PETALING JAYA, June 14 — “Green fingers are not born but made,” Beatrice Yong declares. “With time and effort, and through trial and error, anyone can be a gardener.” Sitting across from her, Shao-Lyn Low nods in agreement. The two former Sekolah Sri Cempaka schoolmates run social enterprise Eats, Shoots & Roots, a unique outfit that offers products and services on permaculture and edible gardens to encourage people to grow their own food.
First of all, what is permaculture? The word stands “permanent agriculture” and is about letting Nature run its course so that the land is always suited to farming. There are 12 rules to live by that cover, among others, environmental design, water resources management and utilising different natural resources over and over to condition the soil.
Unlike conventional agriculture, no chemicals, pesticides or fertilisers are used. Instead, the soil is enriched with compost made from organic materials. “In short, we let Nature condition nature,” Beatrice explains.
Eats’ base, a retro bungalow in Petaling Jaya’s Bukit Gasing, is a demonstration of permaculture practices. Every square inch of the garden is covered with potted plants, herb plots and raised vegetable beds built using natural or recycled materials such as rocks and corrugated zinc pieces.
There is no particular order to the types of greens that Eats plants in their garden, although the focus is on perennial vegetables — that is, crops that need to be planted just once but can be harvested year after year.
Still, determining what will grow is often a process of trial-and-error. “Not everything we plant here does well,” Beatrice reveals. “If the conditions are suitable, the plants will naturally thrive.” True to permaculture practices, the aim is to mimic Nature as closely as possible and have a diversity of crops. Plants that are meant to prosper within the same environment will form an eco-system that is pretty much self-sustaining, thus requiring minimal care and even help keep pests at bay.
Walk through their lush garden and you will see a variety of tropical greens that are popularly eaten locally, from chan choy (Malabar spinach) to four-angled beans and several types of brinjals, including a white variety.
The indigo blooms of bunga telang, used as a food colourant, peek out from the trellis.
Clusters of aloe vera nestle in The Herb Spiral, a raised bed encircled by uneven rocks, along with rosemary and cilantro. Ulam raja grows in abundance while in the back garden, pots of basil sit near a patch of daun kaduk.
Nearby, a tall plant stands out with its tiny bright green and yellow leaves that resemble those of sayur manis. It’s the Moringa Oleifera, touted as the next kale as it’s highly packed with nutrients and medicinal properties.
Visitors often ask to buy the herbs and vegetables, but the greens are for in-house consumption only. You can, however, try your hand at growing your own and Eats has made it easy with their Seed Boxes. Launched last year, they come in three variants, themed Ulam, Curry and Stir-Fry. Each box contains 18 peat pellets, six plant markers and six packets of seeds that correspond to the respective theme.
The Ulam box, for example, lets you grow four season lettuce, cilantro, Thai basil, big chilli, four-angled beans and cucumber. The Stir-Fry box has round garden amaranth, red Malabar spinach, sharp leaf celtuce, pak choy and water spinach. In the Chilli kit, you’ll find the seeds for bird’s-eye chilli, round brinjal, white radish, lady’s fingers, red flower French bean, and black seed long bean.
Shao-Lyn designed the boxes, printed on recycled paper so they’re compostable and biodegradable, which are meant to be re-used for storing the seeds you will collect from the crops you grow. The duo made sure to include useful references such as illustrations of the crops, details of the soil mix to use for potting, and ‘best way to makan’ tips printed on the back of each seed packet.
It’s part of their educational efforts, and an extension of what used to be their core operations. “When Eats was first set up in 2012, we mainly organised permaculture workshops taught by teachers from Australia,” says Shao-Lyn, who trained in graphic design and had worked in the advertising industry for 10 years. She found out about permaculture through an ex-college mate, Sabina Arokiam. The latter was already running such workshops at her initiative, Embun Pagi, in Batu Arang, Selangor.
“I visited Embun Pagi and was taken by the lifestyle and the idea of living off the grid. Sabina and I decided to team up and Eats was born,” says Shao-Lyn. “Back then, we occupied a small space at the La Salle Hall, just across from where we are now.
We realised that we needed to have our own garden so we could practise what we learned.”
Later that year, Eats shifted across the road to a single-storey house that had been abandoned for 30 years, with a garden that was full of weeds. They certainly had their work cut out for them but then again, what better opportunity to walk the talk they had been encouraging?
The workshops they were organising focused on permaculture on a fairly large scale (they were designed for villages and towns) and attracted mostly architects, landscape artists, organic, slow food practitioners, and those who had grown weary of city living and were aiming for a more bucolic life. Some participants have gone on to create successful gardens, such as the TTDI Edible Project.
Eats realised that some adjustments were necessary to make the know-how practical for an urban setting. They broke down the workshops — which typically took two weeks to complete — into shorter sessions. They also began welcoming volunteers, such as those signed up with the WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) programme and city folks who wanted to get a taste of farming.
There were more changes in store; with Sabina choosing to pursue another cause, Shao-Lyn needed a new partner to help run things. Beatrice came into the picture at the right time, having just quit her job as a strategic planner with an advertising agency, and did not hesitate to come on board as she had always been supportive of green movements.
The idea for the Seed Boxes came about shortly after that. “We are a social enterprise, but people forget the ‘enterprise’ part. Many even mistake us for a non-profit,” says Beatrice. The Seed Boxes is the first of what they hope will be a growing range of gardening products.
Eats also offers edible garden design and building, or what they call Garden Royong, a community-oriented activity inspired by the spirit of gotong-royong. It can be tailored to corporations as a team-building exercise, institutions that wish to start their own mini farms, and groups of up to 20 that want to get together and build a garden — provided a suitable space is available, of course.
A Garden Royong session can take several hours, with Shao-Lyn and Beatrice showing participants the basic skills and ways to maintain the gardens. Everyone gets down and dirty, and is involved every step of the way, from sourcing neighbourhood wastes to preparing the soil.
Eats also actively participates in events such as the recent Festival Belia in Putrajaya, which provides a platform for them to introduce interesting outreach ideas. “This year, we came up with ‘Drink Your Own Plants’, whereby people who visited our booth could harvest a variety of herbs fresh off the plants that we brought to the site,” says Shao-Lyn. “We also provided a variety of ‘Plant Mixology’ cordials and blenders, so they could create their own fresh herbs-fruit iced blends on the spot.”
The cordials, flavoured with pandan, lemongrass, roselle and mulberry were prepared by chef Darren Teoh of Dewakan restaurant in Glenmarie. Just a few months young, the restaurant is already getting rave reviews for its nouveau Malaysian cuisine that pairs local ingredients and flavours with European culinary techniques. “Darren did a cooking demonstration at our place some time back,” says Beatrice, “He still comes by regularly to get his supply of daun kaduk — in fact, he has free reign of our garden.”
Eats is open to more collaborations, be it with horticulturists, industrial designers, architects or F&B practitioners. Shao-Lyn points out that they don’t have the capacity or skills to provide food services on their own, but are surrounded by an abundance of fresh, raw ingredients.
They’ve even built a cob oven using clay dug up from the garden, mixed with coconut coir, sand and water. Resembling a mud hut, it’s studded with glass bottles for insulation to help the heat last longer, can be fuelled with wood or charcoal, and functions like a regular oven. It sits under shade in their semi-outdoor cooking area. “We have to keep it sheltered as water would wash it away!” Beatrice reveals.
She and Shao-Lyn are currently busy with a mapping project for Think City, which drives initiatives aimed at rejuvenating the Kuala Lumpur city centre. It involves identifying pockets of spaces that are suitable to be turned into edible gardens, within a 1 kilometre radius from Masjid Jamek and preferably near restaurants that can make use of the harvests.
The mapping is expected to be completed by the end of the year. Ideally, thereafter, the city will have a network of edible gardens that not only supports livelihoods but also peppers the concrete jungle with spots of green lungs. Until then, if you’d like to start your own edible garden, Eats, Shoots & Roots has the tools to help you.
Eats, Shoots & Roots welcomes interns who are keen on gaining practical knowledge in agriculture, and organises a monthly Garden Day that is open to volunteers. For details, go to Eats, Shoots & Roots’ website (http://eatsshootsandroots.org), follow them on Facebook (www.facebook.com/eatsshootsandroots) or Instagram (@eatsshootsandroots).
Order their seed boxes via those same channels or buy from these outlets: Kinokuniya KLCC, Feast at Bangsar Village, Acme Bar & Coffee at The Troika, Mixed Space at Quill City Mall, Impact Hub at D7 Sentul, and Tropical Spice Garden in Penang.
Vivian Chong is a nomad, foodie and lover of all things beautiful and handmade. Read more of her travel and lifestyle stories at http://thisbunnyhops.com/