Few places have changed as quickly as Singapore. In the 1960s, the place was still covered in small villages (‘kampungs’). As people started getting moved to tower blocks (‘HDBs’), they brought some of their kampung habits with them. Some people tried keeping chickens in their HDBs, though this was quickly stopped. These days, Singaporeans are relatively disconnected from the production of their food. Yet increasingly, people are growing food at home.
Growing food in an HDB is tricky. Space is always a constraint in Singapore, and although a garden city, there are very few gardening centres. Some people I spoke to started off by nicking some soil from the roadside.
If you grow indoors, your plants will likely not have enough light. Windows are often tinted or shaded to keep the HDBs cool.
If you grow outdoors, there are far more challenges. Before coming to Singapore, I naively thought it had the perfect climate – plenty of sun and rain, what more do you need? The problem is that there is too much of these things. Crops like leafy greens can’t grow outdoors without significant shading. Even for chilli peppers, I have seen people deliberately keep them under other plants for shade. Combine this with a hot temperature, high humidity, and no winter, and you get the perfect environment for pests. Pests are an order of magnitude worse in the tropics compared to temperate climates. All of these things are challenges for large-scale growers too.
On Facebook you can find multiple groups of people interested in urban farming and home gardening. In fact, it’s through one of these pages that I managed to meet many of the people mentioned in this post and others.
One of the first people I met online was Calvin Soh. Calvin’s family home in eastern Singapore, One Kind House, is used as a cooking school, urban farm, community centre, and maker space. At the time I met him, Calvin’s son, Dylan, was developing a small hydroponics system for in homes*. The idea is to use IoT to track plants all over Singapore and gain insights into growing. There actually seems to be no definitive guide to growing your own vegetables in the tropics. Individuals and small-scale farms are still doing a lot of trial and error, as American and European practices do not apply in tropical conditions.
A few weeks after meeting Calvin and Dylan, I visited One Kind House and was welcomed by Mama Soh, Calvin’s mother. She showed me around the house, which was surrounded by different kinds of growing systems. When I left, she kindly gave me a GIY (grow it yourself) Stick, a simple device that keeps plants watered through capillary action. The GIY Stick is another one of Calvin and Dylan’s creations, developed through crowdfunding.
Although Singaporeans are disconnected from food production, I was surprised by how many ordinary people had the term ‘hydroponics’ in their active vocabulary. People seem to know more about agtech than even in the Netherlands.
Speaking of hydroponics, person who replied to my post in the Facebook group was Nadine Linneberg, from Aerospring Gardens. Nadine and her husband Thorben make hydroponic growing towers similar to the Tower Garden. When I visited them, they showed me their system and compared it to a Tower Garden. Although they look similar, there are big differences. Theirs felt a lot sturdier, easier to use, and space-efficient. A well thought through system. They are selling well and Aerospring Gardens has received orders from outside of Singapore too.
Another interesting system I came across was Cloud Aquaponics, a small aquaponics (surprise surprise) system for home use. Systems like these have the potential to use kitchen waste to grow food, as Seppe Salari is doing in his apartment in Wageningen. I have put the people from Cloud Aquaponics in contact with him, as they were interested in exploring the idea of black soldier flies. As Seppe told me, the challenge lies in making sure this remains odourless, clean, and easy to use.
There are plenty more of these systems being sold in Singapore. Growing at home is growing in popularity. Although growing food at home is unlikely to produce significant amounts of food for Singapore, it has plenty of educational spillover effects. Growing food is hard, and appreciating that is important when thinking about food security. Glad to see how much people are growing themselves.
This article is part of a series on Singapore.
Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 4.
*At the time of writing, you can find some of these systems at the ArtScience Museum on Marina Bay. The people at the FabLab there should know.
Hi Alex, your story makes interesting reading for those who have no insight in the challenges of urban tropical conditions. The pictures are also well chosen and attractive, clarifying your message. I look forward to the next article! Regards, Corine
PS: please can you give the full meaning of the letters HBD?
HDB = Housing and Development Board, in charge of these tower blocks: