A paved lawn is not necessarily a clean space.
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It’s common practice in the Klang Valley (and most Malaysian urban centres), for homeowners to pave over their lawns to keep it “clean”. But it’s really not doing anyone any good, says the Free Tree Society.
Its founder and president Baida Jane Hercus points to it as a symptom of not caring for our relationship with nature and hopes to counter the root of the problem by educating the public by giving away free trees.
“It’s just that people don’t understand gardening,” Baida says.
“Laying concrete makes your house hotter, causes flash floods, and you would still need to clean it anyway. A well kept lawn looks after itself in so many better ways.”
Baida founded the Free Tree Society in 2012 and established its first nursery in the suburbs of Bangsar in 2013. The mechanics of the Free Tree Society is very fluid, with people being free to drop off their seeds and volunteer to care for the garden, but ultimately as per their name, they give out the trees they’ve nurtured for free.
It currently houses over a hundred different species of plants, which they cultivate for their bi-weekly giveaways. Their nursery hosts everything from edible herbs to young saplings.
Planting seeds for environmental awareness
“We open our nursery twice a week; on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Most of our sessions are fully booked to 20 people. So that’s 40 volunteers a week and that’s quite a lot! The community support has been amazing,” Baida says endearingly of the people she works with.
Every aspect of the nursery is designed to inform. Visitors can find informational boards in every corner on topics like how to create the perfect soil mix and facts about local plants.
Moreover, practical examples of coexisting with nature are the foundation of the space. Baida hopes by showing people what a garden can be, she will be able to demonstrate the value gardens can add to their lives and encourage them to cultivate their own.
“When I take them into the garden, I point out to them that there are no mosquitos,” she says.
She explains that this is a result of a balanced co-existence of insects and other life that visit the garden like little reptiles, amphibians or mammals.
“I want people to know that gardens can be clean and conducive for all life. We co-exist.
“This is my soapbox for preaching this and hopefully more people will reevaluate what they do when they see those animals in their garden, to not kill them, walk away, maybe give it a little support,” she adds.
When asked about their target demographic, Baida explains that Free Tree Society is currently focusing on city areas, specifically to address the lack of awareness amongst the urban population.
“Half of our population lives in urban areas, so those are the ones that need convincing.”
The nursery also sells compost and other by-products that come along with managing the garden.
Growing a movement
Baida is passionate about empowering everyone to become an educator and environmental steward. She happily passes on what knowledge she has to share with anyone who comes through her doors, and wants everyone to feel a shared sense of ownership over the environment.
She explains that Free Tree Society’s formation was inspired by the concept of Arbor Day — a holiday that encourages planting trees. While the holiday has been gaining steam in many countries around the world, it is not commonly observed in Malaysia.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll start it.’ But instead of just giving it away one day per year, I’ll give it away as often as I can,” she says.
“It eventually became the whole educational and environmental awareness just started growing as well because when people come here they get a lot more out of it than just a free tree.”
A number of volunteers have gone on to act as ‘host gardeners’, who grow plants in their own gardens before bringing them back to the nursery to distribute during giveaways, reaching more people in the process.
“You get their interest with a free tree and they keep going. So if we give you one or two to start with, you’ll come back to get another few. We’ve encouraged so many new gardeners and it’s been really lovely. What they’ll do is that they’ll take their plant, grow it and they’ll be successful. We will give them one and they’ll bring back sixty!” she exclaims proudly.
Free Tree Society has given away roughly 22,000 individual plants since 2013. They emphasise on ensuring all plants are stable and have grown to a certain maturity before handing them out.
Coexisting with Nature
Baida advocates that every form of life has its place in maintaining a balance in the environment – even those living in our own backyard. She and her team are hopeful that through their work at Free Tree Society, people will be able to learn how to coexist with nature and take care of the planet.
“People don’t really see that every species has a role to play, and that biodiversity is important.If you are in the garden and you see something, walk away. There is no need to cause more damage than we already have done.”