written by Caroline
“What’s this?” I hold onto one of the many leaves of a plant with a ‘fro.
“Citronella,” Shao, my ex-primary schoolmate, nonchalantly tells me. I feel like a complete ignoramus after I tear along one of the leaves, give it a whiff and agree. I’m tempted to throw myself onto the plant to cover myself in its scent and be rid of the many mosquitoes attacking me, but Shao is prepared for us newbies and hands us Mozi-Guard which we happily rub on ourselves and then burns a few mosquito coils around her two-year old garden.
“And this? It’s a weed?” I point out a thick-stemmed, easily rooted plant with stubby leaves.
“Oh, that’s a type of spinach,”
Spinach?!! It looked absolutely nothing like the spinach I knew from the supermarkets in New Zealand… and there were three types of spinach growing in the edible garden. Shao walked ahead, pointing out every vegetable (or “choy”); most of it looked and sounded rather foreign – ulam raja, moringa, chan choy, etc. I felt like a terrible example of a Malaysian, especially when I asked Shao to identify a particular “choy” for me – her eyes widened and she exclaimed, “It’s kangkung!” Everyone in Malaysia knows kangkung (also known as water spinach) – a leafy vegetable that grows easily and in large abundance in rather moist soil, it is eaten stir-fried, usually with garlic and belacan. Their hollow stems have a satisfying crunch and the leaves, a slightly slimy but delicious texture similar to okra or fern.
The last time I saw Shao was 17 years ago when we were in primary school. She hadn’t changed much, although she mentioned that I had grown very tall since we last saw each other (I was twelve then). She had started up “Eats, Roots and Shoots” two years ago, a side project she created along with two other girls to educate themselves and the public interested in the idea of creating self-sustainable gardens. Workshops were held at this jungly but peaceful cul-de-sac surrounded in lush, green vegetation and out back, a cob oven had been erected for the occasional pizza get-together. Most items used to create this verdant garden were salvaged items: their worm bin was an old bathtub rescued from a junkyard and the drainpipe led to a bucket collecting worm juice used for nourishing the garden’s soil; pieces of old wood were used as signage placed in strategic positions in the garden for volunteers; a freight box was turned into a cupboard in the house.
A banana tree towered above the garden amongst unruly patches of leafy vegetables, the taro leaves were large and looked like they would serve well as umbrellas in the scorching heat, sweet potato leaves were plenty and trailing into the open drains outside the garden, and bittergourd tendrils were crawling over the trellises along with an explosion of Brazilian spinach (which also looked nothing like the common spinach). The garden was a haven not only for us but other critters as well – I got pretty excited when we found a young ant-mimicking praying mantis (Asian ant mantis): its mimic protects itself from predators during the juvenile stage and the mantis eventually turns green when it reaches adulthood. Apart from the mantis, we came across a gigantic locust basking in the garden, a little frog hiding in the dried-out pond, golden jumping spiders and a huge, clumsy carpenter bee. This was permaculture paradise.
We helped Shao and Beat (short for Beatrice) with the weeding, and they were very patient with our constant questioning of “What’s this?” or “Is this a weed?” Once that was completed, we sauntered over to a working bench filled with dried-up, browned vegetable pods that were almost bursting with seeds. These were cracked open and sorted into various containers for seed harvesting, ready to be planted again for more edibles in the future. This was something new again – letting the uneaten pods mature on plants into dried-out specimens to use for replanting. It was a therapeutic session of cracking pods and sorting seeds and by the end of the day, we had about six seed types ready to grow.
The day passed quickly as we chatted and worked with a lively but small bunch of volunteers with various backgrounds: a Belgian-American couple working as chopper pilots, a Croatian-Nicaraguan couple working as green-building architects, and a Malaysian guy who owns a company that makes organic fertiliser. The garden was thriving from these green-thumbed revolutionists, and it wasn’t hard to be infected with their enthusiasm for self-sustainability.
Permaculture in Malaysia still has a long way to go, but with the creative genius and passion of people like Shao, Beat and many of the volunteers… there’s a possibility that edible gardens in homes may pop up a lot quicker than expected. See here for the “Eats, Shoots and Roots” website.