Urban farming

This article and the next few will surely awaken the farmer in us. We will cover the basic knowledge of urban agriculture without the use of any chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides with the objective to produce chemical free vegetables and maybe some fast growing fruits - JESPAL SINGH SIDHU

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Left to right, top to down: 1. Vegetables grown in planter boxes (SPK Urban Garden); 2. Covered; 3. Vegetables grown on directly on beds in the soil (SPK Urban Garden); 4. Compost being spread on vegetable beds (Sunway SPK Urban Garden); 5. Vegetables grown in planter boxes (SPK Urban Garden) – Photo: Jespal Singh Sidhu

By Jespal Singh Sidhu | ENVIRONMENT |

I have written several articles on food waste and food wastage. I have also mentioned that all this food waste can be up-cycled into compost and/or bio-char or animal feed. Here we shall assume that it is composted. The next question will be what to do with this compost? The answer – Start an urban farm and this compost is put to good use here.

This article and the next few will surely awaken the farmer in us. We will cover the basic knowledge of urban agriculture without the use of any chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides with the objective to produce chemical free vegetables and maybe some fast growing fruits.

During the initial Movement Control order (MCO) that was declared in March 2020, lots of people started gardening first with decorative plants and flowers and eventually growing their own vegetables.

My mother in law was one of them that switched from flowers and decorative plants to growing her own vegetables. This was after being gently coaxed by my wife and I. We explained the benefits of chemical free vegetables and we showed her via electronic media the amount of chemicals that are being used in commercial farms and the long terms effects of these chemicals on the human body. This is the concept of farm to table literally and we know exactly what we are eating. It is also creating an edible landscape in front of a link terrace house.

Some may say there is a space constrain, as we live in a condominium but I have seen how some friends of mine grow vegetables in planter boxes in their condominium balconies. It is a matter of wanting to do it and the way can be figured out.

What do we do in order to start growing our own vegetables be it in planter boxes, pots, and polybags or in the ground? The most important areas are:

1. The soil and the ecosystem of the soil
2. Fertilizers and plant nutrients
3. Diseases and insects
4. Farm waste management

The four points above are also applicable when planting decorative plants and/or flowers or any plants for that matter. In this article we shall look at soil and plant nutrients.

THE SOIL AND THE ECOSYSTEM OF THE SOIL

How do I pick the right soil? Red or black soil? Do I use soil or potting mix? Why are some potting mixes so expensive and some are really cheap? What is coco peat? What is peat moss? What is bio char? When to use them? Do I need to add sand? Where can I purchase good soil or can I just collect from somewhere? These are only a small selection of the questions that I am asked whenever I talk about gardening or when I conduct my training sessions. Now let’s breakdown soil:

Definition: Soil or sometimes referred to as earth, or usually dirt in America, is the upper layer of earth in which plants grow. Typically a black or dark brown material generally consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, rock particles, liquids and gasses.

That is the definition. Now in our terms what we are looking for is nutrient rich, health alive soil so that whatever we plant will thrive and grow well.

Selection of soil is very important as it is the foundation of our farm/garden/vegetable patch. Once the foundation is set right, the rest usually will fall in place.

How do we select the right type of soil? I put this down to experience and little research. There are three main components of soil – organic matter, rock particles and clay, and if we want to grow plants or vegetables in it what we need is the right blend of these.

  • Organic matter is the nutrient rich part of the soil that will sustain the plants. This in nature occurs when the dried leaves, twigs, branches, animal matter and other organic materials breakdown and form humus. This is the living component of the soil rich in microbes and nitrogen. The natural form is called humus and the equivalent if produced is called compost. Humus and compost have very good water holding abilities.
  • Clay is to hold the soil together. What is the composition of clay? If I go into details it will be a scientific paper so I shall stick to KISS.
  • The small rock particles or shall I refer to this as sand (also known as sand or in Malay “pasir”) is the component that allows aeration of the soil. This allows fluids such as rain water to flow through.

For planting we need the right blend of the above three components. I shall look at minimum investment method. Soil is everywhere, but to make it easier let’s say we purchase some. The typical black soil which is about RM2 per bag and the red soil which is also at that price. What do we do then?

For a pot depending on the size of the pot we can mix the two types of soil and also fine sand which can be purchased from hardware stores (usually used to mix cement). The ratio of black soil:red soil:sand is approximately: 2:1:0.25 or 2:1:0.5. for the top layer of about three inches of the pot or planter box or planting beds, it will be good if we can use black soil:compost:sand at a ratio 2:1:0.25. How does coco peat, and all the potting mixes with burnt paddy husks and other components come into the picture? Frankly coco-peat is coconut fiber that has been crushed and it can be used as an aeration component and eventually it will breakdown and become organic matter but it is not a must. Bio char means charcoal produced in an organic manner so here the burnt paddy husks is considered bio char. Potting mixes basically consists of soil premixed with additional organic matter (compost or manure of a certain kind), burnt paddy husks (as a carbon component), coco-peat (aeration component) and sometimes maybe in some mixtures frass (excretion of insects, larvae and/or worms).

Do we really need these? My answer is to keep it simple and straightforward. Once we have mixed the soil mixture and the top soil mixture as per the ratios then we need to partly cover the two or three holes in the pots or planter boxes with small stones or broken tiles so as to allow small gaps for water to flow through but not for the soil to drain out. We then fill up the whatever containers that we are using to plant and these could range from recycled pet bottles cut into 2/3 with little holes made at the bottom, styrofoam fruit containers with some holes made at the bottom to pots to planter boxes. The bottom part of the containers is to be filled with the first soil mix and the top three to four inches with the second mixture that has compost. If we are going to grow on the ground this mix can be made into a raised bed on the ground and some bricks, tiles or pieces of wood can be used to create a simple barrier so that the soil will not erode away. Now, we are ready to plant.

What do we plant? How do we germinate the seeds? What is the distance between one seed to another? These are the next set of questions. Seeds are easily purchased and there are many brands out there to choose from. What are the types of vegetables that can grow easily at home in pots, planter boxes or on the ground? Based on experience the simple ones are okra, green leafy vegetables, egg plants, corn, herbs such as mint, lemon grass, basil, pandan leaves, chilly plants, creepers which can be grown on the fence – bitter gourd, long beans, luffa, snake gourd and many more.

FERTILIZERS AND PLANT NUTRIENTS

Once we have planted, the next step is to ensure that the plant or vegetables have enough nutrients to grow well and produce enough vegetables or in the case of green leafy vegetables, healthy leaves. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of types of fertilizers out there ranging from sprays, to pellets to powders.

What is fertilizer? When did it come about? Natural soil enhancers were being used since the Egyptian and Roman times. Prior to World War II (WWII) soil fertility was enhanced using manure and compost from various sources. Research shows chemically manufactured fertilizer industry really became main stream after World War II as there was surplus nitrogen being produced as this was the primary material of explosives. The terms NPK were coined and this stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium respectively. A plant requires all of three components to be healthy where:

  1. Nitrogen(N) is mainly for leaf growth
  2. Phosphorus (P) is mainly for the development of roots, flowers, seeds and fruit
  3. Potassium (K) is mainly for strong stem growth, movement of water in plants, promotion of flowering and fruiting.

There are also trace elements and the main ones are calcium (Ca), magnesium (Mg), and sulfur (S) for the healthy growth of a plant.

Chemical fertilizers packs will all proudly list their NPK ratio 12:12:12, 8:6:6 or whatever. What does this mean? Well it is the amount of these elements in those bags of fertilizers.

I produce organic compost and because of the chemical bags having such labels I also have to send my compost to certified labs to do the necessary NPK and trace elements tests.

Why are some commercial farms moving away from chemical fertilizers? The answer is simple. Chemical fertilizers usually provide quick fast release of the nutrients that plants need but over a long term plants grown using these chemical or synthetic fertilizers do not develop natural and good plants systems such as proper roots systems, proper shoots systems. These plants also are not given enough time to grow and mature properly. What are the effects of these accumulated chemicals in these vegetables on the humans that consume them? Leachate from the factories that produce chemical fertilizers and from when they are used in farms on a large scale can cause a devastating effect on our water bodies. There are a lot of research papers and write-ups on this topic and this can be looked on google. Continuous usage of chemical fertilizers degrades the health and quality of soil and eventually the soil becomes arid and farmers need to add more fertilizers to get crops and the cycles never ends.

Compost is a soil conditioner and when we apply compost to our plants be it potted plants or vegetables, or those that are grown on the ground we are improving the overall ecosystem of the soil by adding microbes and microorganisms to the soil. Over time the water retention property of the soil will improve and the soil will be alive with earthworms (yes even in the pots) and this is healthy living soil.

Pic 5. Compost application method – Source: Jespal Singh Sidhu

Next we shall be looking at managing diseases and insects and managing the waste that comes after we harvest form our little edible gardens. There are lots of YouTube videos out there to refer to so embark on this journey of planting your own vegetables and enjoy your fresh chemical leafy vegetables in twenty eight to thirty days. Maybe, I shall do several zoom sessions on Urban Farming based on the four topics so it will be easier to understand and there will be opportunity to interact if there is enough demand.

#urbanfarming #organicfarming #soilmanagement #compost #composting #organicvegetables

 

Jespal Singh Sidhu, a real estate negotiator and an avid gardener, produces compost on a commercial scale which he supplies to farms, fruit orchards and home gardening enthusiasts. He is passionate about sustainability, waste management, separation at source organic waste management and environmental related topics. He is available to guide Gurdawaras to reduce carbon footprint. He can be contacted at compost.sprout@gmail.com

 

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