By NATALIE HENG firstname.lastname@example.org
Why grow a garden that’s merely ornamental, when you can have one that’s edible?
IF YOU were on the hunt for a herb garden, the condominium above Pearl Point Shopping Mall just off the dusty, smoky, traffic-laden Old Klang Road in Kuala Lumpur may seem an unlikely spot.
However, take the lift up to the fifth floor common area and you will find patches of green growing ravenously in concrete troughs of earth lining the centre court, walls and tennis court.
Some of the plants, like the low-lying Centella asiatica or pegaga, come across as disobedient and unruly in their occupation of space, having taken over in a sprawling mass of messy, raggedy carpet. In the central basin, clumps of rosemary, sage, thyme and basil threaten to crowd out each other.
Looks aren’t all that important, however, as no one will be judging this garden for the next flower show. The greenery here is to be picked, chopped, ground, boiled and maybe even fried – patches of torn leaves and stumps where kai lan and lemongrass used to be are tell-tale signs that the residents of Pearl Point Condominium have been doing just that.
The fifth floor common area did not used to be like this. Up until a couple of years ago, it was run down and badly in need of a paint job. The cafe was empty, the gym equipment did not work, and the lifts needed repairs. Even the tennis courts had not been used in years, having become a dump for rubbish thrown out of the condominium windows above.
Joanne Lim lives on the 15th floor. She remembers how a growing frustration among the residents brewed; people were getting tired of paying maintenance fees and not getting any bang for their buck.
The herb garden is a manifestation of what can happen when communities come together. It began in 2007, when the residents association made a successful push to take over the management committee. Nothing could be done immediately because they inherited an empty balance sheet but after four years of maintenance fee collections, they amassed enough cash to repaint the building, fix the lifts, resurface the tennis courts, and even install wifi in the newly occupied cafe.
When it came to the garden space, quotations for landscaping work came up to between RM15,000 and RM20,000. Lim, who discovered she possesses green fingers after volunteering at tree planting outings at the Raja Musa Peat Forest at Batang Berjuntai in Selangor, suggested a herb garden instead, and volunteered to create it.
A herb garden, she reasoned, would cost a lot less money. All she needed was RM2,000 for plants, soil and fertiliser, and RM1,200 per month to hire a gardener to take care of the plants. In August 2011, Lim was given the go ahead to transform their common area into a place where fresh produce could be plucked and used by all.
Lim takes us on a guided tour past fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, all fertilised using ground coffee waste from the Starbucks outlet at the shopping mall below.
“They will give away their coffee waste if you ask for it,” she explains.
Initially, Lim was more interested in promoting local plants, but was worried some residents might see this as too rural.
“That’s why I thought I’d better include some exotic species like rosemary, thyme and basil.”
She points to an unremarkable looking leafy carpet of foliage. “I can’t remember what you call it in English, but it’s a Chinese herb that can be boiled with brown sugar to make a tea for cleansing the kidneys.” We stop at a large patch of pegaga. “This stuff has anti-cancer properties. It’s known to be good for women. You can boil it in water or just eat it asulam.”
She continues her commentary as we stroll past a variety of vegetables, spices and herbs. There is brinjal, spinach, papaya, pumpkin, kai lan, mint, longbean, misai kucing, ginger, curry leaf, turmeric, okra, roselle, aloe vera, pandan, and colonies of renegade chillies.
We stop in front of a patch of leafy green plants, and Lim tears off a piece, asking me to try it. It tastes sweet, remarkably sweet.
“That’s stevia. It’s usually eaten raw or it can be boiled for heartburn,” she says.
Residents use the garden; there are plenty of empty patches where clumps of leaves are missing to suggest this. However, aside from being a free, one-stop shop for fresh produce, the garden serves a larger purpose: it is a contact point that brings the community together.
“It’s a place where residents can come to chill out, it gives them something to talk about. There’s a nice atmosphere, people want to live here because of that.”
More green measures
The residents are proud of their herb garden, and sprucing the place up in general has made a major difference. For starters, no one is throwing rubbish onto the tennis courts anymore. Other changes have also boosted morale. In a bid to be wise and green about spending, the commitee (Lim, one of the members, runs a website called Green Sentral that promotes green products and sustainable living) decided to investigate the pros and cons of installing energy-efficient lighting at the building.
“In this 15-year-old building, we were replacing bulbs every two weeks. It was frustrating, so the committee got quotations from companies that install energy-efficient lighting.”
The company they went with was IntelSteer, which replaced the lights at the common areas with energy-efficient T5 and T8 lights, for free.
“The deal was simply that they would take payment in the form of 60% of the savings made for the first two years, which was fine by us because simply saving on the cost of replacing bulbs was already worth it,” says Lim.
Without having to pay a single sen, the lights were installed late last year. It will take a few months before a reliable average on monthly savings can be made, but the first bill indicates a RM4,000 cut on the previous month, bringing the total down to RM16,000.
Aside from electricity, Lim says the committee saw another opportunity: saving water.
“The water from Syabas comes out quite dirty so the building management had installed a filter on the roof top. This, however, has to be cleaned every two or three days, so roughly 800 gallons (3,632l) of water are wasted, simply flushed away.”
The committee decided to invest about RM6,000 on the installation of a plumbing system that will divert this water down from the 27th to the fifth floor.
“The first 200 gallons (908l) of water cannot be used as it is very brown but the rest of it is used to clean the garbage and common areas,” explains Lim.
Lim feels that compared to four years ago, the residents are happier.
“You see people chatting, kids come down to the cafe to hang out and use the wifi.”
It is not hard to believe her. After all, who wouldn’t want free fresh vegetables and herbs, and savings on electricity and water? Their story is an inspiring example of how even the bleakest of situations can be transformed when people rally around.
Dense city living tends to make people defensive of their space, but the changes driven by Lim and her neighbours prove something: community spirit and a little bit of green living is good for the soul and the pocket, and not all that hard to achieve. Plus, it’s nice not having to run to the supermarket when you run out of chilli.