The Farmer Wannabe – Part 1
By Pastor Ong Moh Mei
When I was a kid before my teenage years, I used to help my grandmother raise chicken and ducks. We had some fruit trees in our backyard, mom had orchids on the balcony and grandfather had a pepper farm in the village that we used to visit occasionally. That’s as far as my limited exposure to farming or gardening goes. I’ve always loved nature but just never gave farming, gardening or planting much thought. Becoming a farmer is as foreign to me as becoming a makeup artist. I have visited many farms and orchards in my 20s and 30s but none of these visits ever made me fall in love with farming. However, I have always thought the world has got it all wrong. Emphasis has been given to the wrong sectors. When faced with an apocalypse the only thing that matters for mankind’s physical survival will be oxygen, water, food and shelter. Food should be the global currency of the world; seeds our greatest commodity. Agriculture should be mankind’s first and foremost employment. But that does not seem to be the case at all.
So here I am at Kechara Forest Retreat (KFR) trying to be a farmer. It didn’t exactly start with the love for growing vegetables as opposed to the love of building hydroponic structures. H.E. the 25th Tsem Rinpoche has always been passionate about sustainable living and growing our own vegetables in Kechara Forest Retreat. We already have a wonderful green team in KFR consisting of Phng Li Kheng, Julia Tan and Pastor Chia. The green team maintains KFR’s beautiful green landscape and runs a herb garden and naturally-grown pesticide-free vegetable farm. As much as we may believe in sustainability, the modern society and younger generation simply do not find farming appealing. Sweating is something reserved for the gym or sports arena. Dirt is something that needs to be cleaned. Insects are pests to be killed, repelled or avoided. Fortunately, technology has changed farming over the decades and hydroponics offers a new concept of dirt-free farming. This is an appealing farming concept for the modern society who lives among concrete jungles and enjoys nature from digital screens.
When I decided to embark on a hydroponics trial in Kechara Forest Retreat, I knew nothing about growing vegetables. I’ve never sown or grown any plant in my life. The only thing I was sure of was that I can build and setup any hydroponic system. DIY is a hobby and I enjoy building things with my hands. The fear of failing or not knowing what I was doing was always lurking at the back of my mind. Martin Chow (one of Kechara’s Directors and a writer for H.E. Tsem Rinpoche) kindly and courageously offered to find sponsors to finance this hydroponics trial. Actually Martin was more interested in a bigger scale sustainable farming solution for Kechara Forest Retreat. Martin, Li Kheng and I discussed and agreed that a 3-month trial period would be appropriate to determine if it was feasible for us to embark on large scale hydroponic farming.
There is a lot of information online, there are a lot of videos to watch but nothing was conclusive until we got our own hands dirty and did it ourselves. I found Malaysia Hydroponics who on a regular basis conduct hydroponics seminars in Petaling Jaya. I got in touch with the facilitators and arranged for them to come to Kechara Forest Retreat to conduct the seminar instead, since we have all the facilities in KFR. A 1-day seminar was arranged on 22 December 2015 and 24 people mainly from Tsem Ladrang, KFR team and green team attended. So we were introduced to the world of hydroponic farming.
Prior to the seminar, I did some research online and decided on drip irrigation and nutrient film technique (NFT) as the two most suitable hydroponic systems to start our trial. The intended crops for drip irrigation are tomatoes and cucumbers. The intended crops for NFT are various lettuces, arugula, water spinach, pak choi and other leafy greens. On Pastor Henry Ooi’s suggestion, we were given a site for the hydroponics trial. This site is a rectangular-shaped rain shelter with insect mesh that was previously the original herb garden. Since the herb garden has expanded to three larger rain shelters, this site was under-utilised. Site preparation took one week which included repairing insect mesh, adding doors to the structure, levelling the ground, building PVC NFR racks and electrical and plumbing work. As this was meant to be a trial, I designed four different types of racks for NFT troughs using PVC pipes to observe different factors that may contribute to plant growth. Each NFT rack is designed to support 108 net pots. I also recycled some old bed frames from the storage to use as raised platforms for the drip irrigation polybags. Each frame fits between 6-10 polybags.
Now the real challenges began.
First Step: Germinating Seeds
Without being able to successfully germinate seeds and grow seedlings, there will be nothing to trial in the hydroponics lab. This is the first humbling lesson nature taught me – to bow to the needs and requirements of a small tiny dot called seed and then helplessly and patiently wait for it to sprout or not sprout. Hydroponics started in Malaysia in Cameron Highlands in the 90s but until today it is far from being mainstream. Hydroponic products are still limited and not widely available from retail shops especially not in a small town like Bentong. I only had two types of germination media available to start with – germination sponges and peat soil mix. Ideally we want to avoid using any type of soil in hydroponics. I was still at a learning stage so I compromised on germination media because my goal at this time was to understand first-hand about how seeds germinate and grow.
It took three attempts and three weeks before I finally got some real results. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I failed miserably and got no success at all using germination sponges. I was fairly successful with the peat soil mix but it was not ideal for hydroponics. I learnt some valuable lessons from this germination stage. If you want to be successful in farming, you cannot take the easy and lazy path. You need to know your seeds. You need to get innovative and creative to work with nature. After the low success rate on the first and second attempts, I was getting nervous and desperate. If I did not get these seeds to grow, there would effectively be no trial. There was a possibility I would have to throw in the towel and declare the trial a failure before we even got to the hydroponic system itself. Stubbornness has not always served me well in life but in this case I was both stubborn and determined. Or maybe I just didn’t want to lose face.
Anyways, so I began a week-long vigorous research session online, reading everything and anything I could find on germinating seeds and growing seedlings. I told my partner in crime, KFR green girl Li Kheng, if terrorists can make bombs from the Internet, I WILL become a farmer from the Internet. I know it’s a bad comparison but that was what came to mind. After that I was ready to take a leap of faith. I was ready to go all out to germinate hundreds of seeds to fill up all 432 pots on the NFT system and all 30 polybags of drip irrigation. I settled for trying out coco peat as germination media, selected nine different types of seeds and pre-soaked them in warm water overnight. The next morning, Li Kheng and I sowed nine trays of seeds using only coco peat. Coco peat proved to be an excellent germination media. Different seeds require different treatment. Some seeds are photo-dormant (e.g. lettuce) and require sunlight to germinate. Other seeds (e.g. tomato) prefer dark conditions to germinate. Some seeds like to be sown deep, others on the surface. The third attempt was hugely successful even though three types of seeds still failed to sprout at all. I would like to think it was all due to my research but there is a SLIGHT possibility that it was because Li Kheng does have magical green fingers.
Second Step: Caring for the Seedlings
There is nothing much to do during this stage except watering and making sure the seedlings don’t dry up. In fact, there is a danger of wanting to do too much. Once the seeds have sprouted and leaves have started to emerge, the seedlings need to be exposed to sunlight. So I kept them in a semi-shaded area where they get sunlight but not direct sunlight. It is important to keep the seedlings moist but not overly wet and this is done using mist spray. The first two leaves are known as seed leaves or cotyledon. When the first set of true leaves started to emerge between the seed leaves, I moved the seedling trays to another area with full direct sunlight. After two to three weeks depending on the size of leafy vegetable seedlings (2-3 inches tall) and number of true leaves (2-4 leaves), they were ready to be transplanted to the NFT system. For the fruit vegetables, I let the seedlings grow to about 8-10 inches before transplanting them to the drip irrigation system.
Third Step: Transplanting seedlings to the Hydroponic System
There are different types of germination media available and some can be directly transplanted into NFT troughs. While coco peat proved to be an excellent germination media, for me it is not the most suitable growing media for NFT. So this meant I would have a lot of transplanting work to do and also risked damaging the fragile seedling roots in the transplanting process. Again it was a lot of research online and watching lots of videos on how other people have done transplanting successfully. After one week in the NFT system, it showed more than 95% successful transplant rate.
To transplant the leafy vegetable seedlings from seedling trays to NFT troughs, this was what I did:
- Remove the seedling together with the coco peat block entangled with the root mass from the seedling tray.
- Soak the coco peat in water, it will break apart easily. Gently wash all the coco peat from the plant root.
- Clasp the seedling in a germination sponge cube leaving 1-2 inches of stem and leaves above the cube and 2-3 inches of roots hanging below the cube.
- Place the sponge cube inside a net pot, then top up with LECA (Lightweight Expanded Clay Aggregate).
- Place the net pots on the NFT trough making sure the roots in each pot touch the nutrient solution.
For drip irrigation, it was much simpler. The seedling blocks were removed from the seedling trays and planted directly into the coco peat in polybags. For tomato and red cherry tomato seeds sown in peat soil mix, I washed off all the peat soil mix, pinched off the two seed leaves before transplanting them into the polybags filled with coco peat.
Fourth Step: Caring for Growing Vegetables
Now that the seedlings were transplanted, we were only just half way through the journey. There was still a lot of work to be done.
- Making sure the nutrient solution is set to supply at the correct rate
- Checking the environmental conditions are suitable – sunlight, temperature, humidity
- Watching out for pests and diseases
- For fruit vegetables – training, pruning and pollinating
For the NFT system, the nutrient solution in the fertigation tanks were set at half strength (0.5EC) for the first week after transplanting and increased to full strength (1.0EC) from the second week onwards until harvest. The EC was checked regularly every 2-3 days to ensure the level didn’t drop or increase more than 0.2EC due to evaporation or plant intake. Adjustments were made by topping up the nutrient solution or adding water. For drip irrigation, I used the following chart provided by Malaysia Hydroponics to determine timing and amount of watering needed for the hybrid tomatoes, red cherry tomatoes and mini cucumbers. Fertilizer or EC is set once a week on a Sunday morning. The pump is started by a digital timer four times a day at 8am, 11am, 3pm and 5pm.
There wasn’t much that could be done with the environment as the hydroponics trial site is not exactly an enclosed climate-controlled green house. We do have relatively high humidity in KFR so I installed a beam mounted fan to help circulate the air inside the hydroponic site from time to time to help the vegetables transpire and hopefully prevent some humidity-related plant diseases. Unless you are growing vegetables like they do at the Shigeharu Shimamura’s indoor farm in Japan, you are bound to come across some pest insects, if not all of them. Being pesticide and chemical free is one of our main farming principles in KFR. For now, I did not encounter too many pest problems not to say there aren’t any.
Spider mites, aphids, whiteflies and ants are the four main pests I kept seeing daily inside the hydroponics trial lab. Twice a day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon I would manually bump these insects off or use water spray to chase them off the NFT troughs and fruit vegetable plants, and use a broom to remove any spider webs inside the hydroponics lab. I know I cannot get rid of all the pests this way but that is not my intent. Plants naturally can tolerate some amount of pests; I just need to keep the pest population to a minimum so it doesn’t spread and cause crop damage. So far (fingers crossed), pests seem manageable but the cucumbers have only just started flowering and the tomatoes are still young. The fruit vegetables will likely start to attract more pests later on.
For fruit vegetables, there is a lot of work involved compared to leafy vegetable. The mini cucumber plants started flowering at the end of week two on the drip irrigation system. Cucumbers have separate male and female flowers on the same plant but with no bees inside the hydroponics trial site, we relied solely on hand pollination. I bought a lipstick brush from the pharmacy and got to work. The flowers usually bloom in the morning so I would hand pollinate the cucumbers around noon every day. Just swirl the tip of the brush gently on a few male flowers to pick up the pollen which are tiny yellow specks. Then touch the brush to the centre of the female flowers. Upon successful pollination, the female flowers will start closing and the cucumber fruit starts growing.
Fifth Step: Harvesting
This is the stage everyone has been waiting for, the point of all the effort, time and money put into farming – the harvest. Vegetable harvesting is best done in the early morning when the weather is cool so the vegetables stay crisp and can be stored longer. The kangkong and lettuce has been in the NFT system for three weeks and are ready to be harvested. The kangkong (chinese water spinach) was crunchy and juicy, but the lettuce has a hint of bitterness due to the hot weather. Soaking harvested lettuce leaves in cold water, then refrigerating does the trick to get rid of the bitterness and make the lettuce crisp. The pak choi and the green amaranth has only been in the NFT system for two weeks so they are not ready for harvest yet. Green amaranth has a slow initial growth rate so they are a bit behind the kangkong, lettuce and pak choi. The sweet basil was germinated at a later stage as I decided later to add herbs to the trial. Basil is also intended as insect repelling plant.