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Plants and good vibes take root in community gardens

SINGAPORE – Mdm Kamisah Atan may have moved out of the Jurong estate 18 years ago, but still makes the hour-long journey to a rooftop garden at a Jurong East multi-storey carpark twice a day to tend to plants and meet her friends.

Plants and good vibes take root in community gardens

Volunteers tend to a community garden in Jurong East.

SINGAPORE – Mdm Kamisah Atan may have moved out of the Jurong estate 18 years ago, but still makes the hour-long journey to a rooftop garden at a Jurong East multi-storey carpark twice a day to tend to plants and meet her friends.

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"I feel very uneasy when I can't see the plants and my friends at the garden. This is like my second home, but everybody says this is my first home," said the retiree, 61, who moved to Bukit Panjang in 2000 and has two sons aged 29 and 21.

"My boys complained I was spending too much time at the garden, so I tried not going for a few days. I (ended up being) so moody and cooped up at home," she said with a chuckle.

Mdm Kamisah is one of about 60 seniors who volunteer at the garden every morning. Besides watering the plants, they also change out the soil and conduct occasional educational tours for kindergarteners.

Volunteers tend to a roof-top garden at Jurong East. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

The garden, at Blk 372A Jurong East St 32, was originally located on the ground floor but had to make way for a multi-storey carpark in 2012.

It was among the first to be included in the National Parks Board's Community in Bloom programme, which started in 2005 to promote a gardening culture in Singapore. There are over 1,300 groups under the programme.

Community gardens are set to be key feature in the new Tengah housing estate. The Housing and Development Board (HDB) announced last month that about 2,000 sqm of land will be set aside in Tengah for community gardening and farming.


FLEXING GREEN FINGERS AND MAKING FRIENDS

For the volunteers – who are often retired seniors – the garden is as much a place to engage in their hobby as to make friends.

"We've become so close that when we don't see one person for even two days, we will go and look for him or her. One ah pek (elderly man) was missing for a few days, so we went to his house and we found out he was hospitalised, so I mobilised the whole group to go visit him," said Mdm Kamisah.

Fellow volunteer Foo Yip Sum, 78, said the community is inclusive. "Many of the elderly cannot walk, some are in wheelchairs, but they paint our walls or (do) artwork."

The fellowship is why volunteer numbers continue to grow, said Mdm Kamisah. "We started with just four of us in 2002, now we have more than 60 people coming every day," she said.

A volunteer waters a patch of vegetables at a community garden at the Moulmein-Goldhill estate. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

Over at another community garden in the Moulmein-Goldhill private estate, the gardeners have progressed from being "hi-bye" neighbours to travelling overseas together.

Retiree Angel Ang, 52, who volunteers at the garden near Novena every morning, said that there was also once where a fellow volunteer and neighbour had called her for help during a family emergency.

"We had set up a WhatsApp group after we came together at the garden, so the group really became a helpline too," said Ms Ang.

Moulmein-Goldhill community garden volunteers Angel Ang (L) and Wendy Yeo pose for a photo. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

FENCES NEEDED FOR SOME GARDENS

Running a community garden is not without its challenges, however. The gardeners have encountered inconsiderate visitors who litter or remove plants.

Volunteers at the Jurong East garden had to fence and lock up the garden at night. "Before when we didn't lock the garden, there were a few times when we would see broken beer bottles and peanuts the next morning," said Mdm Kamisah.

"We are still open in the day, and we will give everybody clippings of herbs if they ask," she added.

At another garden in Toh Yi Drive, there were the rare instances of users who left the water hose running overnight.

Users of the Toh Yi garden pay an annual membership fee of S$20 to S$30 for their plot of land

There are about 22 plots for growing plants and vegetables and each can be shared among two to three gardeners. The gardeners donate 20 to 50 per cent of their produce for Residents' Committee activities, said Ms Rina Lai, 47, an executive member in the Toh Yi Resident's Committee (RC) who oversees maintenance of the garden.

It is also difficult to get the young involved in gardening as they are squeamish about soil or have work commitments, said the gardeners.

Toh Yi resident of 30 years Mdm Yip Pee Yeng was not familliar with the people living in her neighbourhood. She only got to know more people after joining the community garden, and later got introduced to even more people outside the gardening community. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY

At the Toh Yi garden, about 70 per cent of the volunteers are aged 45 and above, said Ms Lai.

"We realised that young, primary school students are very afraid of soil in the beginning. When they touch soil they will go 'eww', but after they come for a few times, they are more familiar," she said. "They realise, 'hey, these uncles and aunties are still okay after touching soil'."

Ultimately, the pleasure of growing plants, as well as the satisfaction of harvesting and sharing the produce, outweigh any negatives.

Moulmein-Goldhill's Ms Ang said all the produce from the garden is shared among the residents. "Whatever we have for the day, we post it up on the WhatsApp group chat and we lay it on the table in the garden for those who wish to take the harvest for the day," she said. Residents can also pop by the garden in the evening and ask for a share of the day's produce.

"It's a different side of Singapore, hopefully we can maintain it this way," said fellow volunteer Steven Lee, 82, who practises qigong and walks in the garden every day.

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