Cabbages and Eggplants: Horticulture at Little Hearts

Those of you who have visited Little Hearts in the past will know that our little campus is characterised by three green areas. There is a large, grassy lawn in the centre of the facility, which also functions as a small football field. In the front of the property, adjacent to the street, the children planted a leisure garden a few years ago. It has a sitting nook with benches, a pond with a water wheel, and several fruit trees, including papaya, banana and guava. And in the back of the compound, behind the covered dining area, is our pride and joy – the vegetable garden.

We grow a variety of vegetables in tidy rows of raised beds protected from birds and insects by netting. Some of our favourite vegetables to grow are eggplant, wax gourd, bok choi (a small Chinese cabbage) and cauliflower. The easiest to grow are cucumber and especially morning glory, which has a very short growing cycle of as little as 3–4 weeks. Others take longer and may only be ready for harvesting two or three months after planting. For example, a wax gourd (also known as winter melon or ash gourd) takes 60–65 days to grow.

What do we do with all this green bounty? We eat it, of course! Our chef Ma Khun uses all the produce harvested from our garden to make delicious Khmer dishes to feed our hungry multitude of kids. For example, she fries morning glory with sliced pork and oyster sauce, simmers eggplant with fish paste, and stews wax gourd (together with minced pork and clear noodles) into a flavourful soup.

Cultivating (and eating) our own vegetables has many advantages. The more food we can grow ourselves, the less we have to buy from the market. This reduces our running costs (something that became a priority during the pandemic, when fundraising activities came to a standstill) and ensures that our kids are eating healthy, organically grown, pesticide-free produce whenever possible. And the vegetable garden keeps the kids busy, too – something every parent out there will no doubt appreciate!

As some of you may remember, we tried to grow our own food once before, way back in 2018, when we experimented with an aquaponics garden, a sophisticated system combining aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (growing plants without soil) in one environment. While that project was extremely interesting and made for some terrific learning opportunities for the kids, it turned out to be very time-consuming and expensive because there was always something that needed fixing. In the end, the harvested amount was disappointing. Horticulture, on the other hand, has been much easier to manage, and yields have been good.

Growing vegetables is the responsibility of all the kids. It includes planting the seedlings, watering them, applying organic fertiliser, mending the nethouses, harvesting, and so forth. Recently, we divided the kids into groups of three, with each group assigned to a particular vegetable patch. Thus, for example, Sreyroth, Lisa and Chrissy are in charge of growing the okra (ladyfingers), while Elizabeth, Sokleak and Charlie take care of the tomatoes, which, by the way, are a tricky crop to raise in the tropics. We also grow our own herbs, such as lemongrass, basil and mint, which are tended to by Olivia, Rothana and Sammy. The fruit trees in the garden are also in the care of specific teams.

And who oversees and guides this entire horticultural operation with a watchful eye and a steady hand? Why, who else but our very own expert in farming and, as of last month, a university graduate in agronomy – Sothon. Our young agronomist completed his degree from the Royal University of Agriculture and is now eager to plan for the future. In the meantime, he has put his newly acquired skills to good use at Little Hearts by supervising the cultivation of our fruits and vegetables. Thank you, Sothon!

Besides tending our vegetable garden and looking for a job, Sothon is also working on a special business project with Tony– Wild Hearts. As some of you may know, Wild Hearts will be a multipurpose natural space a re-foresting zone, horticulture, some exotic animals, and a café. It will be set on a plot of land across the river from Phnom Penh, in an area frequently visited by day-trippers from the city, cyclists and tourists. It will offer several amenities for visitors, including a modern café offering drinks and tasty Cambodian specialities. The menu will feature fresh, organic vegetables grown on-site. That’s Sothon’s favourite part – he has always dreamt of having his own food outlet, and now he hopes to supply it with his own produce.

Wild Hearts is still in the planning stage. What is needed most urgently to get it off the ground is adequate funding, so if you’re interested in contributing to this exciting project, or know someone who might be, please get in touch with Tony.

In time, we hope that Wild Hearts will grow into a self-sustaining business helping to fund Little Hearts and safeguard the natural environment at the same time, while also offering job training opportunities for our graduates.

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