An Urban Oasis

Text and photo by Carolyn Hong

The yellow flowers swayed in the bright Penang sunshine, their petals falling onto the fat cabbages below. Nearby, green bananas were ripening on the branch while the okra was becoming fatter by day. It was an idyllic scene in this garden bursting with produce and cheeriness, to the chorus of speeding cars.

Cars? Yes, this is an urban farm in the heart of the Penang capital of George Town, one of Malaysia’s most urbanised and congested cities. The quarter-acre farm is hidden behind the headquarters of the Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), and right next to a busy highway.

It’s not the ideal spot for a farm, or perhaps, it is. The farm was built over the last 10 years to demonstrate to urban Malaysians that they don’t need acres to plant their own food.

It can be done even in the cramped quarters that most of us have to live in, said CAP’s education officer N.V. Subbarow.

“We want to encourage people to do their own farming. We show them how even small spaces, in pots and baskets, you can grow vegetables,” he said.

CAP and Subbarow have been advocating urban natural farming for years but it was only in recent years that micro farms have become a new hot trend, partly because the rising cost of living has put a severe crimp on household budgets. But it’s also got to do with greater health awareness and an increasingly robust DIY spirit among younger Malaysians.

This has delighted CAP which has been leading the natural farming movement since 1970 when it was set up as a grassroots organisation for consumer rights and sustainable living. It is now one of Malaysia’s foremost consumer organisations, still operating from a simple bungalow in George Town.

Subbarow said its monthly courses on natural farming has been drawing around increasingly large numbers, around 60 each time, to learn how to grow food without using chemical pesticides or fertilisers. While some of the participants own farms, most of them are urban Penangites who want to turn balconies and tiny gardens into small farms.

Natural farming, he said, is suitable for small home-based farms as no chemicals are used. Only natural ways are used to promote plant growth and deter insects.

For instance, it teaches participants how to make fertiliser from cow urine and dung, fish waste and brown sugar. It teaches techniques to compost kitchen and garden waste, even on balconies, with the help of worms. CAP’s own farm uses 40,000 worms to turn its garden waste to compost.

They are taught how to deter pests by planting their favourite food such as yellow flowers among the crops or as a border, so the insects would make a beeline for those instead of the vegetables.

Bitter plants disliked by insects are chopped and mixed with cow’s urine as a spray for the vegetables.

“There’s no smell, we use it here too,” said Subbarow, as we sniffed the air and detected nothing. Yup, no smell. He said some urban residents worry about smells and dirt, insects and ants, in their gardens. But there are techniques to prevent those, he said.

These techniques are mostly learned in India, and tested in CAP’s farm before they are taught at its monthly courses as well as classes held around the country. In fact, Subbarow has even had classes for the indigenous Orang Asli communities in both Peninsular and Borneo Malaysia.

“We have set up organic gardens in schools, held courses for apartment dwellers, and even the Orang Asli because the younger ones have forgotten the skills of their forefathers,” he said.

Using such simple methods, the CAP garden produces a diverse range of vegetables like shallots, cabbages, cucumber, okra, brinjals, chillies and spinach among others, and a wide variety of herbs.

At one time, it even planted padi to produce rice.

“We wanted to show that it can be done,” he said although he conceded that it’s not viable to grow rice in an urban setting because a lot of space and water is required.

CAP’s initiative is funded by the organisation itself which runs on donations and grants. Its courses are free. And the garden produce? It is sold to its staff and walk-in customers who come to visit its garden or seek advice on farming techniques.

Subbarow said urban gardens are not likely to yield enough to feed a family but it can supply the basics such as chillies, shallots and some vegetables.

More importantly, from the point of view of CAP, this movement can help encourage people to adopt a lifestyle that is more sustainable, environmentally friendly, and less destructive.

“We want to change the old mindset, and try to change the way people live. Things are slowly changing, there is more acceptance now,” he said.

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