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By Shu Han Lee (@mummyicancook)     16 Dec 2016

Residents of the Garden City are learning the benefits—to their health and society at large—of growing their own food’

A couple of years back I was in Singapore, slightly bored and itching to do something beyond stuffing as much Nyonya Kueh (bite-sized snacks) as I could into my mouth.

I ended up hands-deep in a giant tub of kimchi, conducting a fermentation workshop at a rooftop car park in Chinatown. It was how I got to know Bjorn Low and Cynthea Lam—two of the team behind Singapore’s first pop-up urban farm, NONG.

Low is the co-founder of Edible Garden City, which designs, builds and maintains food gardens in tropical urban Singapore—including NONG.

Bjorn Low, co-founder of Edible Garden City

The group uses sustainable, natural growing methods to create beautiful organic gardens that are also productive, and champions the ‘Grow Your Own Food’ movement—quite a mean feat in a country that’s short of space and short on people wanting to rub their fingers in the dirt.

According to Low, Singapore imports 95 percent of its food. Food sustainability is a very real challenge, yet at the same time far removed from the minds of Singaporean urbanites.

But this is changing.

Transforming Hearts and Minds

Since I tucked away my kimchi gloves two years ago, Edible Garden City has transformed even more spaces into pop-up successes—including taking over a shop house in the heart of Little India to host everything from expert talks to foraging walks.

Cynthea Lam at one of her weekly workshops

Their various outreach efforts have gotten Singaporeans thinking, talking and planting. They have also inspired many other urban-farming and gardening companies, such as Super Farmers.

After NONG, Lam set up Super Farmers to ‘green-spire’ Singaporeans to grow their own.

When we last met, we were preparing a noodle salad using fresh herbs harvested from one of the few tiny farms tucked away in the west of the island. It’s where Lam conducts her weekend workshops, teaching people how to grow edible plants or create art with ornamental plants.

‘My mother grew up in a Singapore that’s completely different to the one I know; she reared chickens and grew vegetables on my grandparents’ self-sustaining farm’

On weekdays you’ll see Lam running around sites and managing garden projects for new clients, while at the same time juggling school runs.

I’m amazed at the tenacity of this businesswoman and dedicated mother—but she reveals that her daughter is one of the factors propelling her on her cause.

Five years ago, Lam’s daughter suffered a life-threatening reaction to artificial food coloring. It made Lam sit up and change the way she was living and eating; and leave her decade-long career in marketing to focus on nutrition.

Her journey has since led her to notice how many Singaporeans live in sterile environments with no understanding of the source of their food.

‘I felt compelled to connect Singaporeans back to nature,’ she explains.

You might wonder, what can you grow in an urban jungle like Singapore? Surprisingly, loads.

Despite the challenges, Lo and Lam are determined to inspire a new generation of urban farmers

Low and his team have built edible gardens for an impressive portfolio of restaurants, including the award-winning Tippling Club. There, you’ll find baby coriander leaves sitting elegantly atop the modern global-influenced dishes by chef-owner Ryan Clift or infused into one of Tippling Club’s famous cocktails.

As I’m writing this piece, Low and his team have just carefully handpicked a batch of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and blue pea flowers for visiting celebrity chef Raymond Blanc, to be used in a special collaborative dinner at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

The food will showcase the colors and flavors of the tropics, bringing traditional indigenous plants back to the forefront of Asia’s culinary scene.

A move in the right direction

It’s all very exciting, but urban farming has its challenges.

Small decentralized urban farms do not have the economies of scale to compete with large-scale industrialized farming.

The financial realities of urban farming also mean it’s a challenge getting farmers onboard, in addition to the stigma of farming as a harsh profession.

It’s encouraging, therefore, to hear that Edible Garden City’s newest employee is 24-year-old university graduate Amanda Oh. She’s a sign of the growing number of millennials in Singapore who increasingly want to know where their food comes from.

‘Urban farms are not only a place for food production, but are spaces where the community comes together’

While becoming a fully self-sufficient food producer most likely remains a romantic notion for Singapore, the city’s positive response to urban farming signals a move in the right direction.

As Low puts it, ‘Urban farms are not only a place for food production, but are spaces where the community comes together.’

He sees them as the future of community centers, where food can be commercially produced for local residents, employment can be provided for the disabled, and meaningful activities can bring together youth and the elderly.

Finding space to grow crops in urban Singapore is the team’s biggest challenge 

Sounds like a lofty dream, but he’s already got an 8,000-square-meter urban-farm incubator where his ideas are being developed—including an intriguing waste-to-mushroom farm.

Besides, although Singapore prides itself on being the metropolitan success it is today, it was not very long ago that its people lived the very lifestyle that Low and Lam are advocating.

My mother grew up in a Singapore that’s completely different to the one I know; she reared chickens and grew vegetables on my grandparents’ self-sustaining farm, in one of the many kampongs (village communities) on the island.

I don’t see Singapore’s urban-farming movement as a sharp turning of the tides; rather, I find it the mark of a progressive society ready to recapture our natural connection to the source of our food, especially amid the urban hustle.

I, for one, will be getting away from my laptop to water the few little pots of herbs on my windowsill. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless.

Do you grow your own fruit and vegetables? Share your images with us on Instagram

Photos: Edible Garden City

Shu Han Lee
Shu Han Lee (@mummyicancook)

Shu Han Lee is a food writer who grew up in Singapore before moving to London. Her debut cookbook Chicken and Rice (Fig Tree, Penguin Books) is a collection of Southeast Asian recipes with a strong focus on using British seasonal ingredients. Follow her on Instagram @mummyicancook.

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