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!

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


I'm publishing this post half-written - bad blog etiquette! - but am about to depart for the next phase of our journey.

1. Five words you do NOT want to have to say, in any foreign country:
'My passport has been stolen.' It happened to me. I won't go into detail, but it involved an involuntary trip to Kuala Lumpur, two nights in an expensive hotel, begging and pleading with the folk at the British High Commission, receiving the new passport in record time, much to the relief of our Singapore Hosts who were waiting helplessly on the other side of the Johor Straits and finally - and scarily - being held at the Malaysian border for two hours while they decided whether to let me through to Singapore, or to send me back to Kuala Lumpur, for some bizarre reason known only to themselves.

Cyclists in Heeren Street, Melaka

But before that horrible drama, there was Melaka.

2. What an enchanting city! Partly a holiday resort for families, partly a living history lesson and generally, the usual Asian noise, muddle, traffic, hustle, bustle and well, just life! Our guest house, Heeren House, on the river, was in the oldest part of town. This is a Dutch style long house belonging to a couple who worked in the UK for much of their lives but have moved here. It was delightful, quaint, characterful and perfectly clean and comfortable. I'd recommend it over any of your opulent swanky chain hotels. When my passport went missing, the proprietor, Liz, was incredibly supportive and helpful.

Holiday Traffic in Melaka

3. The calling of the Muslim faithful to prayer - a regular sound in Malaysia - was blended, here, with the clanging of church bells from Saint Xaviour's Catholic Church - twin tugs on the kindly fetters of religion. The Portuguese brought catholicism here in the 16th Century but there's also a big protestant church. Women cover their heads, but not their faces.

A traditional Melaka house

4. Baba and Nonya. This is a fusion culture - Chinese blended with Malay. It's a bit like the Creole culture of America, but Eastern. The houses are developed in the Chinese style but with large, open 'air wells' in their centres so that the chimney effect created by the central void draws in fresh air.

Baba and Nonya food is a wonderful fusion of Malay and Chinese noodles etc. Spices are used liberally, but blended subtly and although fish and chicken are writ large, freshwater prawns also figure and are delicious. The also love sweet things - bless them - and a favourite dish is shaved ice with a kind of jelly and syrup made from pandanus sap which has been reduced to a molasses-like consistency.

oops - the man's come for the baggage. All I've got time for. Tooodle-oo.

Monday, 7 June 2010


The strange photo was, indeed, a rambutan Nephelium lappaceum, on my last post. A bouquet of eOrchids to those who got it. I believe 'rambutan' means 'hairy' in Malay and the fruits, whose arils are deliciously succulent and sweet, do resemble lychees. But the shape, like small rugby balls, and the curly hairs - not to mention the reddish skin - can be a little off-putting!

Birds Nest Ferns, Asplenium nidus with other epiphytes, on a tree in Singapore.

'Ooooh, it's too 'ot,' said the chap delivering an order from Amazon the other day, at home. The temperature, then, must have been creeping up towards, ooh, about 20ºC. (68ºF.) Here in South East Asia, it's a whisker over 30ºC and so humid that my glasses steam up the minute I step out of a cooled car into the open air.

You learn to cope with such oppressive conditions, but at first, it feels as though the climate has assaulted you. On our first day, I felt rather as I did when I was nine, and a slightly sweaty Great Aunt hugged me to her bosom a little too enthusiastically. You enjoy the attention but wish it weren't quite so suffocating. That particular lady remained a spinster until she was 76 but then rediscovered romance, married and skipped off to New Zealand for a few blissful final years - but that's quite another story.

The first days of our visit here have been spent largely with staff from National Parks, looking at several of the projects that have made Singapore so green and so pleasant to be in. The government's approach to horticulture, and to sustaining the nation, as a genuine garden city - eat your hearts out, Welwyn and Stevenage! - stems from the original, founding policy. The plan to create a city in a garden - which goes back thirty years or more - has been backed up constantly, by substantial funding and by adhering to that founding policy.

But theres a great deal more, here. They've had pluck and daring, defying recessions, refusing to compromise on quality and constantly maintaining horticultural standards. Everyone, wherever they live, will be within a short walk of a restful green space. And in such a densely populated small island, that has taken cunning, determination and above all, combined will.

One project we visited was Hortparks. You can look up details here, rather than have me load you with inaccurate info. They were putting finishing touches to their new Silver Garden, when we visited. And that's typical Singapore - always trying something that probably won't work, and then making it work, regardless. The sparky Wilson Wong (you may remember him from Monty Don's TV programme Around the World in 80 Gardens) pointed out that there are very few silver-foliage plants which enjoy equatorial conditions. But here, silver Bismarckia palms and other plants look fantastic.

The bubbly Wilson Wong, sitting in the spice garden he designed for Hortpark.

Wilson is also involved with the growing Community Gardening organisation, here, and has been something of a leading light. But more of that later.

The Silver Garden at Singapore's HortPark.

You've nearly had enough eulogistic writing, but really, this place is so inspiring. One final point which shows how cunning use of plants can make things feel different: all major roads are required to have a 6 metre ribbon, on either side, which must be planted up with naturalising trees.

We met the amazingly enthusiastic Ganesan SK (his Tamil surname, he says, is too complicated, so we were to used his initials.) He trained at Edinburgh University and has an inexhaustible knowledge of tropical trees. He is responsible for the tree strips, among other things, and takes great pride in his work. He's also an erudite birder and keen naturalist. I wish we could have spent a week with him - gosh, what we'd have learnt!

Ganesan proudly shows us his 6 metre strip.

But think about it. If every A and B road in the UK had a 6 metre tree strip, how about that for wildlife corridors, for cooling the roads, for providing valuable habitat for so many species and for making the landscape beautiful. But what do we do? We cut the verges to within an inch of their lives, killing cowslips and other verge flowers, thereby helping to kill bees. What prats we are! And don't tell me land is too valuable in UK. What, compared with here???? Don't get me started!!!!

Let the epiphytes grow where they will - a wiser initiative for biodiversity.

A final point. The Singapureans, prissy though they can be, are also beginning to understand that tidiness can be a killer for biodiversity. Originally, epiphytes - plants that grow on trees but which do not parasatise them - were considered weeds and undesirable. They were regularly cleaned off. Now, however, they are left undisturbed. As a result, species counts are growing and to me, the trees look just as any tropical rainforest tree should look - rich, enticing, rustling with life of all kinds and wonderful to behold.

I was listening to Miles Davis, in a supermarket earlier. I think it was from the album 'Relaxin' and was certainly a surprise, among the rambutans, noodles and blocks of Chinese tea.

This time last year I haven't a clue what I was doing. But the next post will be from Melaka, Malaysia.

No films. Just reading Nicholas Nickleby instead. I refuse to watch films on flights. They just don't work, for me.

Hope June is flaming for you. Did someone volunteer to water my tomatoes???
Bye bye.

Friday, 4 June 2010



What is this?

No time to say much but first, a little game. If you can identify the picture, there'll be a prize of some sort - possibly an electronically blown kiss of congratulation, or maybe an eOrchid.

Now, then. What ho and howdedo??!!!

I knew we were in the tropics when a ruddy great clap of thunder jerked my jet-lagged body into rigid and terrified wakefulness just before dawn. It had taken from 10pm until an hour before, to get to sleep, so I began the day in a state of exhausted apprehension!

Talk about hot! You need five changes of underwear, here, daily and whenever you sit outside, you keep wishing someone would open a huge window somewhere, and let in some fresh air.

Our wonderful hosts - and there are hosts of them - will shortly be here to take us off to visit the Gardens By The Bay. We've already done some preliminary judging of shortlisted community gardens and spent a fascinating - and delightfully recuperative - day working through the Singapore Botanic Garden (details here) with curator, Dr Chin See Chung.

A few comments:

1. Anyone who needs lessons in how to be really hospitable to visitors should visit Singapore.

2. I have a notion that the inhabitants of this city have a different metabolism from us cold-blooded Brits. I've never seen such constant, dedicated, committed eating. The food here is out of this world, and everyone seems to be tucking in almost constantly, yet relatively few people appear to be heavy. When one sees a sagging belly, I mean other than when trying to avoid looking at the bathroom mirror of a morning, the sound that accompanies will usually have Anglo-saxon connections.

3. You really can create a garden in a city, even one with almost 5,000,000 souls crammed into a small, equatorial island. More on that later.

4. There are insects in the rainforest which can cover you with bites and yet which are totally, one hundred percent invisible. I spent moments under a dipterocarp tree can was instantly covered with itchy blobs.

The view from our hotel window. Not the most impressive until you realise that this is the heart of a city with 5 million souls and yet which, in places, feels greener than my rural home. And don't you just adore tropical skies?

I'm listening to the PG, agitating for us to go down to breakfast. She's obviously caught SES (Singapore Eating Syndrome.)

More soon - bye bye!