Nutrition & Sustainability




Monday, 28 February 2022 - Framed around the effects of fast-paced changes and its related challenges on “live-work-play” trends, Active Health’s latest series of webinars feature key industry experts and thought leaders as they navigate trending topics to harness health and wellness in building a high performing individual. This webinar, part of a monthly series, focused on nutrition and sustainability. The engaging fireside chat featured Mr Bjorn Low, co-founder and executive director of Edible Garden City. During the session, Mr Low shared his insights on how we can eat more healthily, and even grow our own food at home despite spatial constraints.

Mr Low remarked that the topic of agriculture in Singapore was not as vibrant ten years ago when he started Edible Garden City, citing Lim Chu Kang farms as one of the limited examples.

How easy is it to start your own garden in an HDB apartment?

Mr Low admitted that he found the learning process to be frustrating at the start. Like everyone else, Mr Low also faced spatial constraints. Nothing seemed to work. He started growing seedlings in his bedroom, before looking for more space outside of his apartment. After being told to remove the prototype garden from the common area, he persisted in finding other ways to provide his plants with more sunlight. Yet, he mused that it was through this process of researching and finding out, wanting to make it work, that made it an insightful journey.

Are my plants going to die?

Surprisingly, this would be the biggest problem he would face when it came to growing a personal garden in a high rise apartment building. It is not completely illogical though, considering Singapore’s high-rise public apartments were designed and constructed to reduce glare and keep the interior cool. Identifying the amount of direct sunlight exposure can help one determine which plants can be grown.

Fortunately, there is a wide compendium on edible plants that can tolerate or even appreciate some shade. This would include plants like ginger, pandan, and peppermint. It is important to understand the micro-climate that a plant-owner can provide in his/her home/room to capitalize on the sunlight in order to grow your own food.

Citing past projects in dark and dingy shophouses with minimal lighting, Mr Low recounted how technology came to the rescue in the form of grow lights. These allowed him to cultivate some micro-greens, which is a feat readily achievable by most apartment dwellers.

As Mr Low explained, micro-greens are easy to grow due to their short crop cycles and they thrive well under grow lights. Micro-greens can also provide more nutrition density when compared to fully grown vegetables. His hope is that everyone would have that opportunity to try growing micro-greens in their own homes.

Hydroponics or Soil-based?

The soil can be a good source of nutrients for plants and are readily available in traditional systems (plant pots/beds).

An alternative however is the hydroponics-based system. Mr Low noted that the hydroponics system actually dates as far back as the ancient Mayan civilization where similar techniques were employed in crop cultivation. Today, modern technology has supplemented it by introducing specific nutrients that are preformulated for the plants. The plants would then be able to absorb the nutrients through the solution.

He observed that while the plants tend to grow faster under a hydroponics system, he personally finds that plants harvested from this setup can be lacking in terms of flavour and taste. Mr Low explained that the taste (of the plants) stems from the nutritional profile, oils, and phytonutrients in the vegetable. Considering how one would typically associate health benefits to the taste of the vegetable, Mr Low expressed his preference for the more fulfilling role that soil-based systems can provide.

Help! My garden is infested by pests!

Having unwanted introductions into the ecosystem, like bugs and other pests, might be a likely issue that owners are bound to face. When quizzed about how one should deal with this complication, Mr Low admitted that it is unavoidable considering Singapore’s tropical profile, with ants posing as the biggest challenge. Mr Low shared how these communal critters are known to farm sap-sucking pests like aphids and mealybugs and move them from one plant to another.

Mr Low added that while one can never truly eradicate pests, they can still be managed. Fortunately, nature tends to balance itself, with predators like ladybugs being attracted if they detect a good source of food (i.e. aphids and mealybugs).

That said, Mr Low observed that Singapore is still lacking in terms of having a robust agriculture industry. This means that there are few companies out there in the business of breeding these ladybugs for sale, unlike in other countries. In compensation, he would utilize organic materials to address the pest invasion.

Neem oil, for example, can be applied to plants when one observes an ongoing infestation. Mr Low further explained that it has to be applied in such a way that allows the oil to stick onto the plants. Unlike chemical pesticides, it does not kill the pest on contact. The plants absorb the oil, so when the pests suck on the sap, they ingest the neem, which induces satiation. Over time, the pests perish from starvation. Best of all, it is safe for human consumption!

Which plants should I start with?

As to the million-dollar question on which edible plants to start with, Mr Low recommended ginger, turmeric, pandan, or even aloe vera. However, Mr Low asserted that it all depends on experimentation and staying inquisitive. Pushing the boundaries becomes rather important for there is no one-size-fits-all solution in a micro-climate. He advised avid gardeners to keep going at it to discover the unique palate that fits his/her available parameters (and the kitchen, too)! For soil-based systems, he would summarize that having a good soil mix translates to having three-quarters of the battle won.

For those interested in growing pandan, Mr Low explained that they are semi-aquatic in nature. Thus, watering them sufficiently is important to their growth. He even shared how he was able to have a pandan plant root itself in his fish tank!

Environmental sustainability

When it comes to energy consumption, Mr Low shared that modern technology like LED lights have become rather energy-efficient, even more so if one were to buffer it with solar energy. To him, the bigger challenge revolved around cooling. Many of the edible plants we like to eat tend to be cold weather crops, typically planted after summer in temperate countries to optimize their growth.

Mr Low suggested that collectively as a nation to adjust our palates to incorporate more of the native vegetable profile that our forefathers used to cultivate and consume. The nutritionally dense sayur manis, for example, could substitute the spinach. Likewise, the oolong beraja could be used in salads.

Food resilience

Mr Low observed that there were therapeutic benefits to be reaped from gardening and growing one’s own food. Through trials and programs with a select group of pre-dementia patients, he found that the stress markers actually dropped post gardening. This would indicate the provision of mental wellness when one engages in nature.

“We are really hoping that, in terms of food production in the city, it should be anchored with an element of care. This hopefully can then encourage more people to participate in the food growing movement, because it really needs all hands on deck to get us to achieve food resilience.”

Understanding the food production process really helps one to appreciate the food that is eaten, which could promote responsibility and reduce wastage. Mr Low hoped that this would translate to acknowledging the need to support local agriculture businesses.

Key takeaways

  • Eat better with your freshly grown, nutrient dense produce
  • Stay active by growing your own food in your neighborhood (e.g. community gardens/farm)
  • Growing your own food has therapeutic effects on your mental wellness

➤ Watch the Session Highlights here:

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Topics: Physical Activity