3 Singapore Women Making Their Mark As Urban Farmers

From the local urban farming movement springs another breed of vegetable growers. Meet a haute couturier among gardeners, a visionary who’s a major force behind the local farm-to-table movement, and an eco warrior who’s out to school us about going green.

CELINA LIN, SOCIALITE

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Celina Lin, striking in an Herve Leger dress and Iijin wedge sneakers, talks to me about growing tomatoes. “Just do it,” she urges. “Commercial tomatoes don’t taste like tomatoes; they’re flat. The tomatoes from my garden are so complex in flavour.”

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If we’d met at a party, I might have doubted her ardour for (literally) home-grown produce. But we’re in her pad after a tour of her rooftop farm, during which she’s shown me how to sprout chye sim from its flowers, and recounted how she concocted home-made pest repellent out of chilli, garlic and soap to fight a recent aphid infestation. So I’m listening, pinch of salt suspended. I know this uber-chic private investor is a bona fide urban farmer.

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Lin isn’t the only one. It’s a sign of our times, this commitment to clean, sustainable living that goes beyond reading product labels and swearing off hairspray. People everywhere are now looking for ways to actively participate, and urban farming is the green movement du jour, fast gaining a following even here in blase Singapore.

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Today’s urban farmers aren’t motivated by survival, but, like Lin, more by the desire for a better quality of life. “I want my daughter to eat organic,” Lin says emphatically, twice, adding that she finds it hard to trust the organic certification of commercially grown vegetables after the many recent food scares. Form must of course follow function, and as her cause is so close to the heart, Lin’s 2,000 sq ft plot is a verdant work of art, and of her very own design.

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“I try to use every spare bit of space,” says Lin, and it shows. A vertical structure of hanging pots that she devised bears rows and rows of the healthiest-looking bak choy and chye sim I’ve ever seen. Larger planters are all lined up in precision, every one neatly labelled – chilli, onion, okra, eggplant, cucumber, red amaranth, lettuce, wheatgrass, capsicum, coriander and, of course, those prized tomatoes.

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In earthen beds sidling up to the railings of the rooftop lounge, where other gardeners might have been tempted to grow flowers, she plants instead graceful strips of carrot, ginger, Thai basil, rosemary, garlic, peanut and long bean. Beside them, a tank collects and filters rainwater, part of an irrigation system that’s piped through the beds – yes, Lin has thought of everything. And that’s why the little rainbow-hued, flower-shaped windmill she’s stuck into a planter in the middle of her farm, which might have looked silly in a lesser garden, is charming and insouciant here.

The best part of being an urban farmer, says Lin, is enjoying the fresh produce from her garden and knowing exactly what she’s feeding her family. “It’s very fulfilling, eating what you’ve planted,” she says. “Everyone should grow a little something. All you need is good soil, water and sunlight.”

CYNTHIA CHUA, FOUNDER OF SPA ESPRIT GROUP

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Chua recounts with relish harvesting sweet potato leaves from her farm on Dempsey Hill, and cooking these at home. She shares: “My parents weren’t convinced that farm-to-table dining would appeal to Singaporeans, but when they ate the sweet potato leaves I brought home from the farm, they began to understand why it was so meaningful to eat something you knew.”

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To generate interest and support for local produce, Chua works closely with Edible Gardens, a social enterprise that promotes urban farming, to create and maintain herb and vegetable plots for her various food and beauty ventures. These plots are scattered all over the city, occupying diverse pockets of space. A rooftop farm at Raffles City produces the mint, calendula, neem and lemon balm used in ointments, teas and massage oils at Strip, Browhaus and Spa Esprit. Another at Wheelock Place grows more than 20 varieties of herbs and vegetables, including chocolate mint and heirloom aubergines, for Tippling Club, which Chua co-owns with celebrity chef Ryan Clift.

Rob Pearce, co-founder of Edible Gardens, believes its partnership with Chua is good for the local urban farming movement: “We understand the plants and how to grow them, and Cynthia understands how to get people to appreciate them.”

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Last June, they embarked on their biggest collaboration yet: Open Farm Community, a 30,000 sq ft restaurant and farm on Minden Road. “People talk about farm-to-table, but they don’t understand what exactly this means,” says Chua. So she and Edible Gardens are going to show them: At Open Farm Community, customers will eat vegetables grown and harvested just metres away, and watch as essential oils are extracted from herbs from the farm in an on-site distillery. The plan is to hold farming workshops too, for the benefit of growers-to-be. “It’s all about bringing people closer to their food and the products they use,” says Chua.

OLIVIA CHOONG, ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVIST

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On the other side of Singapore, in Macpherson, Olivia Choong’s humbler plot grows to serve a similar end. Choong, who is happy to call herself an environmental activist, believes that it’s a lack of knowledge that prevents people from growing their own food. Her own plant wisdom is the result of trial and error in her constantly evolving farm, and she passes this on through the workshops she conducts with Edible Gardens on topics ranging from planting techniques to edible flowers.

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“I want to help cultivate habits that are gentle on the environment,” says Choong, who is the founder of Green Drinks Singapore, a local non-governmental organisation that organises monthly gatherings and round tables to get people talking candidly about environmental issues.

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Like Choong herself, her urban “farm” is simple, pared down and a bit of a free spirit. In patches and pots scattered across 3,000 sq ft, she grows an eccentric mix of okra, red stem Malabar spinach, dill, mint, Thai basil, laksa leaf, kang kong, papaya, oregano and rosemary.

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In one corner stands a rare sight, even in the suburbs: a chicken coop, home to three hens and a rooster. Choong handles them with a deftness that most city slickers could never muster, even gamely picking one up for our photo shoot.

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Their efforts run from hip to hippie, but one thing is clear: Lin’s, Chua’s and Choong’s are all victory gardens. The term takes a different tenor in our times, but it remains heavy with significance. Ours is a city in flux, listless for trends to adopt and abandon. These women and their farms are fighting the good fight – making sure urban farming doesn’t go out with a whimper.

Lin’s stand is strong, succinct: “Urban farming isn’t a fad. I don’t like fads. This is about being sustainable, optimising space, sunshine and rain.” An elegant battle cry for our times.

Photography Zaphs Zhang Art Direction Caroline Chua

An adapted version first appeared in Female’s May 2015 issue.

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