Hydroponics — modern form of ancient practice

Poh Hwa Seng showing off his huge coral lettuce, freshly harvested from his backyard, makeshift hydroponics farm.

Hydroponics farming is a way of farming that skips the soil, and grows plants in a solution of water and nutrients instead. It is an ideal method for urban dwellers who do not have an outdoor gardening plot. Retiree Poh Hwa Seng decided to pursue his interest in farming and spend his retirement days doing hydroponics farming in his backyard, and has found success with it.

Motivated by interest and memories

Modern technology has certainly paved the way for innovations that bring convenience to many.

Among the many innovations in horticulture is modern hydroponics farming. The method uses water instead of soil, combined with mineral nutrient solutions which aid the growing process.

Poh Hwa Seng showing off his huge coral lettuce, freshly harvested from his backyard, makeshift hydroponics farm.

Using such method, hydroponics farmer Nick Poh said that it has eased farming in terms of space and cost. “If you plant vegetables on conventional land, you will need a huge space. But hydroponics reduces the amount of space needed ten times less compared to traditional farming.”

Furthermore, Poh said that he did not need to go far from home to farm, “Despite the scarcity of land in the city, using this technique, our own backyard is sufficient.” He started with 26 compartments two years ago, and currently, his hydroponics system houses close to 1,000 plants.

“I did tonnes of research before starting. I was intrigued by this method of farming.

Furthermore, the cost was only a couple of hundred ringgit. The first batch was a success, but I soon realised the challenges.”

Poh can spend 10 to 14 hours a day among his plants as it needs optimum attention, especially during dry days.

While growing plants using water sounded easy, Poh said otherwise. “Even though it was hydroponics, there were many variables that I needed to control. Initially, I thought it was easy.

Just merely install the pipes, put in water, add in the nutrients and let it run on auto-pilot.”

The 53-year-old explained that with hydroponics, he spent between 10 to 14 hours a day at the farm. “The plants need optimum attention. There will be problems such as algae growth, high temperature which causes the roots to melt and even concentrated levels of nutrients can wipe out the whole system.”

Needing regular monitoring, Poh said that he would not leave his farm for more than two hours. “I can’t afford to miss it, especially during critical hours. Particularly during the dry season with hot temperature. The most crucial months are June and July.”

Nonetheless, gaining experiences along his journey, Poh is now equipped with the knowledge to overcome the challenges. He would use special meters to test the water concentration and the pH levels. “I need to be very careful. With the meter, I would know whether the nutrients are too concentrated, and whether I need to add more water. If the pH is not at optimum level, then I need to pour in some solutions to control it.”

Bountiful harvest. Hydroponics farming, may sound easy but Poh said otherwise.

About the algae problems, he usually unplug parts of the system, then flush and wash the part. On vegetable contamination, Poh said that despite the issue, the vegetables are still good to consume. This is because only the roots touch the algae. It is not much of a problem, but it will slow down the growth process.

As a shelter for his farm, Poh, with his background in construction, built a sturdy hut. Made of strong pillars and transparent roof — Poh remembered the time when the initial plastic roof flew away during a thunderstorm. “The winds are unpredictable. But from the experience, I learned to construct a stronger roof.”

Marketing under the name ‘The Vegepedia’, Poh’s hard work reflects in the big heads of his lettuces. Initially when he first started, a container can fill 10 heads. However, now, two heads suffices due to its gigantic size.

Poh also recalled when his vegetables had holes in them. “Raindrops fell and punctured my lettuces. However, as a seller, I would usually pick those with beautiful leaves. The veggies that I sold to customers tables are usually 90 to 95 percent perfect.”

Asked about infestation, the retiree answered that after starting his hydroponics system for two years, insects have not been an issue.

Reviving his old interest

Though hydroponics farming can be a way to generate a steady income, Poh conceded that it was more about interest and old memories that motivated him in his hobby. “I loved planting since I was young. Thinking back, I should have chosen farming as a career instead of construction.”

Tomatoes at Poh’s garden

From vegetables, fruits, to flower plants, Poh does not believe in the green thumb theory. “I enjoy planting very much. To me, by putting effort into what we do, we can achieve what we want. We just have to make sure that we have the interest, and not do it half-heartedly.”

Growing up in Kuching in the 70s, Poh said that he used to live in an area surrounded by a forest. “Now, that forest has turned into ST3 Shopping Mall. And opposite The Spring Shopping Mall used to be a flatland waiting for development.”

Missing the kampung life, Poh reminisced the simpler days of living in a close-knit neighbourhood. “All the children would come and play together. The existing terraced house behind the mall was a big pond, and we used to play in it.”

Empty lands were abundant back then, and that was when Poh’s love for farming started. “I used to farm there. The space was enveloped by nature. It was a good life. Compared to nowadays, it was a very healthy lifestyle back then.

“I miss those times. If I didn’t go out, my friends would come to my house and call me, and we would spend our time doing farming works,” he added.

Nowadays, Poh farms coral lettuce, mint and tomatoes. As he spends his days after retirement among his plants, he hopes to expand his hydroponics system to 5,000 compartments soon.

“It’s definitely possible, but I have to think about how much work i need to do. And whether I can do it alone,” he pondered. Determined, Poh is currently planting his seeds of hope, one plant at a time.