Green cure to virus blues

The writer with okra from her little plot in a community garden.
The writer with okra from her little plot in a community garden. ST PHOTO: ONG SOR FERN

Greens are the best cure for the Covid-19 blues.

When I joined a ballot for a community garden plot in December, I had vague notions of growing stuff for the dinner table.

But cultivating the little 1.2m by 4.6m plot has spawned unexpected dividends in this mad first quarter of 2020. The most unlikely one is that it has rooted me in a small, friendly community of neighbours, whose generosity has reminded me that the kampung spirit can sustain people through difficult times.

The old cliche that neighbourliness is a disappearing value in urban high-rises certainly applied to me. Before I joined the community garden, I barely knew anyone in the neighbourhood in Toa Payoh, where I have lived for three years.

Now, I have become acquainted with Mr G, the handyman who can build anything from scraps people throw away; aunty H, whose brusque manner conceals a generous spirit; and the enterprising HL, who makes her own enzymes for organic fertiliser.

I was rather doubting the wisdom of the enterprise in January, as the garden was suffering from flooding issues. Almost four weeks in, a heavy downpour nearly drowned my plot. Most of the plants survived, though, and drainage works have since commenced.

I have managed to harvest naibai, xiancai, kangkong, sweet potato leaves and okra from my little plot. While I have fed just family and a few friends, being able to do so felt like a major victory for this urbanite.

When the two supermarket scrambles - early last month and in the middle of this month - occurred, I was grateful to know I have a small backup supply. Granted, this pipeline is dependent on my limited gardening skills, but it is reassuring to know I could conjure up at least a bowl of stir-fried sweet potato leaves.

More than culinary rewards, the garden has also become a calm oasis where I have learnt some necessary lessons. Dealing with Mother Nature means accepting that there are things beyond my control. In the case of the flooding, there were also bureaucratic wranglings beyond my ken.

One reason the drainage works took so long was because the garden is administered by the residents' committee, while funding and approval for construction have to come from the town council. The gardening committee members were dogged in pursuing the matter through the bureaucratic thicket.

In the meantime, the gardeners facing the worst deluge simply got on with trying different solutions, such as planting water-friendly crops (kangkong being one) and constructing raised soil beds in the hope of protecting seedlings.

Having to tend to the garden also forced me to relinquish control. Plants grow at their own pace, regardless of my impatience.

Some of these lessons turned out to be useful in facing the amorphous threat of the coronavirus. I cannot control other people's behaviour, nor the spread of the disease. But I can combat it with calm logic and behaving with social responsibility.

As most of the gardeners are retirees and older folk, I have become more aware of the need for physical distancing as a real safety precaution. I had not realised how much I had taken socialising for granted until the need for physical distance kicked in.

The gardeners are a social group, enthusiastic about sharing their love of plants, organising little displays at community centre events and harvest days to share their bounty, before the coronavirus put a halt to such activities. Members of the group also distributed masks and, last week, they volunteered to help distribute the free hand sanitiser being given out by Temasek Foundation.

They remind me that while we are keeping our distance from one another, we can still be neighbourly and considerate. That - more than anything else - is going to help everyone get through these trying times.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 29, 2020, with the headline Green cure to virus blues. Subscribe