018 say they can save as much as 50% in grocery bills. Sure, it may cost as much as RM150 to invest in a home hydroponic planting system but bear in mind that one can get as many as 40 plants from just one system.
“We have gardeners in our group who tell us that they no longer need to buy vegetables daily,” he said.