The Urban Farmer: Teaching urbanites in Kuala Lumpur to be healthier by growing their own greens

Urban Farmer founder Balan Nadarajan shows you how you can grow nourishing vegetables in your own backyard. — Pictures by Choo Choy May
Urban Farmer founder Balan Nadarajan shows you how you can grow nourishing vegetables in your own backyard. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

PUCHONG, July 28 — In a quest to eat healthier, Balan Nadarajan became a farmer. An urban farmer.

A mini farm of vegetables and herbs has taken root in the back lane of his terrace house.

It didn't happen overnight, of course and Balan went through many attempts before succeeding and this made him realise that urbanites face an uphill task when it comes to growing their own vegetables.

With this in mind, he developed a method known as Fifteen Minutes Farmer that basically teaches those who are interested (but have limited time) how to grow vegetables in a limited space.

Balan's haul from his urban farm includes tomatoes, ladies' fingers, chillies, bittergourd and spinach.
Balan's haul from his urban farm includes tomatoes, ladies' fingers, chillies, bittergourd and spinach.
The farm is built in pots which makes it easier to move it around, if you have limited space.
The farm is built in pots which makes it easier to move it around, if you have limited space.

The 41-year-old has a business background and his interest in gardening started in 2012 when his daughter was born. He was horrified after he read up on banned pesticides and their scary side effects. "I told myself I need to do something as I have a kid."

His first attempt was a failure. Like everyone else, he enthusiastically planted seeds but after one month, the vegetables died.

Wondering what he did wrong, he turned to online resources for a solution. What he discovered was while the information was abundant, they weren't applicable to our tropical weather.

"I started to learn through trial and error... becoming an experimental farmer." As he dug deeper, he even kept journals to chart his progress.

Soil is the soul of the plants, according to Balan who believes in keeping it happy with the use of effective micro-organisms.
Soil is the soul of the plants, according to Balan who believes in keeping it happy with the use of effective micro-organisms.
Balan grows three types of spinach, like this red Bangladesh amaranth that is rich with vitamins.
Balan grows three types of spinach, like this red Bangladesh amaranth that is rich with vitamins.

The turning point came when he started to do soil experimentation. He explained, "Soil is the foundation of growth. It is the soul of the plants."

He uses  compost that contains effective micro-organisms or "EM", to keep the soil healthy. The compost is made from the manure of egg-laying hens as they are not injected with hormones.

Essentially EM is a mixture of yeast and microbes like lactic acid bacteria, photosynthesizing bacteria and fermenting fungi.

Once it is activated by air, light and water, the EM keeps the soil happy so you can cut back on the use of fertilisers.

Once germinated from seeds, the spinach will grow.
Once germinated from seeds, the spinach will grow.
Ladies' fingers is a favourite of Balan's family.
Ladies' fingers is a favourite of Balan's family.
Chillies can be easily attacked by pests so Balan uses organic pesticides to prevent them from attacking the plants.
Chillies can be easily attacked by pests so Balan uses organic pesticides to prevent them from attacking the plants.

Usually Balan only uses fertilisers for vegetables that fruit like tomatoes and eggplants. Whenever there are plants that are hit by pests or diseases, Balan will use the EM to "heal" them.

Currently testing is being done on EM to improve it further. In the future, Balan hopes it will be easily available to everyone.

He decided to share his own experience via his Fifteen Minutes Farmer after his wife suggested that many would appreciate a guiding hand.

He added, "If people don't know, they won't know how to start to feed their family." As his farm uses pots, it can be easily moved around to create a modular garden in a limited space.

Munch on these micro greens that pack more nutrients than the bigger sized vegetables.
Munch on these micro greens that pack more nutrients than the bigger sized vegetables.

Balan also promotes micro greens — easily grown in a box — as long as you have a window or balcony.

"The benefits are really good as the nutrients are 40 times more than the bigger vegetables," he said.

Packed with polyphenols, these micro greens can also take care of lifestyle diseases. For example, Balan is controlling his cholesterol levels by munching on these micro greens. He explained, "When I watch my Netflix, I don't munch on potato chips anymore but on micro greens."

If you're worried that setting up an urban farm will burn a large hole in your pocket, don't.

Time to harvest that eggplant.
Time to harvest that eggplant.
Once the vegetables are harvested, they are stir fried with garlic for the family to enjoy.
Once the vegetables are harvested, they are stir fried with garlic for the family to enjoy.

Balan will also teach you cost-effective ways, like fashioning your own pots or buying seeds online.

Rather than spending your money on expensive pots, you can use storage containers sourced from the hypermarket. Even his air pruning pot is made from a wastepaper basket that he lines with mosquito netting.

You can even grow your micro greens in a baking tin! The possibilities are endless.

With the right guidance, Balan believes that there's no such thing as the only people who can grow things are those with green thumbs. "It's all about the technique."

Learn to grow your own urban farm by signing up for a Fifteen Minutes Farmer session at theurbanfarmer.my or their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/theurbanfarmer.my/