Harvesting some savings with greens
Tan Jee Yee 
With the cost of living increasing yearly, could growing your own vegetables help you save money? –

FOR the sake of saving money, Ling Chee Keong doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Most weekends, neighbours would see him going back and forth the garden of his corner-lot terraced house, clothes drenched in sweat and hands caked with soil.

His yard is less of a garden now, and more like a tiny farm. On it are short rows of lettuce, spinach and kailan, and racks that support long beans. A few pots with some fledgling cili padi stood along the wall.

Ling hopes to add some herbs to his farm. “Lemon grass, perhaps. Basil, maybe curry leaves. I’m thinking tomatoes, too, but I’m not sure I have enough space,” he tells FocusM.


Expensive groceries

Ling is an electrician, following his father’s footsteps. Three years ago, while repairing the circuit board of a client in Cheras, he discovered a thriving garden of vegetables grown in the backyard. “It’s like a light went on in my head. My family has often been complaining about how expensive groceries are. I wondered if we could grow our own,” he says.

With the help of his father, who is more than happy to tend to the crops on most days, Ling and his family started growing their own vegetables. It started as a means to save money. Now, it’s a hobby.

“Our vegetables are also tastier. Not sure if it’s because we don’t use chemicals, or if it’s because of our own sweat,” he says.

The cost of living has remained a primary cause for concern to most Malaysians. Research house Ipsos Malaysia found that 55% of its survey respondents wanted the government to reduce the cost of living.


Growing own vegetables

It’s no surprise that many are turning to other methods of cutting costs. For those who don’t mind soil and dirt, growing their own vegetables is becoming a viable option to save money. Vegetables and herbs don’t require a lot to grow – some have even taken to growing their own crops at the balcony of their own apartments. “Really, all you need is time and effort,” Ling says.

It’s hard to determine how much growing one’s own vegetables can help save money. Unlike fuel, for instance, prices of vegetables are not rising exponentially. Even if we perceive vegetables to be more expensive today, they are also not so pricey that a small plot in our own homes can help us save thousands.

According to a study by the National Gardening Association in the United States, an average 600 square foot garden plot can provide an estimate of 300 pounds of fresh produce worth US$600 (RM2,538) annually. An average gardener’s investment is US$70 per year, so that’s US$530 in returns. Impressive indeed.

But of course, prices of vegetables in the US differ from us, so it’s hardly an accurate benchmark. Ling, over the course of three years, says that while his garden has yielded a good amount of vegetables, the savings aren’t exponential.

“My family, which includes my wife, daughter and parents, used to spend roughly RM200 on vegetables each month. Depending on our crop, sometimes we managed to cut things down to RM100 or skip out from buying vegetables for one month. All in, I believe we saved up to RM500 a year,” he says. His family spends roughly RM100 to RM200 yearly to upkeep the vegetable patches and buying soil and pots.

“If you compare it to the amount of time we spent taking care of the garden, I think many would say that the savings are not worth it,” Ling adds. “But every little saving counts for us.”

However, Ling feels that if he has a larger plot for growing his vegetables, he would be able cut down a lot on food expenditure. “We may not be a big family, but we cook almost daily. If my crop is twice the size it is now, I feel like I can save even more.”

Apartment dwellers can turn their balconies into gardens

Benefits in other ways

Melanie Chow agrees that growing one’s own crops don’t amount to a lot in savings. The sales executive grows a variety of vegetables and herbs on her condominium balcony, which has been transformed into a sort of concrete nursery. Polystyrene cooler boxes took up most of the floor space, filled with soil and sprouting greens.

Chow grows lettuce, kangkung, garlic, chilli and a variety of herbs, and says that her harvest are largely not enough to put a huge dent on savings if you compare it to buying vegetables at the wet markets or hypermarkets. It is, however, cheaper to grow one’s own foods than buying organic vegetables, which are generally pricier.

“I see it as growing my own organic greens, as we don’t use chemical and processed fertilisers. Organic vegetables are much more expensive to buy, so it saves us a bit to grow our own,” she says.

Savings is not the real benefit here, Chow believes. “Growing your own food gives you a perspective into farming and also the type of food you eat. I feel that this has led me to healthier living,” she says.

She encourages everyone to try. “It’s a lot less harder than you think. You just need time and being patient enough,” she says, adding that the cost is usually not high. “You don’t need complicated and expensive hydroponic set-ups to grow on your balcony, even. Just pots and boxes can do. And some reading on what’s best to grow in Malaysian weather, and how to grow them.”

We may not save a lot by growing our own food, but in times of financial uncertainty, perhaps every little bit counts. What more, you may be able to learn the virtues of organic food and perhaps even like it as a hobby.

Vegetables you can easily grow

A hardy plant, kangkung or water spinach is very easy to grow as they can survive well even if you forget to water it for a few days.

Requires regular watering and storage away from direct sunlight, but they grow easily enough. There’s a reason why lettuce are the focus of large-scale indoor farming initiatives. The leaves can be consumed in three to five months. Snails love them though, so be careful.

Sweet potato leaves
Another hardy plant, known to grow well even in poor soil. Grown in optimal conditions, it will flourish wonderfully. Would require sufficient aeration in the soil and water.

Grows well in warm temperatures and can be harvested multiple times – just leave the main stalk in the pot and harvest the leaves when fully grown. New leaves will grow back quickly.

You just need one clove to grow it. Requires a sunny spot and good drainage for the pot. Water generously and shoots will appear in about four weeks. Once the leaves start turning yellow, you can harvest it.

A great plant to grow in the tropics, as it loves heat and humidity. You can grow them from seeds or just by cutting off the top stems and planting them into the soil. Requires moderate sunlight, away from direct sun.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 258.