A community of gardeners

13 November 2017 | Community
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A papaya tree planted in the Raffles Hall community garden

In the midst of the lush greenery of the University’s landscape are small plots tended to by members of the NUS community. Green-fingered staff and students turn volunteer gardeners in three community gardens — nestled in Raffles Hall, Cinnamon College and on the rooftop of the Ventus building.

The roof garden is a simple affair — two rows of trough planter boxes take up a small section of the space, each box housing a selection of plants chosen by different teams of volunteer gardeners. Initiated in 2014 by NUS Environmental Sustainability (OES) to promote community gardening, it has continued over the years as a means for gardening enthusiasts in the various offices to meet and share their passion.

The first plants in the garden were herbs, shared Ms Tessy Joseph, Associate Director of NUS Safety, Health & Environment (OSHE) and one of the volunteer gardeners. Over the three years of trial and error, the community garden now offers a variety of edible plants, including lady’s fingers, squash, basil, bitter gourd and curry leaves. The harvest from their garden is often taken home to be used in their own cooking.

Most of their techniques for fertilising are natural. Ms Joseph said, “Initially when we started this, we bought (ready-made compost), now what we do is use leftover vegetable cuttings or fruits when we make juice at home. We keep them in the freezer and on Monday when we come in, we dig them into the soil.”

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Ms Joseph with the plants in the Ventus community garden

The community garden at Raffles Hall was spearheaded by the Hall’s Resident Fellow and NUS Statistics Associate Professor Yap Von Bing. Through his active work over six years, the Raffles Hall garden has blossomed, with sugarcane, four-angled beans, papayas and custard apples among the many plants in the fold.

Students in the Green Committee at Raffles Hall are regular volunteers in the garden. Year 2 NUS Engineering student Cindy Sia, a volunteer and a self-professed nature lover, recalls shifting banana trees as one of the more memorable activities. The students have also created QR code labels to help educate their fellow residents on the various plants.

Assoc Prof Yap hopes the community garden and its range of fruit and vegetables will be a chance to get students interested in greenery and gardening. “I grew up watching my father grow edibles. Edibles make people excited. I hope to encourage students to at least taste (the harvest), then maybe look at the plants and even get their hands dirty. It’s a step-by-step process,” he shared.

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Mr Yeo with a butterfly pea plant growing in Permaculture@USP

The community garden at Cinnamon College is an urban farm called Permaculture@USP, which was started in November 2016. The farm is a collaboration with the Centre for Nature Literacy and Enterprise, a nature school located within NUS, run by NUS Geography and University Scholars Programme (USP) alumnus Mr Alexius Yeo. “We realised we need to come back and educate the younger generation on how to grow crops and resurrect their agriculture and horticulture knowledge,” Mr Yeo said.

“Permaculture is a way of learning from nature — the natural system and patterns, and applying it into designing a farm,” he explained. An example of this is the coconut chips that cover the grounds of the USP farm. This was used to manage erosion, help retain moisture in the ground and create an identity for the farm.

Students work in the farm as part of a larger USP module on permaculture, pairing hands-on experience with theories learnt in class. Currently, the crops are mainly medicinal and herbal plants to aid the teaching of natural remedies, said Mr Yeo. Some examples of plants in the garden include turmeric, false ginseng, mug wort, false roselle, butterfly pea, brinjal and cucumber.

Aside from plants, the students are also involved in creating compost piles from different sources — collecting coffee grounds from dining places, grass clippings and scrap paper from the admin offices.