“AGROECOLOGY FOR ALL: Initiatives in Malaysia” – URBAN GARDEN

Letchumy Sathiah

A Simple Formula for a Thriving Urban Garden

The environmental chaos and the agroecological concerns that we are addressing right now may not be within the understanding of Letchumy Sathiah. But her life, in many aspects, epitomises those concerns. Saving the earth is not on her agenda. Nevertheless, her daily activities are geared towards that end. She silently does her bid to enhance the environment she lives in and humbly perceives it as rightful conduct to live a productive and meaningful life.

Letchumy single-handedly maintains her garden. The garden produces most of the vegetables needed for daily consumption. Extra vegetables are supplied for free to distant family members and friends.

During her childhood and teen years at a rubber plantation, Letchumy’s family owned a big vegetable plot and cows, which provide them with a good source of vegetables and milk. The dung of the cow was used to fertilise the soil, which meant planting was easy and harvesting was bountiful.

However, after the displacement of the estate workers, land became the main problem. The family had no choice but to sell their cows. Nevertheless, that did not deter Letchumy in any way from planting and prospering.

Letchumy, 74, got married at the age of 14, and during those periods, agriculture was her source of income. 25 years ago, when she first moved to her current house at Taman Tun Sambanthan in Sungai Siput, Perak, the land beside her house was full of concrete and pebbles left after the construction work of her new house.

Slowly, she cleared them and started planting a variety of vegetables, herbs, and trees. From then on, gardening and planting became her daily ritual. Not a day goes by without tending the plants, digging the soil, or harvesting.

The essential ingredients in Indian cooking, curry leaves and chillis grow lush in Letchumy’s garden. Owing to the continuous nutrient supply, the common pest and disease problems that many growers encounter with chillis do not exist in her garden.

Her passion for plants and the knowledge of herbs inherited from her mother-in-law made her continuously explore them. “In the early stages, when I tried to grow certain herbs or plants, they didn’t turn out as healthy as I expected them to be. But I noticed that the same plant grows well in the garbage mound and in the crevices along the drain. That was a revelation for me.

“All plants need a continuous supply of nutrients, and the garbage mounds (mostly with food waste) and drains serve as repositories of nutrients for the plants to thrive. I took this concept, modified it, and applied it to my garden. When you observe nature closely, it reveals its myriad secrets,” pointed out Letchumy.

FEEDING BIRDS. Letchumy feeds the birds that visit her garden. Within 2 hours of the interview with Letchumy, we spotted 4 types of cheerful-chirping birds in her garden. These birds eat the pests that destroy the plants and leave their droppings behind. Both of these increase the microorganisms and nourish the soil.

Letchumy’s garden now has more than 50 varieties of herbs, plants, and trees. Except for fish, meat, oil, and some spices, most of the cooking ingredients are sourced from her own garden.

Letchumy’s daily kitchen waste does not go to waste. She adds water to the kitchen waste (such as onion and garlic skins, fruit peels, tea leaves, egg shells, fish bones, etc), grinds it coarsely, and then lets it ferment for around 8-10 hours. The next morning, she sifts the liquid and doles it out to each plant. That way, she ensures each plant gets a fair share of nutrients from the fermented kitchen waste.

Plants absorb nutrients quickly through the slightly fermented liquid. The leftover from the sifting is then applied around the plant. This leftover degrades fast as it has been shredded and had gone through some fermentation as well.

“In our house, not a single thing that is compostable goes to the garbage bin. Leftover food from my grandchildren all ends up in the garden. When they eat their meal, I ensure even the chewed out peel of a vegetable is tossed in the bin meant for grinding and fermenting.

Shredded and fermented kitchen waste is sufficient to maintain a lush garden, says Letchumy.

“Shredded kitchen waste takes a much shorter time to compost compared to when we put it as a whole. The ground and fermented water not only serve as compost but also as a pest repellent due to the presence of garlic, onion and chilli, which are essential items in our daily cooking. Pests have some sort of aversion to this odour,” explained Letchumy.

SAVING AND SHARING SEEDS. Letchumy saves her own seeds and distributes them to her wide circle of friends and acquaintances. With her abundant knowledge of herbs, she helps people around her get relief from simple ailments.

Letchumy successfully proved that kitchen waste alone is enough for a home gardener like her. “Kitchen waste takes care of both the soil fertility and pest problems. So basically, there is no reason for one not to grow.

“In my case, the burden of buying fertiliser and pest repellent does not arise because I produce both from my home. So growing is not as demanding as one thinks,” she concluded.

Agroecology Fund