It’s 8.30am on a balmy Saturday morning — hardly a godly time to be awake on a weekend — and in an unusual move, I’ve found myself on the rooftop garden of a three-storey space, scooching past a sheet of passionfruit vines.
“Watch your head,” 24-year-old Joanna Chuah says, as we skirt a little way down past a Japanese pumpkin patch.
Our early start’s only to stave off the impending heat that late mornings tend to bring; an unforgiving, sweltering warmth I don’t particularly enjoy.
Still, Joanna’s gamely agreed to take me ’round the heart of Weird and Wonderful Edibles (short for WWEdibles), an urban farming business she’s groomed since 2016 — first on third party platform Carousell, and now on her namesake site.
As a full-time lawyer pulling 12-hour work days, Joanna’s only chance to tend to her produce is on weekends — of which she spends some three hours immersed in the verdant space, assembling orders and checking on the growth stages of each of her plants.
She’s lucky to have extra hands; her helper of three years, Elaine, “does all the heavy-lifting. She’s really great; she helps with the daily watering, and knows which plants are which.”
And there’s an overwhelming amount of produce: a few hundred varieties of 50 to 70 plants sit within the space, from red okras and vibrant butterfly pea flowers to citrusy Richmond Green Apple cucumbers, black turmeric and several varieties of mint and basil.
The morning of our chat, Joanna and Elaine are kept busy beneath the sun’s unrelenting heat putting together an order of edible flowers for a bakery-cafe.
“Restaurants and cafes usually specify what edibles they need in terms of size and colour, but variety-wise, most of them leave it to me to decide what’s best for cakes or a dish,” Joanna shares.
In any given week, she gets up to 15 orders — thanks in large part to the increasing demand for colourful edibles that lend a dish that Instagrammable factor — with a profit margin of around 60%.
It’s lucrative, to be sure — but for Joanna, it’s produce first, profits second.
“Frankly, all you need to set up a farm is soil, pots and seeds,” she points out. “That’s my sunk cost, which is pretty much set since I’ve maxed out this space. It really is a therapeutic and affordable past time.”
She’s spent just $3,000 over almost four years on her labour of love, an amount easily recovered by returning customers and the workshops she occasionally runs in equally green spaces — like the Punggol-based House of Plants.
Cultivating a rooftop garden in a rent-free space, too, is a luxury Joanna readily acknowledges.
Her mini sanctuary of an urban farm is spread across the topmost floors of three terrace homes — all of which are occupied by Joanna’s immediate and extended family — and making use of the adjacent, unused spaces seemed an almost natural move.
Plenty of focus is paid to ensure the healthy growth of her produce.
The organic fertiliser she uses, for instance, is made from a base of pine needles, then enriched with food waste — think bananas and coffee grounds — which Joanna requests for from restaurants and cafes.
“That’s how all small businesses work; it’s very personalised, and requires more effort and time, but the product tends to be better.’”
Going that extra mile shows in WWEdibles’ produce: the urban garden is flourishing, from the torenias with startling yolk-coloured centres to the stalks of corn that rise proudly against the blue sky, their waxy leaves like drooping flags.
“This is an ancient corn grain,” she explains. “Because it’s so small [in size], the nutrients are condensed, so it’s really a lot sweeter.”
At her instruction, I proceed to twist a ripened cob of corn off the plant, then instinctively peel back its husk to reveal an iridescent ear of black corn.
“Would you look at that!” Joanna exclaims, holding the cob up to the light.
Indeed, it’s almost hypnotic to the eye; hues of emerald green, apricot, plum and blackcurrant glisten in the morning sun, an effect that can only be captured by the human eye.
Given space constraints, pretty much everything is grown from planters or in pots, but therein lies the fun: working within the box to find novel ways of helping a plant flourish.
This sometimes means manoeuvring the energy in a plant — a concept that at first sounds slightly New Age-y, but in fact means trimming the excess to ensure a plant’s optimum growth.
Pumpkins, for instance, have secondary vines — or smaller, leaner vines than primary vines — that require pruning, in order to ensure its fruits are at their sweetest.
It becomes apparent tending to a garden isn’t simply about passion, much less having a green thumb; it’s also about being able to discern the minute differences between two varieties of plants, for instance.
I glean this while bruising the leaves of herbs, taking my time to relish the layered scents from each: the zing of lemon myrtle, the lingering sweetness of passionfruit marigold, the citrusy notes of grapefruit mint.
Much of the time, developing an acute sense of smell only comes with practice — as well as falling back on your intuition, although the latter’s to some extent a trained skill, too.
In fact, that’s the premise of what WWEdibles was built on: growing experimental produce that isn’t commonly found in Singapore, and finding ways to make these ingredients shine in locally produced dishes.
It’s quite the antithesis to Edible Garden City, whose pioneering venture — at least locally — into the urban farming space focuses primarily on farm-to-table options, and encouraging more consumers to grow their own food.
Rather, Joanna prefers the autonomy of tending to things her way.
“I like having the freedom to do whatever I want [in this garden], and in my own time,” she admits. “It’s liberating, and allows me more room for experimentation.”
Case in point, the iridescent corn was sourced by a friend from Lima, Peru; other edibles, like her David Austin roses, were ordered online and shipped over.
Interestingly (or not), it’s the flowers that people are willing to pay a premium for — evidently more for looks than taste.
“The irony,” Joanna begins, “is that flowers take up a lot of energy from plant. Once they flower, you have to remove them to prolong a plant’s life. My friend said, ‘You’re practically selling us your garbage.'”
Her newest experiments are cocooned within trays on a secondhand steel rack, and further protected from the elements by shade cloths. It’s a sanctuary of unmarked seedlings, which Joanna rattles off from memory.
“These are my balsams, my marigolds, the cukes—and here we have the okra, coriander and pumpkins.”
It’s fascinating observing Joanna in her element, weaving through leafy foliage and tending to weeds while talking growth — of her produce, and WWEdibles itself.
We pause, and Joanna stoops beside a potted plant that’s perched on a layer of mulch, the latter of which prolongs soil moisture.
“A lot of chefs [on TV shows] go foraging and sample leaves along the way without first rinsing them…but it’s actually nasty! Even if something is organic, there’re things like snails, which have parasites that could affect humans.”
Saying this, she presents me a sprig of sea purslane (rinsed, of course), and I chew on the fleshy-leafed edible. It’s at once sharply salted and crunchy, and oddly addictive.
“They’re a salt-loving coastal plant,” Joanna explains. “I’m probably the only [urban farmer] who has these. Its yield isn’t that high, and it is difficult to grow…so economically, it doesn’t make sense. But from an intuitive perspective, it’s a cool plant to have.”
It’s easy to see why she feels that way; I’ll find myself craving more sea purslane in the days to come.
While most of her produce is hardy enough to be resistant to changes in weather and humidity, haze is an impediment to her business; it’s during those periods that production slows.
“I cut down on orders, because the produce wouldn’t be as safe to eat. Even if it isn’t poisonous per se, it just isn’t nice selling that kind of stuff to people.”
She seems effusively eager, too, to spread the edibles movement in Singapore.
Shortly after descending from her rooftop garden, Joanna pries her refrigerator open to reveal a drawerful of some 200 seeds — then sends me packing with a selection of easy-to-grow options, including corn, Japanese pumpkin and cilantro.
Feeding off her enthusiasm is easy; several hours later, I find myself inexpertly sprinkling the seeds over untouched soil in my garden, then layering it with compost.
So begins my veggie patch — and all thanks to Joanna.