One man’s quest to live healthy has taken him from corporate sales to crops writes Meera Murugesan
THE double storey house in Taman Putra Prima Puchong could pass off for any other middle class home in the Klang Valley.
But where’s the garden I wonder as I arrive? After all, this is supposed to be the home of an urban farmer.
Just as I’m thinking I’ve stopped at the wrong house, Balan Nadarajan opens his front door to greet me.
He ushers me pass his living room into the kitchen and opens the back door and immediately I’m greeted by a sea of green.
In a nondescript back alley, pot after pot contains thriving vegetables, turning the otherwise ordinary space into something quite remarkable.
Loads of leafy greens like kangkung, bayam and lettuce grow proudly from planter’s boxes while still green tomatoes and glossy purple brinjals peek between the leaves of lush fruiting vegetables.
Herbs such as mint, rosemary and parsley also add a glorious green touch and inviting smell to the otherwise bare back alley.
It’s an urban garden in full bloom, made all the more remarkable given that it uses so little space but is still able to supply almost 60-70 per cent of vegetables that Balan and his family need for their daily meals.
THE ACCIDENTAL FARMER
Balan doesn’t claim to have green fingers. Neither does he come from a family of farmers. His background is in corporate sales and he now does consulting, but he believes that with the right knowledge and skills, urbanites like him can grow vegetables.
He first became interested in vegetable growing in 2012. At that time his wife was pregnant with their eldest child and he happened to come across a video showing commercial vegetable farming and the harmful processes used to mass produce vegetables.
Although the video was shot overseas, it was a wake-up call for Balan. He was determined that his child would not eat pesticide laden produce and that he would grow his own vegetables so his family could have safe, healthy meals every day.
But it wasn’t an easy process. In the beginning, he failed miserably and ended up spending a lot of money on his attempts too.
But eventually he got the opportunity to try his hand at farming on a piece of land owned by a friend and that experience resulted in him gaining the skills and knowledge needed to grow vegetables effectively.
“It took me two years to really figure out how an urbanite like me, with a regular job and family could easily grow vegetables. I realised it wasn’t about a healthy plant but healthy soil. When you see a healthy plant, it’s actually the soil that is healthy. It starts with the fundamentals which is soil,” says Balan, a father of three.
Balan started to learn more about soil and even did experiments on soil. Being an urban farmer, he realised that one couldn’t simply plant on the ground (which would be easier) because space would always be an issue.
“We’re talking about planting in boxes and pots so we have to figure out how to do it right,” he stresses.
He explains that those who are interested in urban farming should have a clear objective in mind.
They should decide how big or small they want their “farm” to be and how much of vegetables they want to harvest.
In his case, he can easily harvest about 600-700 grams of kangkung or bayam which is enough for his family for a week.
“And the best part is that I don’t have to wait for the pants to fully mature before I harvest because once vegetables mature, they tend to lose all their nutrients. I harvest in about 3-4 weeks when they are at their prime where nutrients are concerned and have just the right tender crunchiness.”
He adds that baby greens always cost more at the supermarket. For example, just 200 grams of baby bayam can cost about RM3 at the supermarket but Balan can harvest about 500-600 grams twice a week so his home garden has led to cost savings as well.
Balan uses neem oil which is a natural pesticide to keep bugs away and his fertiliser is composted chicken manure from egg laying chickens. Egg laying chickens he explains are normally not injected with any hormones or chemicals unlike broiler chickens.
He says it’s a misconception that a vegetable garden is going to take up too much time and effort, require a lot of space and interfere with one’s daily routine.
In his case, he only spends about 15 minutes a day on his garden during weekdays, usually for watering his plants.
On the weekends, he spends about an hour or two doing maintenance work to upkeep his garden.
“Come up with a schedule and stick to it once you have a garden. It needn’t be heavy or time consuming because we all have jobs and families. Just follow the routine and it becomes easy and won’t eat into your time.”
Balan says micro-greens are also an easy and great way to start for those interested in urban farming. These are very young greens, younger than baby leafy vegetables and they have an intense flavour and nutritional content.
Micro-greens can easily be grown indoors or even from your work desk, with just some sunlight.
Throw into salads or other meals, they offer a host of health benefits to the consumer.
By turning to urban farming, Balan believes he has found a way to take charge of the health of his family. More importantly, his children have become interested in eating vegetables because they see the entire process taking place in their back alley.
Balan says he encourages people who learn from him to teach their kids about planting and growing and working with nature to produce something healthy and tasty.
So many children these days don’t even know the source of food, they assume everything comes from a supermarket.
“Take away those tablets and smartphones for a while and get children involved in the garden. My kids are with me when I water and work on my plants. When they see a worm on the ground, they will pick it up and put it back into the pot because I have told them why worms are important to the soil and how the soil makes plants healthy. They have a respect and understanding of how nature works.”
To get more people interested in urban farming and grow their own vegetables, Balan conducts a course called Fifteen Minutes Farmer which has been exclusively developed for busy people who value healthy eating, for themselves and their family.
The sessions will be conducted at selected venues across the Klang Valley, and offer a guide to set up your own farm and manage it successfully within your home space (landed or high-rise) so that in no time, you will be consuming home-grown vegetables.
The course comes with a user guide manual and a starter-kit for you to kick-start your urban farming journey. The next course is scheduled for Sept 14 at MaGIC Cyberjaya. For more information, go to www.theurbanfarmer.my
*Keep it simple. Have a goal about how much you want to produce and set an easily manageable routine to work on your garden.
*Keep your pots or planter’s boxes slightly elevated and not flat on the ground. This prevents the box from getting too heated up.
*While leafy greens can be planted in boxes or pots, fruiting vegetables do best in air pruning pots which will maximise development of the roots. Balan just uses plastic baskets similar to waste paper/laundry baskets found in DIY stores.
* Leafy vegetables like kangkung, bayam, sawi and kalian are a good way to start off your vegetable garden as they generally grow easily.
* For fruiting vegetables, okra and cucumber are a good start because one can just direct sow the seeds.
*For fruiting vegetables, in order to enjoy a continuous harvest, don’t allow the vegetables to over mature by the time you harvest. This will result in a lower production. Harvest at the right time and the plant will keep producing.
*Don’t over fertilise. Always follow the dosage on the packet or if possible, one can even half the dosage. This will maintain the health of the soil.
* If your plant is indoors, don’t over water. Only water when needed, when you notice the top part of the soil is dry.
There are many benefits to starting a vegetable garden.
*Easy access to pesticide free, organic vegetables without the expensive price tag.
*Fresh produce straight from the plant is packed with nutrients and tastes better than the ones harvested a long time ago and have travelled miles to reach your supermarket.
* A vegetable garden is a great way to teach your children about food sources and healthy eating, especially if you get them involved too.
*Gardening increases physical activity so besides healthier food, you’re getting your required exercise as well.
The Urban Farmer
1. Start small, by growing a few vegetables that you may use quite often in your daily meals.
2. Don’t be daunted by the lack of garden space. Even a few pots in your balcony are sufficient to grow certain greens.
3. Most vegetables do well under the sun so find a spot that gets at least six hours of sunlight a day.
4. The best soil for growing vegetables is the type which includes lots of compost and organic matter such as composted leaves.
5. Make your own organic compost from kitchen scraps and garden leaves to use as fertiliser.