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Secret Plots Uncovered (The Straits Times, 23/03/2013)


Green spaces at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Singapore Flyer bring on the smiles

By: Natasha Ann Zachariah

Ronnie Chew tending to the more then 50 edible plants and vegetables in the garden

Retiree Lim Chew Eng spends three hours a day at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun. But the 70-year-old is not seeing a doctor or visiting a sick friend.

Instead, she heads for the rooftop at about 8am – to plant vegetables and fruits in a 2,200 sq m community garden plot.

Madam Lim, whose Housing Board flat is a 10-minute walk from the hospital, has been going there since it opened in 2010.

She says: "I love to garden but I don't have space to plant anything. This place is like my own garden and I can meet new people here and work with them as well."

While the hospital has been lauded for its green efforts, the rooftop community garden on the seventh floor of Tower C is a well-kept secret.

Last year, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan singled it out on his blog as an example of a community garden that helped foster the kampung spirit among residents in the neighbourhood.

Volunteers have to register with the hospital before they are given a passcode to access the gated area.

But while the pool of dedicated volunteers is small – there are about 15 people, mostly retirees, who come often to work on the garden – their effort has borne good fruit, with good crop harvests. And they have also taken trips together to visit farms on Pulau Ubin and in Johor Baru.

Such trips let them get to know one another better, says Mr Mark Lim, an operations executive at the hospital.

The efforts of these volunteers are part of a chapter in the book, A Healing Space: Creating Biodiversity At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital. It was launched last month to highlight the green steps that the hospital has taken. The hospital has printed 500 copies and is looking to reprint more.

Sold at $28, the book's proceeds will go towards maintaining the gardens, fish ponds and other environmental initiatives at Khoo Teck Puat.

Mr Liak Teng Lit, group chief executive of Alexandra Health, of which Khoo Teck Puat is a member, says that the hospital leaves the volunteers to decide what they want to plant and how. "None of us can claim that the hospital is ours alone because it is paid with taxpayers' money. But this is one part of the hospital that these volunteers can claim is theirs."

The idea first came about in the construction phase, when nearby community farmers were going to be displaced by the building of the hospital.

Mr Liak says: "These are people with a special interest. I called them proamateurs because they have really made it look like a professional farm. And it just keeps growing and growing as more people keep adding to it."

Today, the plot boasts a huge variety of crops: kai lan, or Chinese kale; corn; okra; and numerous fruit trees such as custard apple, papaya and banana.

The harvest is distributed among the volunteer farmers or served up in the kitchen for guests of the hospital. Depending on how much is reaped, the produce is also sold at the thrice-weekly mini farmers' market at a linkway in the hospital, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Money made from these sales is channelled back to the upkeep of the garden, though Mr Liak says that it does not cost much to take care of the space. He is, however, unable to give a figure. "Because these volunteers willingly come by, we have just one full-time gardener to see to the daily operations," he adds.

Keeping it organic, the farmers, who are mostly hobbyists, do not use pesticides. They practise composting, where organic matter is left to decompose and then recycled as a fertiliser, as well as vermiculture, where earthworms are grown to eat waste from the hospital and turn it into fertiliser.

On Thursday, volunteer Ronnie Chew proudly shows off his innovative method of growing crops in stacked styrofoam boxes. The base box is a water bed, while seedlings are planted above in another container filled with soil so that their roots dangle in the water below through holes cut in the top box.

The 65-year-old retiree, who was formerly a maintenance manager at Goodwood Park hotel, makes a thrice-weekly trip from his five-room flat in Balestier to work on the garden.

Through trial and error, the bachelor, who has been gardening before the hospital opened, tweaked the growing methods over an eight-year period.

He says: "I like to look into how I can grow new things using new methods. And I help teach the people here how to farm.

"It's therapeutic and the farmers feel pride seeing the crops grow. You look forward to the day when you can eat them."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

A Healing Space: Creating Biodiversity At Khoo Teck Puat Hospital ($28) is on sale at the hospital's pharmacy. Book proceeds go towards the maintenance of eco-friendly initiatives at the hospital.

Register as a garden volunteer by filling up this form.