Fool-proof Tips for Growing a Fierce Urban Garden in the Tropics

Singaporean food anthropologist Nithiya Laila believes the best gardening philosophy is one that advocates minimum intervention – and next to no money

When food anthropologist Nithiya Laila isn’t wandering Singapore’s many wet markets, making connections at local urban farms or planning her next sold-out pop-up restaurant event, she’s often in her garden.

Having a green thumb, she explains, is all about working with nature. “For me, the how is connected to the what. If you fight nature, you’ll need a lot of how-tos and systems to counter that resistance.”



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That would explain why her own garden, located on the rooftop of an old apartment building in the heart of Singapore, is a small but fertile collection of tropical herbs, hardy greens and rhizomes.

Here, Nithiya explains how city-dwellers can have a fruitful relationship with gardening.


Go native.

“Don’t grow plants that you see other people growing elsewhere in the world. If you choose plants that are native to your climate, you won’t need The Idiot’s Guide to Gardening. They will grow out of control with minimal effort. Pandan, for example, is impossible to kill.”

Start with roots.

“Roots such as turmeric and ginger will grow no matter what. Buy some from your local wet market, or from an organic farm, and bring them home. Once they start growing the beginnings of a green shoot, plant them in some soil. Rhizomes proliferate underground, so you can pick off a little knob at a time.”


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Move onto herbs.

“Tropical herbs such as Thai basil, laksa leaf, wild pepper, betel leaf and chillies will grow easily in full sun. I’ve even got moringa growing on my rooftop. Once you’ve got the hang of that, you can move onto Cuban oregano and Mexican tarragon – they’re South American counterparts of European herbs, but much more suited to our climate.”


Photo by Shutterstock.


Do it cheaply.

“With gardening, you have to ensure your access point doesn’t put you off – whether that’s difficulty or expense. There’s a lot of trial and error, so don’t spend hundreds of dollars to start your garden. Do you have old two-liter milk jugs or old cartons? Cut the tops off and put some soil in. When you visit a friend’s garden, get cuttings of their plants, stick them in some water until they start rooting, then move them to some soil.”


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Mind your soil.

“Growing from seed is a bit trickier. If you are ready, you need the right soil mix for what you’re trying to grow. For example, most herbs need to be thoroughly watered, but the soil needs to be well-draining. Stagnating water will kill your herbs. Make sure it’s not too dense; add some layers, sand and pebbles to your potting soil.”

Photo by Shutterstock.

Cook what you grow.

“In my experience, growing your own food makes you less precious about how you use it, and more willing to try new uses. You might pluck a few leaves from a herb and roast it with your chicken. Laksa leaf goes with anything that has seafood in it. If you stick some lemongrass in a pot, you’re going to have enough for lemongrass tea all day – just keep clipping the leaves from the top. Turmeric leaves are great for wrapping fish.”



Unity as part of “A Singapore State of Mind”

Nithiya Laila is one of the Singaporean hosts for “A Singapore State of Mind”, a new three-part film series produced by Ink.

For this exciting project, each host was tasked with talking about one of the following three themes: unity, resilience and strength— all words that help describe how Singapore has gotten through this tough times, including the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Nithiya talks about unity in the film, and how she believes that food is something that brings people together. She shows how this is the case throughout Singapore by spending a day sourcing native ingredients that all contribute to one of her favorite dishes.


Watch the full video here.

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