Friday, 25 June 2010


Oncosperma tigillarium, one of the world's most elegant, clump-forming palms, a native of Thailand and Peninsular Malaysia. Shot in the Singapore Botanic Gardens. My shot.

Goodness me, I owe so many apologies. It is hardly believable that I've been back in 'blighty' for just over a week, and have failed, failed abysmally in my bright intentions to keep an illustrated blow by blow diary of our adventures in Singapore and Malaysia. What a feeble attempt - just two brief posts. But time did for me and having my passport pinched in Malacca was no help.

Now we're back and it's lovely and hot here, and amazingly, the garden is not dead. Wendy has picked up a couple of nasty infections, the shameless slut, so I've had to take action. I expected her to have a few problems but she's riddled with red spider which is a shock, when I think how lush and healthy everything was before I left!

Now then, Singapore. . .

Our main purpose was to help with judging Community Gardening projects, and for me to deliver a keynote address at their conference. Singapore National Parks Department administers the Community Gardening contest, but the main impetus has to come from the communities themselves. And although this is all relatively new, the uptake and growth has been excellent. 270 communities took part this year, in the contest - which has much in common with Britain in Bloom - but the number signed up for the next contest is up to 400.

Community gardeners, judges and NParks people at the Caribbean at Keppel Condominium, shot by the PG.

What struck me, apart from the enthusiasm of all the participants, was the diversity of social groups which have got stuck into hands-on gardening. Singapore is a small island accommodating 5 million souls. Land, and especially green growing land, is at a tremendous premium, and yet, the standard of horticulture is quite fantastic. And that goes for the best of the community gardens.

You might think that tropical conditions make it easy, but Singapore has possible the most challenging soil known to man. Any humus-rich, laterite forest soil eroded away centuries ago and all that is left is a hostile marine clay which handles like Plasticene.

And the climate is similar to being inside a mist propagator. Tropical rainforest species thrive, but the locals try to grow Mediterranean herbs such as lavender and thyme, and are bitterly disappointed with their results. 'Don't come to me with your hard luck stories,' I told them. ' I can't grow tropical limes, cardamoms or nutmegs.'

A government housing project community garden. Not sure which of us shot this!

When you visit Singapore as a tourist, the opulence, cleanliness and order is what strikes you - after you've recovered from the beauty of the planting everywhere. But as in any large city, there are relatively poor districts and yet, with community gardens, huge efforts have been made and some of the results are delightful. We were able to go up in a high rise building to look down on one particularly fine set of gardens. Each little plot is individually maintained, but the whole area is looked after by the community.

Statue of Chopin, in the Singapore Botanic Garden. (The PG.)

The initiative behind community gardening comes from the all-embracing National Parks Department. It is they who administer the contest, they who provide advice, help and encouragement to communities and it is they who must now bring this contest forward to embrace the wider population so that all parts of the city, and all sectors of society have the opportunity to be involved.

You might say, well, that's part of their job. But the folk we worked with seemed to be giving life and soul to this movement and its current rapid growth is largely due to their dedication, encouragement and support.

There are so many fabulous reasons for visiting Singapore - a vast tropical garden which happens to accommodate a large city. If you plan to fly to Australasia without taking a stopover break there, you'll be doing yourself out of a delightful experience.

Now, a final word about tropical fruits. Guavas, mangoes, jackfruit, mangosteens, pomelos, passion fruit, rambutans and dragon fruit are all delectable additions to the more familiar pineapples, watermelons and, of course, bananas.

But how about the Durian? You can find references here and here.
Back in 1969, on my first visit to Singapore, I was introduced to the durian. I was still groggy from a recent bout of 'flu - there was a nasty epidemic that year - and had totally lost my appetite. We were on a pig farm and the stink of the pigs, plus the clouds of flies which flew up whenever you moved, not to mention the oppressive heat, had combined to make me feel distinctly queazy.

'We have excerrent fluit for you,' said the pig man, in Chinese-sounding English. And sitting down at a crude table, in a shed next to the farrowing sows' pen, he proceded to break open a thing that resembled a giant horse chestnut fruit. Inside, instead of conkers, there were lobes of yellow-cream matter which resembled - well never mind. If you're not a vet, you probably wouldn't have seen what I was about to refer to anyway.

He globbed out the lobes, putting them onto a non-too-clean plate and offered them to me and to my father who was with us. 'Eat' he exhorted. 'It's good, good!' I managed a mouthful but shamefully, with stink of the durian masking the pig muck, I gagged.

Well, 41 years later, my dear friend Ng Cheow Kheng encouraged me to revisit the durian. He bought some, so fresh they were still wriggling, and so ripe that the husks were just on the point of splitting. He invited us into his wonderful flat, with stupendous views of the city, and there I plucked up my courage and had another go.

And do you know what? They are absolutely, utterly, totally delicious. The creaminess of the texture and the complex flavours have to be tasted to be believed. I can't believe I've wasted 41 years in which I could have enjoyed durians whenever I visited South East Asia. What a bummer - though that's probably not a good word in this context. No wonder people say of the durian, it smells like hell but tastes like heaven

The PG's record of my durian epiphany.

I'm looking at my sparkly new iPad and wondering if, when I synch it with my big Mac, it will mess up all the settings and scrub the stuff from my iPhone. I've already loaded it with A Tale of Two Cities. Well, you can't have a Dickens-free iPad, now can you?

This time two weeks ago I was tucking into fresh water prawns with soupy noodles and snarfing Tiger beer. I believe a gigantic banana split was consumed, but I'm not saying by whom.

I'm reading Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. Gosh, how depressing!


  1. Glad you are home OK, was worried that your passport had caused more problems.
    I did laugh when I remembered that Wendy was the greenhouse, I thought you were talking about someone to start with

    I haven't expressed my deep and sincere thanks to everyone in Singapore and Malaysia who were all such wonderful hosts, so kind and so hospitable, and so very supportive during the Passport Crisis.

    The PG and i had the time of our lives, and that is largely due to the wonderful people we spent time with. Thank you all. Thank you. Thank you.

    Patientgardener - Gosh, yes - I would never be that insulting about a real lady.


  3. You can definitely detect a look of fear in your eyes in the durian eating picture.

    Poor Wendy.. I don't even want to think about 'greenhouse' problems. The rest of my garden is already being variously attacked by snails, bush crickets, vapourer moth caterpillars, vine weevils and builders.