Portrait of Urban Agriculture by Canadian Expat

Urban Agriculture in Thailand

By Carmenella Aspinall

I was raised on a small hobby farm and attended University of British Columbia where I completed my Bachelor’s in Agriculture with a major in Agro-Ecology and specialization in Sustainable Agriculture. I now work at a mid-sized NGO in the north of Thailand called the Association for Community and Ecology Development. We do everything that is politically correct to do in the north of Thailand (ie. running a high school for girls being rehabilitated from the sex trade, market community products for impoverished villages, seek citizenship for hilltribe people, facilitate the formation of civil society, rally for community rights to forestry and natural resource management, etc).

My role as a volunteer here is to help with the agriculture programmes (through both extension and running a model “sustainable” system for lowland and upland farmers at our training centre. I find that many Thais are rapidly loosing their connection to the earth as their world becomes quickly industrialized. Farmers are becoming poorer and there is little policy instrumentation to ensure their survival. Thus, the need for urban agriculture is quickly growing.

I have a small house with no land. However, I have turned my driveway into a garden with herb, flower, and vegetable production. I compost elephant poo, rice straw from my neighbours (who would have just burned it), kitchen scraps, and rotten fruits and veggies from the market (which are usually thrown out). I also collect my rain water for my gardens, have ten egg-layers, make my own IM (Indigenous Microorganisms – see below) and bioextract, and am starting to do human waste composting (oh joy to Joe Jenkins).

I find that practicing urban agrology has helped me integrate with Thai culture more easily as my neighbours have an excuse to come visit, talk, bring me their kitchen scraps, paint the sides of my planters, get their hands dirty, have their children feed the chickens, etc. So, that in a nutshell, is my interest in urban agriculture.

My Garden
I moved into a house in Chiang Rai (pop. 30,000) that had no green space at all. No yard. No grass (ugh, grass). However, it did have a driveway that could probably accomodate two cars. Being that I had no car (just a motorbike and bicycle), I built long troughs out of bricks/wood for gardens. Soil is quite expensive and of poor quality here, so I made my own from sawdust from my neighbour who was gutting his house at the time I was building my gardens.

I started small with three boxes (each about 1 meterx3meters) and started planting Thai crops like morning glory, pumpkin, cucumber, long beans, cabbage, lettuce, various medicinal plants, herbs, lemon grass, etc. I have basically built a shelter/lattice out of bamboo for the climbing plants to shade the other plants and herbs. Underneath the shelter, I have a picnic table and my neighbours regularly come and hang out there even when I am not home.

Also under the shelter is my compost box (soon to be boxes plural). I compost whatever I can get my hands on — buffalo and elephant dung, rotten veggies from the market, kitchen scraps, waste from my chicken coop, sawdust, leaves, etc. I used to inoculate the heap with IM (Indigenous Microorganisms) that I made myself since I started out on pavement, but now I don’t bother.

Luckily, I don’t have much of a pest problem because none of my neighbours have any green space of their own, but I do make my own pest control out of lemongrass. I also make bio-extract out of rotten fruits and veggies that I can get from the market for free. I use rice straw as a mulch and have a few sesbania plants that I will be using as a green manure.

I collect rainwater in a big sealed barrel (gotta be careful of standing water here because of malarial mosquitos) although right now, in the dry season, I am using city water. I am currently building a little composting toilet of my own (although in Thailand we use squatter toilets, so don’t waste all that much water compared to the west, however, the more nutrients in my compost the better). Also, I will be building a small mushroom house soon.

I live alone, so that means I have plenty of extras for my neighbours. They love coming over, sitting in my garden, collecting eggs and vegetables for dinner, and taking part in whatever I happen to be doing on that particular day (ex. making yoghurt or peanut butter, cooking foreign foods, making crafts, etc.) Many of them are quite excited by the fact that I produce food in the city (and do it single-handedly no less) and think that I am quite a strange foreigner.

My biggest constraint is that I have built my gardens on top of concrete, so drainage is poor. If I were to do it again, I would put a good layer of twigs or rocks or granite jelly under the soil first. The other constraint is that, well, this is selfish of me, but sometimes, I can’t get my neighbours to go away — they seem to love my gardens too much.

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IM – Indigenous Microorganisms
IM is indigenous microorganisms — a new spinoff on effective organisms. I’m doing my best to battle effective microorganisms (EM) here in Thailand. When I tell farmers that I am an alternative agriculture advisor the first thing they tell me is, “Oh, I use EM.” When I ask them why, they really aren’t too sure, but they know they should because a bunch of local NGOs have told them that that’s a good thing to do if you want to do organic production.

I battle with this issue for one reason, mainly — EM is too expensive for farmers who have close to nothing. They don’t know how to use it properly and, in most cases, are just pouring money onto their compost piles. For most of them, the ambient temperature is so high and their compost piles are well enough established that they don’t need to add EM (the rates of decomposition are high already); however, they insist upon doing it cuz someone else has told them they should.

So, I am making IM with them instead. This way, they collect their own indigenous microorganisms from a culture on plain rice. This makes more sense to me as the microorganisms are INDIGENOUS and will have the best effect on INDIGENOUS plant species and manures. I really can’t fathom why anyone would want to buy microorganisms from Japan to use in Thailand or Canada or wherever else when it takes ten minutes effort over a week of time to make it yourself.
Source: http://www.cityfarmer.org/thai.html

The Dinner Garden Improving Food Security

Raised bed of lettuce, tomatoes, 6 different t...
Image via Wikipedia

As I started reading more about vegetable gardens, especially urban gardens, I began to see the link between gardening, food security and poverty. Even in the US, many families struggle to eat healthy because packaged foods are more readily available in urban settings and often are more costly. But, the negative side effects of the lifestyle and eating habits which have resulted are plaguing the US population with health issues such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and so forth. We all know we should eat more fruits and vegetables, but the modern city lifestyle simple isn’t conducive to it.

As people are increasingly realizing this link, more and more people have begun to start urban gardens to increase their ability to easily integrate fresh produce into their diets. For urban apartment or condo dwellers, the garden may be a few plants in containers. For urban or suburban home owners or dwellers, they may have room for a small in-ground or raised bed garden. Some lucky urban residents may have access to a community garden where they usually have more area to work with in collaboration with a group of other urban gardeners.

The Dinner Garden is a non-profit focused on increasing the trend of people to grow their own fruits and vegetables, even in small areas. They distribute seeds for free to families and school children in an effort to encourage gardening and increase food security for families across the US. As any teacher or parent knows, eating fruits and vegetables is extremely important for children’s development and studies show that it can improve energy and brain function. By getting kids involved with gardening at a young age, it can help promote healthy habits that can last a lifetime.

The Dinner Garden has accomplished so much since their beginning in 2009 and the work they are doing is amazing. Check out their website or read some other blogs which feature this organization.

Other blogs on The Dinner Garden: http://foodfreedom.wordpress.com/2010/04/29/the-dinner-garden-free-seeds-tips-tools/

http://lifeonthebalcony.com/interview-with-holly-hirshberg-from-the-dinner-garden/

http://www.cityfarmer.info/2010/11/28/the-dinner-garden-has-provided-seeds-to-48000-families-since-2009/

Rooftop Gardening in Bangkok


An excellent example of a rooftop garden in Bangkok which is cared for by the District Office in Laksi, Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose for growing rooftop gardens is to increase the productivity of the area, increase the green area, decrease global warming and increase the amount of healthy vegetables grown for household consumption. By using household organic waste in composting, it is also a way to decrease the amount of waste that needs to be managed by the municipality. As you can see in the video, rooftop gardening is done in raised beds which are placed on the concrete roof. The beds raise a variety of vegetables, including climbing vines and salad greens. The district office at Laksi is open to all Bangkokians who is interested in gardening, getting advice and they will even give you some seeds to get your garden started.
Language: Thai only

Agricultural Office of Phuket Promotes Growing Veggies

In Thailand’s warm, tropical climate plants are easily grown with a little care and water. The provincial office of Agriculture in Phuket demonstrates in this video how residents can plant their own herbal plants at homes, even with limited space or budget. The Agriculture Chief suggests hanging pots of herbal or kitchen vegetables that can easily be planted in reused or reclaimed materials such as plastic containers, paint buckets or even old motorcycle helmets. The plants that are recommended because they are easily grown and commonly used in Thai cuisine include lemongrass, sweet basil, basil, morning glories and chillies. He suggests that it not only helps cut costs in the household budget, but is also organic and healthy for family members. Some of the pungent plants also serve as natural insect repellent, such as lemongrass.

Global Buckets Promoting Edible Gardens

outh and entrepreneurship are two great elements for social change because young people really have the drive and creativity to push the limits and help people. These two brothers are a wonderful example of young people who are looking to help people in developing countries by spreading information about gardening systems.

They started by developing an idea similar to the Earthbox but used 5 gallon buckets. They filmed an intro and various how-tos for making their Global Buckets using 2 5-gallon plastic buckets, a plastic cup, PVC pip, drill/hole drill bits, black plastic, soil and vegetable plant (tomatoes, peppers, etc.) The video are narrated by the two brothers and are very easy to follow. The benefits of their system is that it reduces water loss, reduce time needed for weeding and can easily be used in small spaces, even urban rooftops.

Furthermore, these guys are great experimenters. After some feedback from users in Jamaica that told them that 5-gallon buckets in Jamaica are too valuable to put holes in, they decided to try to make similar system out of garbage and recycling various materials. So now, they have suggested other ideas such as growing bags and using dirt, instead of potting soil. They hope to lower the cost and make these systems more applicable to developing countries. I wish these two young social entrepreneurs the best and will try some of their ideas out in my own garden.

http://www.globalbuckets.org/

How to Start Growing an Urban Garden in Thailand

Based on this video, one of the most difficult issues with growing an urban garden is actually starting. For the sunny, hot climate in Thailand, providing enough water for the plants will be one of the trickier aspects of caring for the plants. The plants which are recommended are pak boong and basil as being hardy plants for beginners. If you have a concrete slab and no place to grow your vegetables, coconut husks can be used to provide a layer of insulation before putting some soil over. The coconut husks help to maintain the moisture in the soil and helps keeps the plants cooler throughout the day. Manure is added to fertilize the soil instead of using chemical fertilizers.

New Year’s Resolution – Grow a Vegetable Garden

Starting this year, I’m trying to eat healthier by increasing my intake of vegetables. In Thailand, fresh local-grown fruits and vegetables are easily bought from the store year. However, with my recent working habits, I’ve been eating food more for the convenience than for taste, quality or nutrition. While food in Thailand is generally served in small, appropriate portions compared to Western countries, many of the restaurants near my work place serve larger portions. Additionally, Thai food can be carb-heavy because it is served with rice or noodles and many of the quick dishes are fried and oily.
One solution to my lunch time dilemma would be to pack my own lunch such as salads and lean meats. Most supermarkets offer a range of salad greens and fresh vegetables to choose from. However, purchasing vegetables regularly can be troublesome as making time for multiple trips to the supermarket during the week can be time-consuming. It can be difficult to gauge how much vegetables will be required for one week so I’m often either buying too many or too few vegetables. So, in order to make obtaining vegetables regularly a little bit less cumbersome and a bit more fun, I’ve decided to try and grow some vegetables in my yard.
Being fortunate enough to have a large enough property to have a vegetable garden in Bangkok, I’ve decided to start some seeds out in folded paper pots. The paper I used was already used on both sides and will be the temporary home for my seedlings before they will be put into the ground. Initially, I’ve started some cucumbers, tomatoes, bok choy, long green beans, pak boong, and Chinese broccoli (pak kana). Afterward, I plan to plant everything into the plot of land which has been prepared by mulching some manure and organic matter a few months before. Once this first lot of seedlings goes into the ground, I’ll be starting the next lot of seedlings which will include some pumpkin, watermelon and lettuce. If everything goes as planned, I’ll have various fresh vegetables that I can pick from my own garden and eat, without the hassle of going to the supermarket. At the very least, it can supplement whatever is store bought and reduce my expenses on vegetables that I can grown myself.

“Mr Condom” in Thailand Promotes Safe Sex

AIDS activist Mechai “Mr. Condom” Viravaidya discusses several “out-of-the-box” methods for promoting condom distribution and safe-sex practices in his native Thailand. Khun Mechai is the founder of the Population and Development Association and promotes having safe sex since sex in natural and absinence is difficult for most of the population. He shares his ideas such as the “Cops and Rubbers” program where the police force is recruited to help save people on the streets and back seats. His humor about sex makes it possible to bring this traditionally taboo topic out into the open in Thailand.

About this video:

Mechai Viravaidya was recently awarded the 2007 Gates Award for Global Health on behalf of The Population and Community Development Association (PDA), the organization he founded in 1974. For over 30 years, PDA has helped improve lives and strengthen communities in Thailand through HIV prevention and family planning programs that have become international models. The programs developed by Viravaidya and PDA led to a dramatic reduction in new HIV infections in Thailand, from 143,000 in 1991 to 21,000 in 2003.

Using a nationwide network of village-based volunteers, PDA empowers women to plan their pregnancies, giving both mothers and children the opportunity to live healthier lives. PDA’s comprehensive approach to poverty reduction also addresses income generation, water resource development, sanitation projects, environmental conservation, and promotion of gender equality and democracy.

Today, PDA’s 600 employees and more than 12,000 volunteers work in 18 regional development centers and branch offices throughout Thailand. Through its international training program, PDA has trained 2,900 people from 50 countries in innovative approaches to HIV prevention, family planning, adolescent reproductive health and other issues.

Humorous video on Healthy Eating based on Por Peang Lifestyle

Eating your fruits and veggies will help you have a long and healthy life. Especially if you grew those fruits and veggies yourself in your garden without the use of pesticides or other harmful chemicals. This video shows an elderly couple still enjoying their veggies, despite some difficulty in chewing, and their por peang lifestyle.

Video on Social Enterprise in Thailand


This video captures a dialogue of several social entrepreneurs in Thailand. The images are of Bangkok and some of the problems we face in Thailand such as pollution, poverty, etc. It is a bit inspirational to those of us in Thailand that want to make a difference in a sustainable way. The video is in Thai without any subtitles.