Tuesday, 9 June 2015

My Permaculture Food Forest

I have not updated my blog for two years. The reason? Well, I have been putting all my time and energy into something. I was so fully committed that I even quit my job for it. That something is to create a permaculture food forest.

The permaculture philosophy was developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970's. The term permaculture combines the words permanent and agriculture. In Bill Mollison's words, permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.

The purpose of my food forest was, of course, to produce food for consumption. Permaculture principles were the guiding principles when I created and designed my food forest. Rather than the conventional way of growing just a few crops in neat rows and frequently applying fertilizers and watering, I grew a large variety of different crops, trees, shrubs, vegetables, spices and herbs. I created habitats for the different organisms in my food forest, both above and in the soil. We had two smalls ponds in the forest and a larger one by the side of the forest, attracting a variety of aquatic creatures (frogs, dragonflies, etc.) To improve the soil, I added a lot of organic matter to it, not by purchasing large quantities of fertilizers/compost and transporting them to my food forest, but by growing cover crops and plants (such as legumes) and then digging them into the soil or mulching them on the soil. Biodiversity brings stability in my food forest. The more diverse my crops, weeds, insects, birds, soil creatures (including microbes) were, the more stable, healthy and productive my food forest would be.

In permaculture, humans produce food by working with nature. However, most of the food the we eat today are produced by factory farming, which has no or very little regard for nature.

I have been dreaming for a permaculture food forest for over two decades. In June 2013, my wife and I rented a greenhouse in Neo Tiew area and started growing vegetables organically. After a few months, my wife and I decided to rent the open area (860 square metres) just outside the greenhouse to create a permaculture food forest. In the following months, we worked very hard almost everyday. We even worked in the farm on New Year Days and Chinese New Year Days.

Our leavy greens grown organically inside greenhouse

After a year's of hard work, with friends coming to the farm to help on Saturdays, our food forest began to take shape. We had over 50 different crops: trees, shrubs, vegetables, spices and herbs, some of which were grown in order to revitalize the soil. Our roselle plants were doing especially well - prolific and producing red calyces of superior quality. We had more than 60 roselle plants in our food forest! The soil had improved tremendously. I did not test it scientifically, but I could see and smell it. The soil creatures must be thriving.

Our food forest on 28 May 2015, habitats for a variety of creatures.
Landlord's workers had cleared the vegetation around our food forest.
You might have noticed that I have been using past tense in the paragraphs above. Yes, because, sadly, our food forest does not exist any longer. It was suddenly destroyed by the landlord on 29 May 2015.

In the morning of 29 May 2015, the landlord's workers came to our food forest with their excavators and bulldozers. They dramatically eradicated all the trees and plants. In just 3 days, they completely cleared everything in our food forest, which my friends, my wife and I took almost two years to create.

Please watch the video in HD (1080p)

The landlord said he is going to let a big company come in. I don't know what this big company will do on the land with their big money. If they are going to lay concrete on the soil, that's death sentence to the soil (yes, healthy soil is very much alive, with microbes and so many soil creatures). It is always sad to see soil being killed in this way, even on designated agricultural land in Singapore. An example is growing vegetables in huge and sophisticated-looking glass greenhouses (which almost totally shuts off nature) built on concrete-covered soil.

People are so disconnected from nature and soil, on which our own survival depends.

On 8 June 2015, my wife and I returned to the farm and took a few pictures:

It is really saddening to see that the healthy soil I'd been helping to restore in the past 2 years had been reduced to muddy clay in just a week's time. The following video shows the soil after the workers had just dug it up, on 30 May 2015.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Urban Wild Red junglefowls in Singapore

Wild red junglefowls are commonly seen in different urban districts in Singapore in recent years. There is a group of more than 30 wild red junglefowls residing in the field and trees near the junction of Upper Thomson Road and Sin Ming Avenue. It is interesting to watch the behaviour of these ancestors of the domestic chicken. I managed to capture on video some of their fascinating behavior, including fighting and mating.

Video part 1/2 (be sure to watch the part where two young males fight, starting at 1:23)

Video part 2/2 (be sure to watch the part where a popular hen was mating with one of the cocks and then ..., starting at 1:26)

Once, while they were leisurely foraging on the field, they all suddenly started to run towards the same direction, to the trees and hedges, calling frantically as they ran. It was indeed a very astonishing sight - more than 20 chickens dashing across the field frantically. I immediately realized they must be running for their lives, and started to look around for the danger that these chickens were running away from. No, I didn't see any dogs or cats. Only when I looked towards the sky did I see a raptor flying up towards the roof of a high-rise building, which indicated a failed attempt by the raptor to catch one of the chickens for a meal. Now I know that the red junglefowls are alert, though they don't look like so, and can run really fast.

This large group of red junglefowls roost for the night in the trees on the two sides of Sin Ming Avenue, hence some of them would need to cross the road to their roosting places when it is time to rest. At about 6:45pm, these chickens would fly across the road one by one. Many of them do not fly the shortest path across the road, but choose a longer flight path of more than 40 metres. Some would land on the ground and some would land in a tree. Occasionally, a few would take the risk of running across the road.

The field near the junction of Upper Thomson Road and by the side of Flame Tree Park Condominium is really a good habitat for red junglefowls. It has an area of about one hectare, with tall and short trees, and hedges too for small chicks to hide. Yes, small chicks can be attacked by adult males. Well, in Singapore, such a nice field would probably be "developed" in the future and replaced by buildings. Even before buildings are built on the field, the habitat would be disturbed regularly by noisy lawnmowers.

Would Singapore ever be bold enough to try what Paris is trying - natural lawnmowers, grazing sheep to mow lawns?

Sometimes, as I am watching those wonderful wild chickens, I would visualize a wonderful picture of the field with red junglefowls as well as other birds, a few black sheep and a few urban farmers tending to their crops. Wow, would this be the concept of Rubanization by Tay Kheng Soon?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Rooftop habitat gardening, organic farm

A few months ago, I attended a talk by two NParks staff who talked about Biodiversity on Rooftops in Singapore. This is an exciting concept to me and I quickly form the idea of rooftop habitat gardening.

I live on the 18th floor. When I look out from my balcony, I could see a lot of rooftop spaces which can be utilized for rooftop biodiversity. If carefully planned, rooftop green spaces provide wildlife corridors to counteract habitat loss. These corridors allow wildlife to move from one tract of habitat to another.

I have visited some rooftop gardens in Singapore, including those of HDB multi-storey car parks  They tend to be more of landscape/ornamental gardens. Dull, ornamental, manicured gardens certainly cannot attract a rich variety of wildlife. I really wish to see habitat gardens on rooftops in Singapore. We can garden the rooftop so as to create natural habitats for certain groups of wildlife (such as birds, butterflies, bees, hoverflies, ladybugs, etc.) and at the same time incorporate organic edible crops. There are many well-known benefits of locally grown and organic produce.

The rooftop of the multi-storey car park in our estate has not been in use for many years because no residents would want to park their cars there - no lift access and no cover. It has actually been locked up for many years. I attempted to approach our residents' committee, HDB and Town Council on the idea of converting the rooftop into a garden for biodiversity and organic crops. After quite some effort and time (email exchanges and telephone calls), I managed to meet representatives from our residents' committee and Town Council together. It was a rather discouraging meeting. What I saw as an opportunity was what they saw as many difficulties. I remember some of the difficulties they mentioned:

  • The car park rooftop is not designed for this purpose
  • There is no lift access for the rooftop
  • The car park is HDB's property and is for generating income

Yes, I could also see all these difficulties, and more. But, if it is the right thing to do, we should be able to turn the difficulties into opportunities.

I remember Winston Churchill's quote:  “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

Well, the Town Council representatives did not turn down my suggestion right away, but said that they would discuss with HDB on this matter and then get back to me. Well, three months have passed, and I have not heard from them anymore. I guess this is their way of saying "No!" to me.

I also wrote to our MP. Again, I got no reply at all.

There are rooftop farms in cities around the world. In Hong Kong, which is a city rather like Singapore (a city void of open space), there are a number of rooftop farms. One of them is featured in this CNN report on June 29, 2011:

In my recent trip to Hong Kong, I visited some organic farms, community gardens and rooftop farms. I was particularly touched when I saw the rich biodiversity in and around this organic farm I visited in Fanling.

There are quite a number of organic farms in the New Territories, providing a healthier and safer choice for the Hong Kong residents. Every week, there are a number of farmers' markets in different districts of Hong Kong, where the organic farmers sell their produce directly to their customers. I visited one of these farmers' markets - Organic Farmers' Market@Central, right at the central business district of Hong Kong. This market opens every Sunday. Although small (only about 10 stalls), this farmers' market is very vibrant. The stall holders are the farmers themselves. They are friendly and are happy to answer customers' questions on their vegetables. The stalls do not provide plastic bags. Customers must use their own shopping bags. I am also amazed by the variety of vegetables sold there. Below is a video clip I shot of this small but vibrant organic farmers' market.

It is also interesting to read this Malaysian lady's impression of Organic Farmers' Market@Central.

Back in Singapore, the only Farmers' market I know of is the one at Loewen Gardens. I do not know if they sell locally grown organic vegetables there.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Weevils fighting

Unprotected wildlife habitats in Singapore can be recklessly destroyed anytime. A recent example is the clearing of the forest outside Braddell View estate.

There is a forest near where I live. In it I have recorded 47 species of dragonflies. This is 36% of the 131 species ever recorded in Singapore. Among those 47 species are some very rare species, including Heliaeschna uninervulata, which was a new addition to the Singapore odonata list when I first discovered in this forest in 2008.

In the forest, it is not difficult to find fallen trees. Usually these dead trees attract many different kinds of creatures such as beetles, bugs, flies and wasps. I have been recording the behaviour of these creatures on video for a year. The footage below shows two male weevils fighting for a female. The weevil is common in the forest and it belongs to the family Curculionidae. Its mouthparts are formed into a long snout with an antenna on each side of the snout, which is often used to bore wood. The weevil's snout and big eyes give it a hilarious look.

Please watch the video at 480p.

I have been visiting the forest regularly in the past 9 years. It is apparent that the biodiversity there is on the decline in these two years. It is now more difficult to see the rare species. This is probably due to the more frequent disturbance from humans.

Since this forest is unprotected, it may face the same fate as Braddell Road Forest.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Quality green space within a city

Although Singapore is a small-sized, highly urbanized city-state, it has an amazing diversity of life: 375 species of birds, 303 species of butterflies, 130 species of dragonflies, 34 species of bats, just to name a few groups of animals.

However, due to land-use pressures, urban development in Singapore continue to destroy habitats for wildlife. An example is the loss of the damselfly, Mortonagrion falcatum, in Tuas.

While we should aim to reduce the impact on natural wildlife habitats by urban development, we should also manage our urban green spaces so as to enhance urban biodiversity.

Singapore has a lot of urban green spaces: parks, golf courses, sports fields, etc. Among these urban green spaces, public parks (regional, town and neighbourhood parks) would have the greatest  potential to enhance our urban biodiversity and become our quality green spaces in the city of Singapore. Quality green space within a city can support a variety of species and habitats, contributes to essential services including water filtration and absorption, nutrient cycling, air filtration and noise buffering.

While I understand that our public parks serve as social gathering and recreational spaces for the local community, I also strongly believe that biodiversity-friendly measures can be taken to enhance the flora and fauna in them.

In the document by the National Parks Board, Singapore’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, I read this:

"Singapore Today — A Garden City, A Haven for Biodiversity. Our aim is to bring this to the next level – a city embraced in a garden of diverse flora and fauna."

Also, in the document by Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, The Sustainable Development Blueprint, the word "biodiversity" appears 40 times.

It is apparent that our government does have biodiversity in their agenda.

Bishan Park
With an area of 62 hectares, a 2.7 km stream running through it, and its close proximity to a nature reserve, Bishan Park has a great deal of potential to be among the best quality green spaces in Singapore. However, the current state of the park is very far from ideal. If you take a look around Bishan Park, you'll see turf grass, widely-spaced trees, playground equipment, parking lots. While all of these items may benefit park visitors, they lack many qualities that could enhance biodiversity.

Also, the frequent and thorough clearing of vegetation and mowing of grass, especially along the restored stream, has negative effects on biodiversity. Wildlife need adequate food, water, shelter and space in order to survive.  The traditional turf grass and widely-spaced trees in Bishan Park offer little in the way of meeting wildlife needs.

Let me embed a really wonderful and inspirational short film here. This film won the 2011 WWF Short Film Competition. I highly recommend it and hope that the people who can make decisions on how to manage our public parks will see this short film too.