Avid Malaysian home gardener says natural methods and ingredients work best for plants

Kuan believes in sustainable methods like composting and keeping the soil naturally fertile for his garden. Photos: Kuan Chee Choun

Kuan Chee Choun has not bought vegetables from the market or grocery store for over a year. That’s because he can’t finish consuming the many vegetables that thrive in his garden.

At present, over 80 types of vegetables, fruits and herbs grow in the front and back gardens of his double-storey terrace house in Ara Damansara, Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

Lime, papaya, passion fruit, bunga telang (butterfly pea flower), curry leaves, lemongrass, Italian basil and tarragon, among others, flourish in the fertile soil that occupies an area of about 37sq m (400sq ft).

“Sometimes, I have to take a parang (machete) and hack my way in!” says Kuan, in his 40s, a founding member of Plant Swag, a free plant-swap and gifting group on Facebook.

Kuan has also devised a fully automated watering system as well as a mechanism that channels the falling leaves and branches into a compost pile.

Avid grower Kuan aerating a compost pile at his home in Ara Damansara, PJ.

“The eventual aim is to just sit back and harvest my bak choy or choy sum and not have to do anything else, ” laughs Kuan.

In fact, when he was stuck in his hometown of Taiping, Perak, for two months due to the movement control order in March, his garden continued to thrive, with plants growing over to his neighbour’s house.

But more importantly, Kuan believes in going back to nature when it comes to managing his garden. That means employing sustainable methods like composting and keeping the soil naturally fertile, which eliminates the need for fertilisers. Healthy soil also helps keep pests away.

When he does use pesticides and fertilisers, they are all natural and homemade.

“There is a wave of eco-consciousness these days where people are trying to use less plastic, reduce waste and adopt sustainable practices, so organic fertilisers and pesticides are all part of that.

“Avoiding commercial pesticides and fertilisers contributes to a healthier lifestyle. It’s a win-win situation. Natural pesticides and fertilisers are not only organic and safer, but also ridiculously cheap and easy to make. So those are the factors that have spurred the growth of these home-brewed recipes, ” says the former Asia-Pacific director of an American engineering firm.

In fact, these practices were part and parcel of our parents’ and grandparents’ everyday life.

“For example, as kids, many of us reused dry leaves in composting or took rice water to water the plants.

“So what’s old is suddenly becoming new again. Now, it has evolved to more of gardening as a hobby where people set up balcony gardens, which is a trend not just in Malaysia but worldwide, ” says Kuan, who retired from the corporate world two years ago.

There are over 80 types of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing in Kuan's garden, passion fruit included.

Reviving the soil

After he stopped working, Kuan started an experiment in his house. At that time, the soil in his garden was “bad, orange and muddy”.

“What I have been doing since then is simply bury kitchen waste (like vegetable and fruit scraps) and carbon material, like branches from around my house, all over the garden.

“Whatever small amount of microbes that are alive in the waste will suddenly discover, ‘Hey, there’s a buffet’, and they will eat and multiply. I have added zero fertilisers to my garden since then. And that is what I encourage people to do.”

Another thing Kuan has been doing is keep the soil slightly damp. “Coupled with food for the microbes from rotting leaves, the soil will just naturally grow fertile.

“New gardeners have a habit of buying packets of soil from the nursery. But that soil is a mix of a few components that usually include shaven coconut husks – which is dried and burnt, so it’s carbon, but it has no life – sand, vermi compost and moss.

“It’s an assembled soil that is not necessarily living, so that’s why you need to add fertilisers in it. But then that becomes an unsustainable practice, ” he shares.

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