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Farmer James

“I like looking out on my balcony and seeing food and seeing a life cycle and if my basil plants are doing good then I can make lots of pesto, that makes me really happy. I’m getting it from there, I’m bringing it in here, you know, I’m not leaving. I’m at work and I’m not wearing a shirt and I'm listening to music.”

A farmer in Taipei shows off plants in his garden

Welcome to Urban Gardener Portraits, a project in which we explore some beautiful and fascinating urban gardens around the city. We want to learn about who are the people with plants overflowing from their balconies and roofs, what are their stories, and what are the best tips they have learned throughout their journeys as urban gardeners. We want to pay respect to the gardeners, professional and personal, living around us here in Taipei as well as create more connections and sense community between people with shared passion.

James and Erika's Garden homemade pesto

James (@jamesanderikasgarden on IG) is a Kiwi living and running a farm in the Wulai Valley south of Taipei. He makes his own soil and grows spray free herbs for making pesto, sauces and nut butters. He’s been in Taiwan for around 21 years with half of that focused on more serious farming and growing plants for food, especially so after trading his fast paced Taipei city life for his first farm in Xindian. Jumping in with both feet, James started a farm and a business at once and has been selling his signature creations to people around Taipei for many years.

James and his wife are planning to head back to New Zealand later this year, so sadly you might not get a chance to try his famous pesto, but we’re grateful for the chance to learn a bit from his experience building gardens in the Taipei area.

James blends his practice of farming with his lifestyle. His approach to gardening shows us how building your garden can fit with sustainable lifestyle stride for stride, and turn your home into a self-sustaining ecosystem.

“What happens is all of our food waste goes to compost, we don’t really eat meat or dairy at home besides sometimes eggs sometimes. We’re pretty much vegan now. We compost kitchen scraps and make our own soil and then that soil gets used twice a year, in the beginning of summer and winter when I redo my pots. In April/May and around November. And because it’s my own soil, it’s very nutrient dense, so I get away with not fertilizing much other than that.”

To start, he collects all of his kitchen scraps into two blue 100L barrels, first filling one and leaving it to compost for several months and depositing kitchen scraps in the other during the meantime. A single barrel of compost could take about 6 months from the start of adding scraps to the finished compost especially because he takes care to balance additives and nutrients in his custom soil. He prioritizes creating a sustainable ecosystem within his apartment and garden as well as reducing waste and lessening the need to buy soil or fertilizer from the store.

James wasn't born a farmer, rather he found the inspiration later in life through an awakened awareness of ecological systems and a desire for a healthier, more holistic lifestyle.

“ I was teaching science then at my buxiban (a cram school in Mandarin) and started getting into discovering about the food chain and modern society and figuring out that supermarkets are crap and everything is just fossil fuels and plastic and I didn’t like it so I started to really think about where my food came from."

"I started to get really healthy like I would cycle everywhere, go swimming three times a week and hiking four times a week and got really fit and started eating plant based food. Basically, it came from teaching because I was teaching these kids from the science books and I thought the books were wrong, so I started making up my own lessons and teaching them about the environment in a broader holistic way and practicing what I preached.”

An urban garden on a balcony in Taipei

If you’re a new gardener or interested in gardening, here’s some of James’ wisdom for you:

Chili peppers growing from a container in an urban garden in Taipei

“It's all about good soil for me, I know a lot of people will say that, but it really is. Good soil, proper drainage. You need to have the right texture of soil so it can hold the nutrients and drain water and you need to have a big enough pot. Some people just don’t get big enough pots for things to grow. And also, try growing things from seed- just try, try and don’t be afraid to screw things up. If there’s someone who really knows what they're doing tells you how to do it, try it their way, but also try it the way that seems right to you, or the way your grandpa used to do it…

If you or someone you know is running a garden or a farm in an urban area, let us know! We’d love to showcase some of the amazing gardeners and gardens around us.


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