(Olivia is wearing our Organic Cotton Panelled Top in Sun Kissed Coral and Organic Cotton Double Layered Shorts in Niagara Blue)
In land-scarce Singapore, stories of urban farming and living off the land are few and far between. However, there are a few narratives, like that of Olivia’s (also known as The Tender Gardener) who have endured and inspired.
(Olivia is wearing our Organic Cotton Crop Overlap Top in Sun Kissed Coral and Organic Cotton Double Layered Shorts in Niagara Blue)
Having lived in Byron Bay, Australia, for an extended period of time, Olivia developed an interest in growing vegetables and the concept of self sufficiency, and has since been committed to her goal of living off the land.
Being out in the wilderness, she realised how disconnected most city dwellers are to nature and decided to bridge the gap between them, with hopes that people would begin caring for the environment after experiencing mindfulness through gardening and urban farming.
Her wealth of experience in growing plants, permaculture and all things about the land is evident when we meet, as we spent a whole morning talking about gardening and learning about the various plants she has grown over the years. Like most urban farmers, she takes great care to ensure that the produce she has grown is pesticide-free, while incorporating sustainable zero-waste and energy-saving practices.
Dig deeper with us, as Olivia shares her insights on urban farming and what it means to become self-sufficient.
Alicia: Tell us more about yourself – what you do and what got you interested in living a low impact lifestyle.
Olivia: I busy myself with writing and communication projects, the environmental cause, and gardening. My desire to connect with nature led me to desire a handmade lifestyle, which is a challenge in the city, but working towards minimalist, slow living, and zero waste habits is a good place to start.
When I began my journey as an environmental advocate, I spent a lot of time on my laptop and was not in nature much, and I didn’t even spend that much time in my garden, except to play with my chickens. It was only when I lived in a remote area of Australia for months at a time (to spend time with my then boyfriend) did I get a full immersion in nature. After returning to Singapore, I found city life very jarring and aspired to live a self-sufficient life - one day – soon I hope!
Alicia: Tell us more about your pursuit towards self-sufficiency. Did that love stem from gardening/ urban farming?
It all started before I knew anything about growing herbs or vegetables. I watched the River Cottage series in the early 2000s and strangely, the slow life appealed to me. Around 10 years later, I began spending one third of the year living in the Byron hinterland, and loved living remotely. While I was there, I learned how to grow vegetables and DIY natural remedies. For the first time, I experienced the abundance of nature, there was more food growing on the trees and in the garden than I could eat. I was further inspired by watching television programmes featuring people who had self-sufficient lives. Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild and Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild made me feel that it is possible to move out of the city and have a handmade lifestyle. Strangely it was my couch potato-ing that piqued my interest in self-sufficiency.
Alicia: What do you love most about gardening/ urban farming and how much time do you spend in your garden?
Olivia: Gardening is a meditative experience for me and it puts me in a state where I can check out of the busyness of work and city living. I find that my subconscious thoughts float to the surface, so I regard gardening as therapy. I love both edible and ornamental plants, and observing greenery puts me in a state of calm. I spend at least 30 minutes in my garden, one of the first things I do in the day is to walk around my garden to check on my plants, and if I am home before last light, I will spend that time in my garden.
Alicia: There is a common misconception that the lack of space and the climate in Singapore hinders us from growing our own food or plants – how would you debunk this misconception?
Olivia: It is partially true that the climate dictates what we can grow, but if we can create the right microclimate for these plants, it will thrive. Our climate in Singapore is changing, and we are beginning to enjoy cooler temperatures at certain times of the year. In the past, it would be the case where the night time temperature would not vary too much from day time temperature, but recently we have experienced the temperature dropping noticeably. Some passionate gardeners go so far as to put their plants in air-conditioned rooms to mimic the night time temperature change but I would not advise doing that because it’s not environmentally sustainable and gardening should not be that resource intensive in my opinion.
It helps to pay attention to the weather changes and sun direction. In summer, the sun is highest in the sky, and it will be in different positions in the sky at different times of the year. These changes affect plants, so I shift my plants once a year because the light becomes too intense for the ones I keep indoors. When the Sumatra Squalls roll into Singapore during June to September, the weather gets drier and windier, and we need to give extra care to our plants then. Mulch and more frequent watering is beneficial during this period. Meteorological Service Singapore is a good resource to refer to.
As for lack of space, we can use vertical growing systems to address this issue. There are soil-based ones that can be hung on the wall, standalone hydroponic and aquaponic systems available on the market. For those who do not have enough sunlight, they can consider installing LED lights.
“It was only when I lived in a remote area of Australia for months at a time did I get a full immersion in nature. After returning to Singapore, I found city life very jarring and aspired to live a self-sufficient life - one day – soon I hope!”
Alicia: What are some of the things that you’re growing in your garden currently?
Olivia: I’m growing taro, popcorn, okra, chives, laksa leaf, bittergourd, beans, lettuce, ginger, lemongrass, pandan, moringa, eggplant, mulberry, custard apple, pineapple, papaya, rambutan, among others.
Alicia: What are some of the workshops that you host from time to time?
I teach soil workshops and vegetable growing in apartments. For 2020, I am thinking of teaching permaculture in the city. I feel that we can adopt zero waste practices at home and in our gardens. There are so much beneficial by-products that are thrown out every day, these include egg shells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peelings. I have friends who make it a point to salvage these items – such as banana peels from the goreng pisang stall, fish gills from the wet market, okara from soy bean manufacturers – these are all resources.
“In Singapore, we import a lot more food than we can even consume, and end up throwing it away. Food waste is a huge contributor to global emissions so if we can grow more of our own and import less, and eat seasonally, that would make a big difference.”
Alicia: You’re also the President and Co-Founder of Green Drinks Singapore. Tell us more about Green Drinks.
Olivia: We connect people to environmental issues, to others, and ideally opportunities. What we do best is organising talks and curating panel discussions about pertinent local environmental issues and bringing varying viewpoints to the table. We see value in facilitating conversations between different stakeholders within the environmental sector. We are a registered non-profit society run solely by volunteers, and we have just turned 12.
Alicia: What are some of the green causes that’s close to your heart?
Olivia: I like to observe consumer behavior patterns, and I’m more emotionally invested in zero waste related topics. Self-sufficiency, and everyday consumption subjects like clean personal care products and cosmetics, as well as eco fashion are interesting to me.
Alicia: How will being self-sufficient and opting for more sustainable food choices help to curtail global environmental issues?
Olivia: Self-sufficiency means that food is grown nearby and therefore lowered food miles, and we do away with food transportation and resources that result from it. In Singapore, we import a lot more food than we can even consume, and end up throwing it away. Food waste is a huge contributor to global emissions so if we can grow more of our own and import less, and eat seasonally, that would make a big difference.
Another choice we can make is to eat little to no meat products, this will lessen the strain to our planet’s resources also.
Learn more about gardening on The Tender Gardener blog and through the workshops conducted by Olivia, where she hopes to cultivate the gardening and urban farming community in Singapore, as well as encourage and spread a love of plants and pollinators.