Growing Food in the City

David Sanders and Binglaw are well-known amongst many of Hong Kong’s organic farming community, so there will be considerable interest in the book they have just published called Growing Food in the City – Microgardening: A Practical Guide. I asked Dave a few questions to whet the appetite of those who might like to buy the book.

I know you’re both experienced organic farmers. Can you tell us something about what you’ve been doing in the past?
My conversion from water engineering to organic agriculture started in 1974 in S. India where I volunteered for a couple of years working on two organic farms. They had to be organic then as they couldn’t afford chemical supplements! Lucky me then travelled the world, working on farms for the next 20 years. Then I met Binglaw in 1994 who was co-managing The Green Cottage organic farm on Lamma. I turned up and they gave me a part-time job as I was a single Dad at the time. Since then Binglaw and I have managed several organic farm projects in HK and UK. In 2007 we started up The Green Patch, our microgardening company, which is still going strong!
What made you turn to microgardening?
In 2007, Binglaw’s back, and mine, our knees and elbows started to get real sore. So we thought what next? Downsizing! I had made a sketch of an idea for a tiered microgarden many moons before while we were visiting a Buddhist temple for retired nuns on Lantau. They were eating great food which they cultivated in old wooden boxes on the roof and I thought….mmmmm, one day when we won’t have energy for the fields….
So, what kind of microgardens do you sell, and who are your customers?
Our popular microgardens are the tiered ones, on balconies, terraces and roofs. They are good for families, with the little ones using the lower tiers while Mum and Dad can use the higher ones. We’ve also installed gardens in over forty schools where children enjoy their gardening activities. Also, in a dozen care homes for the elderly who love the opportunity to re-discover their talents for gardening!
Do you offer a follow-up service to help them keep their microgardens well-maintained?
We do lots of support and follow-up work with schools, care homes and many private customers, supplying them with fresh organic grow media, seeds and fertilizer. Also we give talks and workshops, especially for the school students.
Can you tell us about some of your success stories?
Perhaps our greatest success stories are the preschoolers and kindergarten children. We are always amazed at how quickly they understand things in the garden, how much they care about the seeds and growing plants and absolute fun they have when harvesting. It gives us real satisfaction to see them eating their own-grown veggies, even radishes!
Who would you say the book is aimed at? Who would benefit from it?
The book is aimed at everyone, from 3 years to 93! I’ve illustrated it to make it easier to understand for the little ones. It becomes a little technical and relevant for older ones who perhaps know a little or else have done a fair bit of gardening before.
People in HK often talk about how busy they are, and might argue that they haven’t got time for microgardening. How would you answer them?
Ha ha! Time. I always say that microgardening isn’t a time-problem but a time-benefit activity. In terms of relaxing and having something that really is therapeutic, it’s harder to beat foraging amongst your own veggies and taking something out of the garden for dinner! After a hard day, this type of low-maintenance gardening really can help with de-stressing, having a half-hour or so of peaceful time!
I found the book informative, wide-ranging and easy to read. Do you have any other books in the pipeline?
I’m pretty excited about a follow-up book. I’ll be going round lots of schools over the next few months, doing talks, workshops and the odd book-signing at school fairs etc. I’ll be speaking to teachers, especially at primary schools, if they are able to get their keen young gardeners to write just a few lines about ‘My Garden, My Friend’. I suspect there will be some fabulous ideas. Hopefully, I can get enough imaginative stories to illustrate each one with a full page colour picture, reflecting ideas of their friendly garden!
Dave and Binglaw’s book contains a lot of very useful information, including what to plant and when. For further information or to order a copy ($120)  send an email to
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Dragontail Farm

It was discovering the imminent arrival of Peak Oil that really got me interested in growing food about eight years ago. Because conventional, chemical farming allied to the globalised distribution system is so dependent on cheap oil, it seemed a pretty safe bet that food was going to get increasingly expensive as cheap oil disappears, and much of what we get now in our supermarkets may well become a rare sight as flying in products from overseas becomes less and less viable economically. Consequently, I decided that growing organic food for my family would ensure that we could get highly nutritious food without depending on oil inputs and without having to worry about the food miles associated with it. Thus we would be improving our diet, safeguarding our food supply should the time come when food becomes exorbitantly expensive, and reducing our carbon emissions at the same time.

This all fits in neatly with what many people in Transition groups around the world are doing. However, I’ve now decided to manage the farm full time once I finish my current teaching contract in August. This year we have started to sell our produce, and the level of interest and demand makes me confident that we can make a success of it. I have an excellent farmer – Bhola – working for me, and our sales are getting steadily higher as each month passes.

The prospect of leaving a job that I have become less and less enamoured of – teaching – and switching to an activity that I find totally absorbing and fulfilling – organic farming – is truly exciting. It means that I will finally be doing a job that is exactly what I want to be doing. I could bemoan the fact that I’m now 61 and I should have been brave enough to make the move long ago, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What is important is that I’ve made the decision to get out of a job that is increasingly stressful, frustrating and unfulfilling in order to do something that fills me with joy. What could possibly be better? And why is it so few of us are doing jobs that we really enjoy?

The important steps for me were, first of all, educating myself about peak oil and climate change and then starting to grow organic food as a way of responding to these crises. The formation of Transition South Lantau was a further step along the path of trying to build local resilience, although I can’t claim much success on that front. However, sending out a newsletter each week has helped to keep me informed of what’s really happening in the world and what I need to be doing to try to build a better society. Throughout this process the dissatisfaction with a teaching profession which teaches next to nothing about the major issues confronting us has intensified to the point where going to school feels  like stepping through the looking-glass into an Alice-like world totally divorced from reality. Stepping out of the classroom to make tracks to the farm is going to help me get properly grounded again, and to engage in something that is without doubt, in my mind, of benefit to the community.

Nevertheless, I don’t intend putting all my eggs in one basket. One of my other consuming interests is, as I’ve indicated, keeping informed about  energy, climate, and how to transition to a truly sustainable economy which will give all of us a much better, much freer way of harmonising with the rest of the planet. I shall be working with a friend, Philippe Couture, to collate and disseminate information on these and related issues. This we’ll start on in earnest later in the year.

Finally, to ensure that I can pay the bills, I shall be training to be an IELTS examiner so that I have a different source of income to the farm.

It feels good to have a completely new career opening up before me, and I can’t wait to launch into it full-time. Should my nerve fail at any time I can always look to the example of Jenny Quinton of Ark Eden, who also gave up a teaching career to set up her own environmental education business which has gone from strength to strength:

I also go back to Chris Johnstone’s excellent book Find Your Power which is an ideal guide to getting you on the right path to create the sort of life you really want.

As for my farm, which I’ve called Dragontail Farm after the uncommon butterfly the White Dragontail which we have seen there, you can find out more from the Facebook page which I recently created:

Don Latter

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The Best Years of your Life

So far we have had about 0.8C of warming since pre-industrial times, and this has brought us phenomenal droughts – as in the US this year – raging fires, as in Russia in 2010, torrential rain – as in the UK this year – heat records being broken in any number of places, and extreme weather becoming increasingly common around the world. We have been warned by the UN that we will have a major food crisis on our hands next year – partly as a result of the drought in the US – if there is anything less than a bumper harvest to make up for the shortfall. There are innumerable extreme weather events that could be added to the one or two I’ve mentioned above. The last decade was the hottest on record, and we’ve had  a record ice melt in the Arctic this year. Calamities are coming thicker and faster as each year passes. The Met Office’s Hadley Centre – one of the top two or three climate research centres in the world – published this amazing diagram a while back about where we are heading:

Note that the scenario that pushes us to an increase of a mind-boggling 5-7C is simply business as usual (BAU). Even if we make immediate (i.e. 2 years ago!) huge cuts of 47% in our CO2 emissions we still get a 2C+ increase in temperature, which is well beyond what top climate scientists such as James Hansen are saying is safe (1.5C). Figures such as these are being proclaimed by just about everyone doing research on climate change. Is this something we should be paying attention to?

Let me think…I’ve got two daughters, aged 9 and 10, who are my raison d’etre. In the course of their lifetime they are almost certainly going to experience hotter and hotter and hotter weather for prolonged periods of time. There will be extreme droughts that may well turn important food growing areas into deserts – as has been predicted for parts of the US – so there will be serious food shortages. They may even experience a famine, as it is not known exactly which parts of the world will suffer the most. However, everywhere will suffer either directly or indirectly. There will likewise be major flooding caused by torrential rains which will kill many people – my children may be among them. There will be huge numbers of people migrating away from the disaster areas and putting enormous pressure upon the areas they move into, no doubt giving rise to conflicts and great misery. There will be massive social unrest and probably a dog-eats-dog situation where people are fighting for a secure foothold in a disintegrating society – anything that enables them to survive.

Consequently, I feel that, yes, I should be a little concerned about the future prospects of my children and all of their generation. Indeed, being a teacher I feel that maybe the education system should be teaching this generation about what is in store for them if we carry on with BAU. “Oh, but you mustn’t frighten the poor dears” I hear someone say. “You’re the worst kind of scaremonger. You should be ashamed of yourself!” Scaremongering is a pejorative term that carries with it the implication that you are wrong. The scenario I’ve painted above is simply culled from the many writings of top climate scientists who say that this is the kind of future we are preparing for our children unless we drastically change the way we live. This is not scaremongering, but it is damned scary and the shame should be felt by those who refuse to contemplate such a future and consequently refuse to engage in the life-changing activities that can help us keep global warming down to a bearable level, assuming (and we must assume) that it’s still possible to do that. Without facing up to the full enormity of what we are doing to the planet means that we will fall far short of the heroic endeavours that are needed to pull ourselves out of the planetary train wreck that we are heading into.

So what exactly are we doing in our schools? From my own experience, and from what I’ve heard from friends who are teachers, it’s obvious that there is no attempt to give a clear account of what we are doing to the planet and what the likely consequences of that are, according to the best science. There is also, therefore, no attempt to understand how we got into this situation, because there is no acknowledgment that there is a ‘situation’. Were we to do that we would have to examine the role of capitalism and our obsession with economic growth; we would have to look at how fossil fuels have been the driving force behind the development of consumer cultures; and how this has produced the CO2 emissions which have caused climate change; and we’d have to recognise that ditching fossil fuels is the only solution open to us. That, of course, would be anathema to the powers that be, as fossil fuels are the lifeblood of our economy. Without fossil fuels we will have an awful lot of rich and powerful businesses and individuals losing an awful lot of money. So we have no guidance whatsoever from the ‘authorities’ about instituting such an education. We ignore global warming, and instead we turn up the heat more and more (excuse the pun) on the need to get good exam results and to get into a university somehow or other because life is completely worthless without a university education, isn’t it? And we give our students piles of work to do absorbing all manner of trivial facts which 99% of them will never need to know outside school, but we teach them nothing about the facts that are going to directly affect their lives and possible survival. Need it be said that we teach them nothing about how to think, nor how to differentiate between good and bad information even though they are exposed to masses of information through the Internet? We are training them to be obedient consumers of information which is given to them by those with superior knowledge, and which is not to be questioned. This makes for good little workers who will do their jobs skillfully and according to instructions, but who will not question the instructions nor will they be able to think creatively or critically about what they are doing. Very convenient for the business and political communities in maintaining the status quo: very bad for the planet and the survival of the human race.

There are many good things that are being done to combat the problems we face, but I’ll look at some of those in another post. Let me finish with a few lines from an article by Stoddard, Friman, Rieser and Andersson in Energy Bulletin. They are talking about tertiary education, but the same applies to secondary education for the most part:

In our experience, the bulk of today’s learning is based on regurgitation stemming from the assumption that there exists a single correct answer that can be memorized and recited. This narrow view dictates that knowledge is to be learned, not created, by students. But students today face immense uncertainty when it comes to their futures—their employment, livelihood, and even survival. These are fundamental challenges of sustainability, and it is therefore imperative for everyone, including students, to develop skills and acquire knowledge that can help them manage these challenges. Environmental educators Arjen Wals and Bob Jickling write: “Universities should develop in their students the competencies which will enable them to cope with uncertainty, poorly defined situations and conflicting or at least diverging norms, values, interests and reality constructions.”2 If sustainability is truly about future generations, then young people—students—should be given the opportunity to propose, develop, and implement prospective solutions for sustainable development. At present, universities are almost never designed for these ends.

Educator David Orr argues that much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of inadequate and misdirected education.3 It alienates us from life in the name of human domination, causes students to worry about how to make a living before they know who they are, and overemphasizes success and careers. This type of education separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical; it can deaden the sense of wonder for the created world. What if institutions of higher education actually contribute to the problems of unsustainable development more than they do to solutions for sustainable development?

We believe that higher education must undergo a transformational shift away from strict departmentalization and disciplinary boundaries; it must recognize the notion that relevant questions are more important than correct answers; and it must come to terms with the idea that students are not simply subordinate consumers of knowledge, but rather intellectual equals and producers of knowledge.

Don Latter

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Newsletter 105

Local Veg (Organically Grown, Lantau Island, HK)

Sweet potato $20 per kg

Choi sum $20/350 g

Pak Choi $20/350g

Mustard leaves $15/350 g

Sweet potato leaves $10 bunch -recipe

Water spinach $15 bunch

Rocket $20 for 200 gms

Baby silk gourd, like courgettes – $30 kg

Eggplant $25 for 350 gms

Okra $15 for 200 gms
Herbs $15 bundle (chives, dill, basil, oregano, mint, lemon balm)

Kaffir lime leaves $10 for five leaves

Chillies $5 bundle

Fresh Ginger

Ginger seedling $30

Curry Leaf tree seedling $10-30 depending on size

 Bhola can deliver in the Mui Wo area or meet you at the ferry pier for a drop-off if you live along the coast. Phone Bhola at 54222844, or visit the farm in Luk Tei Tong.

Alternative News:

Oil – this looks at oil supply from an angle not normally dealt with, namely exports. Exporting countries need more and more of their own oil, giving rise to some alarming predictions for importing countries:

and this looks at the energy investment needed to transition to renewable energy. It doesn’t emphasise enough that we’re going to be living with drastically reduced amounts of energy available:

Europe – shock doctrine tactics to centralise power in Europe. Goodbye democracy:

Coral – collapse of coral reefs continues:

Bus – be cool, go by bus:

Bees – thanks to Paul for this article on French bees and M&Ms:

Food – a new Oxfam report on how the world is underestimating the likely impact of extreme weather on food prices. Prepare by growing your own and buying local organic:

Methane – a less alarming view of what’s happening in the Arctic:

Organics – this article from Fabian throws further doubt on the validity of the recent Stanford paper which claims little nutritional advantage in eating organic:

Weather – thanks to Monika for this weather summary:

Due to the lack of passage of tropical cyclones and the prevalence of continental air masses part of the month, September 2012 in Hong Kong was drier than usual.  The monthly total rainfall was 213.0 millimetres, about 35 percent below the normal figure of 327.6 millimetres.  The accumulated rainfall since 1 January was 1758.4 millimetres, a deficit of 21 percent comparing to the normal figure of 2233.1 millimetres for the same period.  The month was also warmer and sunnier than usual.  The mean temperature of the month was 28.0 degrees, 0.3 degrees above the normal figure of 27.7 degrees.  The monthly total duration of bright sunshine of 187.4 hours was about 9 percent above normal.  

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Newsletter 104

TSL Newsletter #104
Local Veg (Organically Grown)

Sweet potato $20 per kg

Choi sum $20 for 350 gms

Mustard leaves $15 for 350 gms

Water spinach $10 bunch
Baby silk gourd, like courgettes – $20 kg

Eggplant $25 for 350 gms

Okra $10 for 200 gms
Taro $50 kg

Herbs $15 bundle (chives for your cheese, basil, oregano, mint, lemon balm)

Kaffir lime leaves $10 for five leaves

Chillies $5 bundle

Ginger seedling $30
Curry Leaf tree seedling $10-30 depending on size

Climate – Bill McKibben summarises the summer:

Methane – the first half of this is probably the scariest thing I’ve ever read, making the second half utterly pointless:

Minerals – thanks to Philippe for this video on the pursuit of profits at the expense of the environment:

War – another video from Philippe, this one on drone warfare:

Food/Agriculture – this refers to a film which looks at changes taking place in Venezuelan agriculture, with urban farms and agro-ecological methods (from Fabian):

and edible forest gardens in Honduras:

Sharon Astyck responds to the Stanford Uni paper which says that organic food is not more nutritional than conventional food:

Bikes – bamboo bikes made in Ghana:

Health – a useful article from Fabian on the many uses of baking soda:

and this looks at the alarming effects of polio vaccinations in India recently:

this – thanks again to Fabian – warns of the potential dangers of triclosan, an ingredient in some toothpastes, soaps and deodorants:

this looks at diet drinks:

Stuff – a nice account of the overwhelming amount of stuff that blights our lives:


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Newsletter 102

Fossil Fuels – a reminder of just how dependent we are on fossil fuels:
David Strahan summarises the current situation regarding oil:
Food Crisis – a view of how climate change is producing a major food crisis:
Arctic Ice – a report on the remarkable speed at which the ice is melting in the Arctic, setting new records:
and Monbiot on the same topic:
Sail Transport – a glimpse of how we might be moving cargo, and ourselves, in the future:
Glass Recycling – thanks to Marc Wathen for this article on the state of glass recycling in HK:
Health – Fabian sent this dietary advice:
and this looks at the dangers of cholesterol-reducing drugs:
and this one looks at how obesity has become more of a concern than smoking:
GM – thanks to Fabian for this article which includes another good interview with Vandana Shiva:
State Shifts – this interview is about the possibility of dramatic changes in ecosystems as a result of biodiversity loss and climate change. An unusual multi-disciplinary approach:
Green Economy – two views about the commodification of nature:
Teotwawki – a positive view of the massive changes ahead, but the comments afterwards are even more interesting:
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Newsletter 101

Urban Farming – the movement has been particularly inspiring in Detroit. Thanks to Philippe for this video:
Food – some useful cooking info in Sharon Astyk’s short article:
Soil – the beneficial effects of composting ought not to be a surprise, but this article spells it out. HK needs a composting facility and support from the govt for organic farmers:
Housing – Ben Law is something of a phenomenon with his beautiful buildings. Thanks to Philippe for this video:
Technology – James Howard Kunstler hits on a topic we’re all familiar with – telephone robots:
Airlines – tough times ahead for the airline business:
Transition – Rob Hopkins interviews Jorgen Randers (Limits To Growth) about his new book:
Greece – tragic events as the economy pushes people to suicide:
but on the other hand, perhaps it’s not so bad:
Economics – another Rob Hopkins interview, this one with Charles Eisenstein about his book Sacred Economics:
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