From seed to table: Vertical farm in Pioneer House enjoys first harvest

Student residents have just put in over two months of tender loving care – and already this vertical garden at Pioneer House (PH) has yielded its maiden crops of bok choy. Not limited to this vegetable, the garden is also suitable for growing romaine, rocket, kale, kangkong, wheatgrass, Japanese spinach, lettuce, mizuna, and beans.

Conceived in January, the garden is located next to PH Block 23 which was established in 2017 as a housing model in NUS that incorporates proactive pastoral care and mentoring for residents. Over the past few years, PH has rolled out innovative programmes such as community gardening and composting to develop a familial and inclusive residential community. Aligning with the theme of frugality and sustainable living, the programmes encourage residents to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of self and the community.

Coined the ‘PHertical PHarm’, the garden expands on the success of an existing one set up since 2019, which includes crops such as mint, basil and bananas. Inspired by Singapore’s vision of ’30 by 30’ to build up Singapore’s agri-food industry’s capability and capacity to produce 30 per cent of our nutritional needs locally and sustainably by 2030, an interest group consisting of 19 student residents came together to create this vertical farm.

Departing from traditional soil gardening, the vertical garden employs the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponics system where plants are arranged in vertical rows of descending height. Dissolved nutrients required for plant growth are re-circulated through a channel in a shallow stream of water, past the bare roots of the plants.

For the students, caring for the garden is a commitment to planning and running activities to nourishing the garden, such as germination, transplantation, monitoring the condition of the plants and hydroponics system, training and rostering themselves for daily tasks.

For Ramond Ang, second year student in Accounting, it was his family’s love of nature and passion for gardening which motivated him to join the interest group. Ramond has also learnt new things through the experience. “It was a new experience, growing edibles in mediums other than soil which is what my family uses at home to grow herbs and edibles,” shared Ramond.

Ramond’s sentiments were echoed by fellow student Jenna Ong, first year student in Business Administration. “I was always interested in gardening, however there are few opportunities to farm especially in urban Singapore. I wanted to explore and learn more about the process of farming, as well as get some practical experience in planting my own crops,” enthused Jenna.

An ecosystem of learning

The vertical garden has also provided students with a fertile environment for learning. Students nurtured their green fingers through experimentation, altering variables such as light exposure to learn more about optimal growing conditions for the plants. Residents also found it fun to see what works and what does not, according to Shirmin Lim, second-year student in Life Sciences who is overseeing one of these experiments.

With close guidance from staff, some students also took their interest to the next level and embarked on a Design Your Own Module (DYOM), an award-winning NUS initiative that leverages technology to encourage more independent, self-directed learning among students. As part of DYOM, students established learning outcomes and research pursuits pertaining to urban farming, and participated in a broad range of learning activities including seminars, research, site visits to farms and interviews with experts.

Beyond building a new ecosystem for gardening, the garden is also an avenue for PH residents to cultivate community interaction and a holistic educational journey. A successful harvest brings a community together. Students are able to relish the work of their own hands through a collaboration with the cooking interest group at PH, transforming the harvest of bok choy into a delectable dish of bibimbap!