I’VE always envied people with green thumbs. Or is it called green fingers? Whatever. The thing is they can keep a plant alive. Me? I gained notoriety after my cactus died on me. More than a decade has passed since that unfortunate mishap, yet “cactus-killer” remains one of my nicknames to this day.
As much as I’ve toyed with the dream of growing my own little garden, I’ve left it to my parents to keep the garden at home thriving and most importantly, the plants are alive. That’s all about to change now.
Where talent has failed me, technology will save me. No need to turn over a new leaf (pun intended). No need to bring out the hoe, the garden hose, the rake and a host of other gardening whatchamacallits. No need to spend hours under the blazing sun on all fours pulling out weeds while picking caterpillars off the leaves.
Cartoonist and illustrator Lou Erickson once quipped: “Gardening requires a lot of water — most of it in the form of perspiration.”
Well, it’s time to wipe that sweat off your brow and weed out the hard work. The moment has arrived for us gardening-challenged folks to get some foliage action as well.
Meet Information Technology specialist Liang Chan Ning of Plant Cartridge.
Injecting nature with a boost of technology, Liang has taken inspiration from the plug-and-brew concept of the ubiquitous coffee machine and come up with a nifty idea of growing leafy vegetables in one step. It’s so simple that getting fresh homegrown vegetables onto the dinner plate is no longer a pipe dream for urban folks.
I must admit I was expecting a dirt-encrusted gardener with overalls to come up and wax lyrical on the joys of photosynthesis.
Affable Liang doesn’t fit the bill, looking less of a gardener and more of an earnest executive on casual Friday. No dirt under the fingernails or hoe in hand, he’s dressed in a neat short-sleeved shirt and bent over his laptop instead of a garden plot.
Perhaps that’s a harbinger of what’s to come. After all, plant cartridge technology boasts the ability to grow your own vegetables minus the dirt and sweat.
The 36-year-old former software engineer looks up and smiles across the table in his small office that serves as a temporary headquarters for his company.
It’s also the place that showcases the company’s efforts in growing all variety of vegetables in little pods and containers of their own inventions.
“There’s still research ongoing,” he explains, as I look around at plants growing in various stages arranged around the modest-sized surroundings and within the container-sized office space.
So what is plant cartridge technology really? He explains: “Plant Cartridge is a testament of our IT roots. We provide agriculture technology services to enable just about anyone to grow their food professionally.”
By “our”, he includes his team of IT-savvy people, including former schoolmate Michael Mak who’s his chief operating officer.
I confess to him about my failure with foliage. Do he and Mak think I’ll be able to grow anything successfully?
He laughs while Mak leaves the room, coming back seconds later with a long rectangular box in hand. Pushing the box towards me, he says with a grin: “Now you can.”
PLANTING MADE EASY
This plain package belies the promise it contains — the potential of relegating the farm-to-table produce to kitchen counter-to-table by presenting urban households with the chance of growing their own fresh, chemical-free vegetables.
The Leev homekit consists of a self-watering tray along with eight plant cartridges. “We have five types of vegetables and herbs presently available for growing — butterhead lettuce, bak choy, Hong Kong choy sum, coriander and basil,” says Mak. And the team is looking to introduce other greens too, which will be done in stages.
“It’s really simple to use. Just fill the container as directed with the correct amount of water, peel the covers off the cartridges, place them in the slots, put the tray in a semi-shaded area and wait for harvest,” adds Mak, elaborating on the simplicity of this patented plug-and-grow system they’ve developed, which doesn’t require electricity, pumps, excessive water or much of your time.
It’s neat, fuss-free and the leafy success is hard to ignore with scores of vegetables thriving in different stages of growth, nestled in similar trays around the office.
I’m now sold on their cutting-(h)edge technology. Yes, that’s a pun and I tell them so. They chortle, with Mak quipping: “At least now you can’t say you don’t have green fingers. We provide solutions for your every excuse!”
A SEED IS SOWN
The need to find solutions is very much in Liang’s DNA. “I’m an IT guy after all!” he smiles, shrugging his shoulders.
“When I was working as an IT consultant to the government in Papua New Guinea some years back, sourcing for quality fresh food produce was difficult and expensive to boot.
“Most of the country’s fresh produce was imported from Australia and my idea, you could say, germinated from the need to solve that food-related quandary.”
He wanted to do something different with his life, shares Liang. “The IT field inevitably produces a lot of burned-out and tired people wanting a change of pace. The environment is such. Fast, multitasking and result-oriented. I just felt I needed to slow down and I longed for the chance to be able to wake up and smell the roses.”
“You mean, wake up and smell the bak choy?” I deadpan. Kapow. I couldn’t resist that one. “Yes!” He laughs.
Continuing, he elaborates: “With the idea of coming up with farming solutions, I found an inventor in Australia with an agricultural background who had invented his own planting system, and pretty soon Jim became my mentor of sorts. Eventually, things didn’t quite pan out back at Papua New Guinea where I was based with the upheavals that came with political changes. When Jim had a business opportunity here in Malaysia, I decided to come back home to work for him. That move was quite a shift from what I was used to.”
It wasn’t easy, confides Liang. He recalls: “I spent about two years starting from scratch. Being someone cooped up in the office to end up doing manual labour and learning the fundamentals of plant physiology, is by no stretch of the imagination a huge change.
“I mean, I knew absolutely nothing about tools, which a farmer should be well acquainted with. I didn’t even know how to operate a drill!”
So was he tempted to pack up his trunk and leaf (pun intended)? He grins when he gets my bad pun: “No. But I wouldn’t recommend it to my friends for sure!”
And he didn’t, despite the interest shown by his friends and peers. “I advised them against venturing into agriculture. I kept telling them that agriculture is a labour of love. You need a lot of willpower, patience and passion,” says Liang.
“But it got me thinking. People want to do it. Why can’t we create something simple? To enable people like them or me previously to venture into this field but without all the hardship?”
Chancing across a coffee machine with a catchy tagline got him conceptualising what began as a desire to find an answer.
“The tagline was something like ‘Putting a barista in the machine, so you don’t have to be one’. People could have a cup of quality coffee without the barista know-how, thanks to a coffee machine. What if we created a similar platform by providing the technical know-how of growing so people don’t really have to be experienced gardeners to grow quality food produce?” muses Liang.
As more Malaysians gravitate to urban areas, innovative solutions are needed to feed the ballooning population in large cities. Enter the new concept of urban farmers and the possibilities of being self-reliant on homegrown food.
For Liang, however, this is just the first step to bigger possibilities: “Introducing our technology to hobbyists and those keen on growing their own produce at home is just the beginning. We want to work with developers, municipal councils and other agencies to look into converting underutilised urban spaces to food production centres.”
In the meantime, he’s content to take the time and smell the “choy sum”.
“We’re currently working with a few partners, shelters and orphanages to help train and equip the visually-impaired and the underprivileged to be eco-farmers. Healthy pesticide-free fresh produce should be made accessible to everyone”
He’s right. What’s more, he’s made the technology available to just about anyone who’s keen on growing their own food. So new gardeners need not learn by “trowel” and error anymore — and we have an IT dude to thank for it.