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Commentary: Gardening for self-sufficiency? The fruits of my labour have been few

Working to put food on the table already demands so much – having to grow that food is just more work, says CNA’s Erin Low.

Commentary: Gardening for self-sufficiency? The fruits of my labour have been few

Chye sim seedlings (left), of which only two survived into maturity (right). (Photo: Erin Low)

SINGAPORE: You might have baulked at rising prices at the produce aisle in recent weeks.

Heavy rainfall has affected the supply of vegetables from Malaysia, leading to price hikes in spinach, okra, long beans and more.

Whenever food imports are hit by adverse weather, or in the past few years, pandemic-related shocks, there would invariably be discussion about buttressing Singapore’s food security.

Besides diversifying supply chains and boosting local production, authorities have encouraged people to grow their own vegetables and fruits.

That was part of the rationale behind NParks’ Gardening With Edibles initiative. It aims to build a community of gardeners not only to make Singapore greener, but to strengthen the country’s food resilience. Since its launch in June 2020, the programme has seen the distribution of 860,000 free seed packets to households.

Enthusiastic gardeners – of which there are now many since the pandemic – tout not only the satisfaction of growing their own food, but the sheer joy of the hobby.

As someone who tried jumping on the bandwagon, I can confidently say that I’m not one of them. It’s been ridiculously difficult to grow sufficient greens to feed myself on a daily basis, let alone my family. The motions of gardening too have sometimes been more stressful than therapeutic.

Am I doing something wrong? Or do I just not have the green thumb?

REALLY DIFFICULT TO GROW YOUR OWN FOOD

To be fair, I’ve had some success in growing some types of edibles. Chilli ranks as the most productive – with just five plants, my family could go without buying chillis from the market for about a year.

Growing edibles is nonetheless an involved process, starting from researching a plant’s needs, to germinating, replanting, pruning, fertilising and fighting off pests.

From seed to harvest, so many things could go wrong: Torrential rain drowning out delicate seedlings, roots or flowers not forming properly, hungry squirrels and birds getting to the bounty first and overzealous pet dogs digging up swathes of unripe sweet potatoes (all these are true stories).

If anything, gardening has taught me what incredible odds plants overcome to go from garden to table.

The fruits of my labour have not only been few, but also subpar. A foray into growing cherry tomatoes, which took about 6 months in total (including a few unsuccessful rounds of germination), bore about two dozen fruit. When I bit into a freshly picked one, my first thought was that the cherry tomatoes from the supermarket are sweeter.

GARDENING CAN BE A FULL-TIME JOB

My family is lucky to have our own garden. Apartment-dwelling Singaporeans can bid for allotment gardens or volunteer to tend community plots. Or they make do with their space by keeping windowsill gardens or investing in fancy hydroponic towers.

The Internet abounds with solutions for gardening to feed yourself, regardless of how much space you have. YouTube videos about gardening for self-sufficiency have exploded, perhaps wrought by inflation and pandemic shortages.

There, self-professed homesteaders discuss how to plan crops, plot layouts and compost waste to maximise yields. In those circles, agricultural techniques like permaculture, crop rotating and companion planting are casually discussed – enough to make any amateur’s head spin.

Singapore Facebook groups dedicated to gardening – with the more popular ones counting more than 100,000 members – dispense tips and troubleshoot issues. But since success is so dependent on individual circumstances, it is disheartening to see attempts at hand-pollinating pumpkin blossoms, or propagating Italian basil from cuttings, end in failure.

The notion of working the earth for one’s food is quite romantic, but it is still work at the end of the day. Not all of us urban folk in Singapore have the land, resources, and most importantly, the time to do it.

Working to put food on the table already demands so much – can we really be expected to grow that food too?

While the only farming I might do from now on is in video games, I have come away with deep respect for people dedicated to growing their own food.

Or I might just do it for the pleasure, and not the pressure to feed anyone. The rhythm and routine of raising a living thing are fulfilling in themselves too.

Erin Low is a research writer at CNA Digital.

Source: CNA/el
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