Published 16 October 2016 ● Last Updated on 30 September 2020

We sat down this week and had a very meaningful chat with Dr Anupriya Agarwal, an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist by profession who works at the National University Hospital (NUH), Singapore. She is the mother of two lovely kids and her spouse works in the banking industry in Singapore. This bit about Anupriya is known to the world and she does her various roles with extraordinary ease!
A candid capture while Anupriya was admiring her red okra plant
The bit that is known to only a few is that Anupriya is very environmentally conscientious – she has most recently taken upon herself to convert her preloved soup bowls into terrariums and upcycle used dehumidifiers into self-watering containers (for the times that she travels). She uses eco friendly products as far as she can in her day-to-day life. But the best is yet to come, Anupriya also maintains, and very successfully so, a mini edible garden in her flat in Singapore. All the balconies in the apartment are well-used; 1 of them is solely for ornamentals, the other 3 are primarily for edibles. Her 2 key tips to create and manage your own edible garden are:
1. Research a lot (on what can and cannot grow in the designated space for plants).
2. Do it yourself- there is no room for delegation.
Did we mention earlier, she along with her family lives on the 22nd floor of a flat in Singapore, so yes you got it, nothing is imPOSSIBLE!

1) Let’s start at the very beginning. What prompted you to set up your edible garden in the balcony of your home? Any initial hiccups? What were your key learnings ?

I started gardening four years ago and after killing my fair share of plants, I finally had success with ornamentals. During this period, I visited my aunt’s sister-in-law in India, whose gardener had successfully created an edible garden on her terrace – got some seeds from there and just like that, I got started. Initially, I planted tomatoes, broccoli and spinach without doing much research. While tomatoes and spinach did fine (I lucked out), the broccoli never flowered as it needs as cooler climate to develop the florets. That’s how I learned that sound research is the key to successful gardening and since there are few resources available on gardening in the Singapore climate, I have joined a forum of farmers in Singapore to enable exchange of ideas and get inspiration.
The ornamentals are housed in one of the balconies

2) What is the basic requirement to start off before we can follow your lead – minimum space, soil type needed, full day sunlight? How about daily care for plants?

There are no requirements really – I know of people who are gardening on their windowsills and several farmers successful growing edibles in HDB corridors!
Some sun is a prerequisite, but most homes in Singapore will get a few hours of sun. If not, then ‘grow lights’ [what are grow lights?] can be used too. Once the plants are established, you just set aside 10-15 min a day to water, fertilize or weed them. Truth be told, I spend more time admiring my plants than actually caring for them 😉
All they need is ample sunlight and oodles of love

3) What all do you grow in your apartment?

Tomatoes, pomegranate, cucumber,  passionfruit, mulberry, lettuce, pok choy, kale, beans and a variety of herbs – mint, basil, rosemary, thyme

Drool worthy edibles in the balcony

4) Before we saw your home garden, we thought one must invest in a vertical planter / aero planter to grow food in an apartment [if one wants more than basic herbs]. Have you come across and tried these products – would you recommend them for new gardeners?

I have tried to keep my gardening very cost-effective and simple, using mostly recycled materials i.e. compost, so have not invested in any form of system! I am keen to try hydroponics as it is very water efficient and know of people who have had good success. However, the use of liquid chemicals to grow the plants puts me off – need to research more on the subject before going on to hydroponics in a big way.  

5) That brings us to another remarkable feat that you have achieved- composting in your balcony. Tell us how you go about it step by step?

The amount of food scraps we wasted everyday irked me and after doing some research I just started composting in an old plastic laundry basket. Being successful in that prompted me to go further – I have a very simple large plastic container bought for $10 into which I drilled holes into and that is my composter.
With a layer of compost at the bottom as a starter, I put all the raw food scraps and peels, old cardboard, tea leaves and coffee grounds that I regularly ask from coffee shops at my workplace. I have kept it simple – I just dump everything and give it a stir every week when I add the next round. It heats up and decomposes in 3-4 months.
I take it out and sieve it to remove the big bits which go back in the composter.
The composting eco system in Anupriya’s balcony
An unexpected pumpkin plant from the food remains in the compost

6) Do you have to deal with yucky stuff during composting- creepy crawlies in your house for instance?

There are bugs and creepy crawlers of course as they are the ones that do the composting but they are contained within the compost bin. There are some lizards that come to feast on the bugs and I don’t mind them as they remain in the balcony there being plenty of food for them and never enter the house 🙂

7) Is organic gardening at home a pipe dream or a real possibility? How do you deal with pests / insects / ensuring minimum nutrients for your produce?

It is a real possibility but one has to be realistic – herbs and some vegetables can be grown in pots for regular consumption – lettuce, cucumber, cherry tomatoes to name a few but truth be told, one needs a landed garden to grow most vegetables one needs at home.

8) You are a full-time practicing obstetrician with two kids, a busy husband and (perhaps) dozens of commitments as well.  How do you make time to manage a full-fledged edible garden [which as we just discovered is also organic]?

I am an early riser – and garden from 7-7.15am just before leaving for work. On the weekend, I do garden for a couple of hours while the kids are doing their own thing, but it is really not as time intensive as people think.

9) Any easy tips for stark beginners? [which plants to start with, tips like spinach needs nitrogen so use coffee remains, recommended reading, etc]

– Start with easy plants – beans, lady finger, cucumber – these are quick and easy. Once you see the fruits of your labor, you will be hooked!

– Use good quality soil and organic fertilizer – like seaweed/ chicken poop etc which provide the nutrients.

– Care for the plants yourself – water yourself, do not delegate – when you do it yourself, you see how the plant is doing and can make changes where needed, instead of loosing the plant.

– And most importantly read – as much as you can about the plant so you know how to care for and what to look out for

10) Where do you want to take this? Do you have a mission / dream?

With a full time job, this is all I can manage. I am experimenting a lot  to learn what can be grown easily and how. Once I retire I plan to have a social enterprise to provide nutritious food to the underprivileged. They help out in the garden in exchange for food. No firm plans but well it’s a dream!!
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