The ST Guide To... growing an edible garden

Do not give your plants too much fertiliser as that is the equivalent of force-feeding it. PHOTO: ST FILE
Do not give your plants too much fertiliser as that is the equivalent of force-feeding it. PHOTO: ST FILE

With the organic food movement growing, urban farming is all rage.

From growing Thai basil to cherry tomatoes, having your own edible garden is a great way to have some greenery in your home, teach children about plant life cycles and save some money with fresh vegetables on demand.

A basic starter kit involves a few pots or a planter box, seeds and soil.

It sounds simple enough, but inexperienced or first-time gardeners often worry about their lack of a green thumb.

But Ms Cynthea Lam, founder of urban-gardening company Super Farmers, says that most of her clients give up after just one failed attempt.

Her advice? "The key is to try again. Keep experimenting until you get it right. Plants are hardy living things and wish to survive as much as we do.

"Before you start on any project, do some basic research online, read up on what is needed or watch some videos to get inspired."

Here are some tips to consider before you get started.

Find some sunshine

It can be challenging finding a spot with the right amount of sunlight in high-rise apartments.

Edible plants need about four to six hours of direct sunlight, says Dr Wilson Wong, deputy director of horticulture and operations at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

After all, he points out, homes are designed to stay cool and shaded from direct sunlight.

In such cases, those who are serious about pursuing the hobby can use an artificial light - called a grow light - instead.

Depending on the make and size, these lights have different price points and can be bought at nurseries or online.

But those who are lucky enough to have a nice sunny spot will have to be careful not to overexpose these plants to too much sunlight, such that they get fried in the heat.

Ms Lam says that if you plan on putting your plants in an area that receives "unfiltered sunlight, especially from the afternoon sun", use a fabric that shields the plants from at least half of the sunlight.

Space issues  

If you do not have enough floor space to spare, there is a simple solution: try hanging pots off the wall.

Online do-it-yourself and gardening websites have step-by-step guides of how to build a vertical wall that is sturdy enough to hang pots or create pocket planters.

Check out websites such as home decorating magazine Country Living and e-magazine Architecture & Design for inspiration.

Consider your lifestyle 

Edible gardens need a good deal of attention and lots of care. They need to be watered daily, pruned and checked for diseases and pests such as aphids and mealy bugs.

Garden maintenance also involves transplanting seedlings and growing new plants via vegetative propagation. You will also need to remove weeds and place stakes in the soil - if you are growing climbers.

If you need some confidence getting started, Dr Wong pumps for microgreens. These are seedlings of edible vegetables, which are packed with nutrients, and have complex flavour profiles.

The items you will need are a shallow container, potting mix and suitable seeds such as sunflower, broccoli and buckwheat.

Dr Wong says: "These are quick to grow and harvest. Depending on the type of microgreens grown, one can start harvesting 10 days after sowing the seeds."

What to grow  

Once you have decided where to set up your garden, think about what you would like to grow.

Despite Singapore's hot and humid weather, there are many options to choose from.

Dr Wong says that beginners can start with fruit vegetables such as long beans and brinjals.

Once you have some experience, have a go at growing tropical plants such as pandan, curry leaves, lemongrass, cherry tomatoes and Thai basil. For easy leafy greens, opt for kangkong, kailan and chye sim.

He says that Mediterranean herbs and even the edible fig are "increasingly popular" recently, but these need some know-how to grow well.

What to buy (24493303)

Ms Lam recommends a basic starter kit that includes a deep rectangular trough or pot about 45cm-long and 20cm deep, with drainage holes punched into its bottom. Also get about 10litres of potting soil and 10litres of compost mix.

You will also need gardening tools such as a rake and spade, gardening scissors and a watering can. If you do not want to get your hands dirty, invest in some gardening gloves too.

Growing edibles can cost as little as $10, depending on how many plants you want to start growing, and if you are planting with seeds, says a spokesman from Far East Flora, which has a nursery in Thomson Road.

Caring tips

A garden will grow well if you tend to it right. But eager gardeners can make mistakes, once their garden is up and running.

For one, says the Far East Flora spokesman, gardeners who are keen to fertilise their plant often overdo it. Gardeners may think it will lead to faster plant growth, but will likely kill the plants instead - it is akin to force-feeding the plant an excessive amount of food.

Organic fertilisers are always the preferred method, especially if you are eating from your garden. Compost is a good option for organic fertiliser, and can be made at home. Alternatively, there are organic fertilisers available at nurseries here.

Overwatering can also be a problem. Ms Lam says that newbie gardeners should touch the soil to feel if it is still damp from the previous time it was watered. She says you can skip one watering session so as not to drown the plant.