Creating greens from vacant spaces
Published on: Sunday, July 28, 2019

Creating greens from vacant spaces
THE word “vacant” signifies “empty” while in Bahasa Malaysia, it means “kosong”.  The term can be applied to any location, area, space, things or beings in different scenarios to mean that which is devoid of anything.  

It is common to hear a lot of people using the word in figurative terms to describe whatever the stuff in someone’s head or skull, which means to say that a person’s head or skull could be empty or without grey matter.  

In truth, a vacant space in the outdoors is never completely empty or devoid of life.  Apart from the barely-visible microscopic life forms, there are, where conditions permit, the ground-hugging creepers, algae, mosses, grasses and sedges, as well as the taller shrubs and trees.  


Colourful zinnias in full bloom.

Even the treeless, degraded and infertile sandy soils often carry various varieties of plant and animal life that hug the soil surface or below it.

With respect to green spaces, there is always a broad scope for one to do something about it if the space is truly vacant and the issue of ownership or authorisation to enter the space is clear.

In landed properties, there is the comfort of knowing that a swathe of ground is available in the front or backyard, or even along the sides of the property. In many cities around the world, there are vacant community plots for the inhabitants of the neighbourhood to join hands to convert emptiness into green and productive gardens.  

They don’t keep “belukars” as that will be a perfect hiding hole for the bad hats to sneak in and out to cause trouble apart from being very unkempt and untidy.

Within the local scenario, there are countless plots spread out all over the State with little or zero gainful use.  

Without any form of productive activity, people tend to call such plots of land as empty, even though they are filled with grasses, creepers and “belukar”. It is mind-boggling to know such emptiness often runs into the thousands of acres.


A planting container made of bamboo.


Urban greening in the city

Within Kota Kinabalu city boundary, visitors are often awe-struck at the intensity of gardening efforts by city folks. It is easy to see that most front and backyards are planted to the brim, including much of the areas covering the drain reserves.  

Even polystyrene boxes, discarded paint tins and barrels, plastic throwaway jars and bottles, unwanted buckets and basins are commonly used to grow something of value.  

Just drive around housing areas to dispel any lingering thoughts that city folks are growing fat and lazy.  

The greening effort is highly commendable as it not only brings in something of value, but the guys and gals who slog it out also reap the extra benefits of having sweated it out and dumping the useless awful-looking mounds of bulging fat that often comes in layers and thick chunks that are usually deposited around the waist, tummy, thighs and upper hand.  

Now who would not say that greening activities actually contribute to a fitter body and a healthier lifestyle that also encourage stronger family bonds?


A plot of padi showing the grains.

Even those dwellings that are up in the air such as apartments or condominiums are not leaving greening efforts behind. The newer buildings these days often come with green walls or roof-top gardens already fixed by the developer but these will not stop owners from doing even more – within their units.  

This is good news for those keen to do interior naturescaping, a topic that will be discussed in greater detail later on, but on their own, they can even attend it as a short term course to pick up some skills before unleashing their creative power indoors.  

It has become popular in many high-end, high rise dwelling units where lots of them have small indoor gardens with mini pools or water features that are usually sprinkled with a decent number of aquatic plants, creepers, herbaceous, woody or semi-woody garden shrubs.  


A young gourd from a cucurbit plant.

Some of such gardens even have trees that have been sufficiently dwarfed to be brought indoors.  

There are ingenious ways to shower natural light on such plants indoors so that they can be sustained for a long time without wasting the greening effort.  With interior naturascaping, nothing is impossible indoors.

Honestly, it is not cheap to set up an indoor garden as an impressive one could swallow huge bundles of cash.  The expenses are usually spread out over the soft and hardscape materials, various equipments and gadgets, manpower and maintenance costs.  

The alternative would be to do it the D-I-Y way which may cost only a few pennies, or even totally free if a little effort is spent to improvise on usage, reuse, reduce, repurpose and recycle from the daily throwaways. This way, you are not only helping yourself but also saving the environment from further degradation.


Greening up public areas

These days, many locations in public spheres are well-maintained with grasses regularly trimmed and rubbish collected and dumped in dog-proof bins or bin centres so that scavenging by animals and humans is reduced, and general littering can be wiped out.

This is well and fine if contractors are paid on time so that there is no interruption of the maintenance process.

 Unfortunately, it is often noted that this is not so with the reason that there is delayed or zero payment.  

When that happens, it is sayonara to well-trimmed and manicured lawns, roadsides, vacant spaces, road or drainage reserves etc.  

Such neglect often happens within the boundaries of private and public agencies, as has been regularly reported in local dailies, with the result that agency bigwigs and “Yang Berhormats” are sometimes forced to do another round or two of “turun padang”.  How tiring, but truly “yang berusaha”.

Fortunately, there are many highly-motivated staffers in such agencies who are not averse to stepping out and doing something over and above their work for their own good as well as the good of the institution they are serving in.

Such deeds are indeed highly commendable and praiseworthy. There may be a small number of such action groups but the one that is visible and perhaps setting a trend is located at the Sabah State Library headquarters building near Wisma Pertanian in Kota Kinabalu.

The building is surrounded by a swathe of green space all of which are covered in grass. Unfortunately, the grass-cutting job is not always as neat as one would like it to be.  

Problems therefore arise as the green space tend to look very unkempt and untidy especially with the intrusion of “lalang”, creepers and some broad leaves, what more with dry fallen leaves littering the area.


General view of the particular location.


Changing the image of green spaces 

As such, a number of staffers have organised themselves to improve the swathe of easily-visible space along the fence in front of the library building.  For easy workability, the space has been divided into plots each of which is the responsibility of a small group of staffers.  

The work is shared among themselves to develop their own plot using whatever means and methods at their disposal, including stumping out some cash to purchase inputs such as seeds or tools.  This works more or less like the community plots in many large cities of the world.  

As all the plots are filled with multiple varieties, they are all of a mixed cultivation.  There is one that even has a fish pond which is meant to contain a few koi fishes.  A therapeutic walkway snakes a short distance inwards while a large clump of bananas is already fruiting.

The other plots each carry different edible food varieties, most notably tomatoes, brinjals, lady’s fingers, chilli, “kangkung”, sweet potato, “kunyit”, “serai”, “limau kasturi”, pineapple, guava, onion, “cekur manis”, sweet corn, gourd plant and even a small plot of padi!  This is amazing. 

Quite a number of common but popular ornamental plants are seen, too. These include portulaca, sansevieria, spider lily, licuala palm and zinnia, among others.

Various types of planting containers are used in the greening effort. There are tyres used as large flat planters, clay pots, and even a cutout of a piece of bamboo stood up horizontally which is filled with earth and planted with ornamentals!  

And, of course, there are many discarded drinking water bottles which are reused in painted form and set as planting bed markers.  Awesome!

So far, only a single plot has a sign hanging in front of it, and that belongs to “bahagian katalog”.  

That is a creative piece of work considering that it is made up of a slice of log wood, painted over and skilfully filled with the colourful drawings of flowers.  If all the other plots were to each carry their own signs, that would be very interesting and educational indeed.

Many of the planted varieties may be harvested soon as they are already producing results.  These include brinjals, lady’s fingers, sweet potato leaves, limau kasturi, onion, and so on. Even the padi plants are progressively showing their stalks of grains.

This shows that with initiative, some creativity and much hard work, it is not difficult to get the results that you want, irrespective of whether it is outdoor gardening to create productive green spaces, or just interior naturescaping done up in the condominium.

The next important thing to do is to keep the plants well-maintained. This means giving the plants daily watering during the dry spell without waiting for the almighty god to help in the effort. Application of fertilisers or manure should be carried out regularly to keep the plants in prime condition to produce beautiful and bountiful yields.  

Weeding should also be a regular item within the maintenance schedule in order to reduce competition for nutrients with your lovely plants.  Remember to feed the plants you want, not the weeds that you don’t.  

Horticultural management of your cultivated plants should also be carried out on a regularly basis, especially after a heavy shower. This includes uprighting any fallen plants and setting them back in line or into the planting beds.  

If they need staking, so be it.  Go get some bamboo stakes, set them firmly into the ground near to the stem of the plant and then tie them together with raffia strings or plain wire, but the most convenient ones to use are twist ties or cable ties.

However, it has been observed that although the greening effort is highly commendable, many horticultural aspects and practices are a little haphazard. But this is totally understandable since the staffers are only professional librarians.  

They should instead be showered with accolades and intensive rounds of applause for having taken the initiative to do something that few other agencies or departments cared to do.

Just imagine, if they had some proper encouragement, guidance and advice, they would surely have done much, much better.  

Overall, it is indeed a fantastic initiative, one that is hoped that other agencies or departments may emulate.  “Syabas” to the folks at the library!

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