Balan Gopal, fitness trainer and father of two, has more than 200 herbs growing on the corridor of his HDB floor. His lush herb collection is a labour of love—two years worth of curious adventures and hard work. "The joy of growing your own herbs and then snipping them off and cooking them...it is a brand new experience that you have to experience yourself to find out what it's all about," says Balan.
In this interview, he shares with us inspiring tips and tricks to encourage us to grow herbs even in our oft-cramped spaces.
The ninth floor corridor of Balan's HDB block is lined with over 200 hundred herbs, all placed in plastic cups, bottles, and other recycled containers.
Why grow herbs?
You have ornamental flowers which are nice, but they're not edible. You have vegetables, but they're big and fluffy, and you have a limited selection on what you could grow. The herbs are the in-between. They have signature smell. You could eat them or make tea with them. And they're small...[ideal] given our urbanised buildings. At the same time, they're very fresh as opposed to prepacked herbs, which also have limited shelf life.
What do you love most about growing herbs?
The smell. In the morning when you wake up, you just brush your hand against the leaf, rub it, and you can smell its scent. It has its own signature scent and you can identify with it. Plus, it's small, it's contained in a cup, and it's easier to manage. [Because it's contained], if there's an outbreak of infestation I can easily remove it and quarantine it.
"Curiosity got the better of me. One thing led to another. When you start growing herbs, you find yourself asking, 'Whats next?' You wanna see how far you can go until amass a collection like on my corridor."
Is it advisable to grow herbs in our weather?
You have to experiment. For growing herbs, they say it's not good for this weather or that weather, but in all honesty, you have to try it out yourself and you'd be surprised it can actually work. Herbs have survival instincts. The herb drops certain leaves to maintain its composure. If the leaves turn yellow or brown, just snip them off.
You learn these things through instinct. When you look at the herbs, you will see how are they doing or faring and based on that, you will have some sort of connection with them. You don't always have ideal weather conditions, and the plants have their own coping mechanisms. They will find a way. Just trim them off and they will find a way to survive. That's how plants evolve.
What is the easiest herb to grow?
Indian borage because it has big meaty leaves which can take a beating. The broader and thicker the leaf, the more it can take all kinds of beating like heavy rain or more sun.
What is the hardest to grow?
Sage. But eventually I got it going. Each herb has a behavioural pattern or trend, likes, and dislikes. Herbs have their own personality. In that sense, once you understand these things you can work on them easily.
What are the things to consider when growing your herbs?
1. Look for space...even if it's just a small area. Just get creative with how you see things and use small spaces...they don't have to be big.
Balan sells these suspended herb racks for only $40. This brilliant space-saver comes with four herbs.
2. Then, take into consideration hardy herbs like basil, Cuban oregano, and Indian borage.
3. Look for recycled cups. Look for things with the mindset that you are going to recycle stuff. When using cups, punch holes below.
Balan works with all kinds of herb containers, from plastic cups to wine bottles. "The plastic bottles I invert them and grow plants like the mulberry bush there. This is to promote the idea of recycling and growing your food at the same time. Instead of putting these bottles and cups in landfills and increase your carbon footprint, you use them for something else."
4. Experiment. Move on to other herbs like mint, thyme, and oregano stevia. Then you start to understand the environment—the space, the lighting, the rain—and you can slowly branch out from there.
5. Choose light soil, not muddy soil, because you want your roots to breathe. Just buy your soil from the market. Consider earthworm compost. I have it. You mix a bit of it with the soil for fertilisation.
Where do you obtain your seeds?
I get them from shops, like NTUC, Cold Storage, or Far East Flora.
You can also do stem-cutting. When you do stem-cutting, you try to maintain a certain kind of humidity within that little pot because the plant doesn't have a root system. [When you go for seeds] the baby plants are quite sensitive. Try seedlings, and if they're not working, go for stem cutting. It really depends...just have an open mind. Sometimes what you read on the Internet may be different from what you're experiencing.
Back then when I wanted to grow mushrooms, my friend said it's not going to work. But it worked. If you are patient and passionate about these things, you will come to your own level of understanding.
Balan's urban farming exploits started when he converted coffee grounds into something where he could grow organic oyster mushrooms.
How did you involve your children?
You have to condition your children, because they're used to iPads and iPhones, and you have to get them involved in nature. It takes some encouragement. My kids right now are aware about things like stem cutting. They don't just read about them on books. They can actually relate with them.
How does urban farming promote family bonding?
My wife would be the one to say, 'This can be recycled,' and I'd say 'Let's look at it.' My wife actually regrew the spinach she bought. Whatever can be done, we do it. Cherry tomatoes, spinach...we want to see how far we can go with all of these. You have a seed and you want to see it somewhere.
How can you promote recycling through urban farming?
Use waste material, like coffee grounds. Mix them with your compost because it takes a while before it breaks down and blends into the soil to become nutrients for the plants. I use coffee grounds to grow oyster mushrooms. I mix the coffee grounds with discarded sugar cane stems.
How much did you invest to build this urban farm?
About $300 for everything. But during the learning experience, I spent a lot of money. Consider it a return of investment, as long as you don't give up, it's not a lost cause. The thing is, you have to be prepared to fail. You invest in those mistakes.
How can this process be a lot easier for beginners?
There is a community I built, called Herb in a Cup community. Here, people exchange ideas and feedback. This is to foster that community spirit so people can be confident about failing.
You can also visit Balan's Herb in a Cup online store to get your own herb starting kit!
Share your herb projects and photos with us! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.