May 29, 2020

When I was six, one of my biggest achievements apart from being the reigning queen of hide-and-seek was successfully cultivating a mini durian tree. During Chinese New Year, I surreptitiously pilfered some of my mother’s prized durians that were meant for guests, devoured them hastily and destroyed all the incriminating evidence by burying the seeds in the back garden. I promptly forgot about my deed until a few weeks later, when my father noticed something sprouting in the backyard; the durian seeds had transformed into a tiny shoot, with tender green leaves. Despite getting disapproving looks from my mother, I was praised by my father for being “clever” and having “green fingers”—which then propelled me to embark on a “planting mania.” I grabbed petunia plant pods, mustard seeds, chilli plant pods, butterfly pea flower seeds and whatever I could lay my hands on at the supermarket, before scattering them in my garden. One afternoon a heavy thunderstorm destroyed my fledgeling durian sapling, along with my hopes of becoming a green thumb expert. 

These days, miniature window containers are popping up on balconies and seeds are germinating in recycled plastic boxes. The coronavirus outbreak has forced populations worldwide to slow down and find ways to pass time during quarantine. While some are working hard to achieve TikTok stardom with their amateur dance videos, others are turning to home gardening as a step towards being more sustainable (if food shortages occur), and to regain control in times of uncertainty. In light of school closures, parents are also using gardening as an activity to engage their children and educate them on the value of patience. 

What we are witnessing at the moment can be comparable to the victory garden movement where citizens grew fruit, vegetables and herbs in parks and homes in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom during the World Wars. These gardens helped to buttress personal rations, ease the pressure on food supply and give people a sense of empowerment through growing their own crops. Similarly, during the Great Depression, citizens kept small kitchen gardens with vegetables and herbs at home, and were allowed to grow food at community “thrift gardens.”

With food insecurity on the rise amid the pandemic, there is nothing more satisfying than picking and eating your own produce. Beyond that, having an edible garden relieve stress and provide a form of therapy. American company Aquasprouts, which sells miniature gardens using aquaponics technology, has been noticing a burgeoning homesteading trend. Apart from local sales increasing by 45 per cent since last year, there has been strong interest in international markets such as Hong Kong, Germany and Sweden. Lettuce Grow, founded by actress Zooey Deschanel and Jacob Pechenik, propagates a farm-to-table concept, where people can harvest their food and have full autonomy over what they consume.

There is a common fallacy that you need a vast amount of space to grow an edible garden. But as long as you have room for a few pots, either in your bedroom or the balcony, you can cultivate vegetables and herbs. Since the start of March, lawyer Abigail Tan has been cultivating red chilli, green beans and spring onions in an attempt to be more self-sufficient. “It is gratifying to have control over something in this unpredictable time, knowing that I will have fresh vegetables, even if supermarkets run out of stock,” she says. Her methodology lies in placing sprouting spring onions in paper egg trays or immersing them in water-filled small plastic containers, while she reuses a plastic vegetable container with small holes to let her green bean seeds germinate and waters them for four days. When the shoots appear, Tan picks out the healthiest ones and transfers them to a recycled plastic container of soil. She advises against the use of cotton swabs or keeping them in a closed, dark container because it can produce an unpleasant smell. 

Business owner Winson Lai’s first foray into light horticulture was when he purchased a self-watering hydro herb garden from Click and Grow. After experimenting and realising how easy the process was, he started to grow rosemary, thyme and basil, which he sprinkles on his homemade pasta. For cocktails, he uses his homegrown limes and lemons. Currently, Lai is adding bitter gourd, ginger and garlic to his repertoire. “This trend is definitely here to stay,” he says. “I tried to purchase soil online recently, but it was sold out. I am not surprised if everyone is gardening during this stay-home period.”

When global air travel came to a halt, flight attendant Sharon Lim found herself with ample time on her hands to take up a new hobby. She always enjoyed cooking, but found it inconvenient and costly to keep purchasing herbs like basil, chilli and coriander from the market. Now she has found a more economical way to grow them from leftover vegetable scraps. “Tending to my herbs has become therapeutic and very much contributes to sustainable living. I like having fresh ingredients that I can use at any time,” she says. 

It’s hard to tell if people will continue growing their food after the pandemic. But in the meantime, the physical act of planting and watching a seed transform has become an endearing symbol of hope and life. And we need all the hope we can get. Who knows, maybe my second attempt at planting a durian tree will survive. They say lightning never strikes the same spot twice.