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Lush balconies: Plant lovers who are growing thriving gardens in high-rise apartments

With the right design and plants, small spaces such as balconies can be a thriving green spot

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Toh Wen Li on 19 May 2018

The Straits Times

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In a city dominated by high-rise flats, thriving balcony gardens are a goal for many. But it can be tricky business figuring out how to work within the confines of limited space and sunlight.

 

Come July, a series of balcony design displays at the Singapore Garden Festival might help to get the creative juices flowing.

 

These designs - created by representatives from Nyee Phoe Flower Garden, Chen Wa Landscape, Amozonia Landscape, Greencrafts & Design, Earthscape Concepts, The Nature Company (Singapore), Tropic Planners & Landscape and Candy Floriculture - are part of a balcony garden design competition.

 

Results will be announced on July 20 and, from the next day, the public will get to view the displays throughout the course of the festival until Aug 3.

 

Asked about trends in balcony garden designs these days, five landscape designers The Straits Times spoke to said that customers - possibly given their busy lifestyles - tend to favour plants that require less maintenance. Edibles and space-saving features such as vertical greenwalls are also attractive options.

 

Mr Keith Lin, 32, senior horticulture manager at Tropic Planners & Landscape, says "almost every other customer" wants advice on how to grow edibles, such as tomatoes, in his garden. He adds that there is also burgeoning interest in growing small fruit trees such as pomelo.

 

Managing director G.S. Selvam of Amozonia Landscape has also seen more customers ask him about balcony trees and is researching the best ways to grow them in confined spaces.

 

Limited space, sunlight and windy conditions can pose challenges, but experts say owners can overcome these when armed with the right knowledge.

 

The first step is to be aware of the site conditions of the balcony garden and consider how much time you want to spend maintaining it.

 

Then, select the plants accordingly. For example, the dracaena houseplant does not need much sunlight. Succulents thrive on less moisture and also have a small root zone that makes them easy to plant in close clusters.

 

Owners can also consider buyingblinds and garden netting which can reduce wind and strong sunlight.

 

Automated irrigation drip systems, Far East Flora's sales and marketing director Peter Cheok adds, could allow for fuss-free maintenance.

 

Vertical green walls, tiered plant stands and hanging pots or planter boxes will also help owners make the most of their limited space.

 

Ms Anita Lim, principal designer at Water Concepts & Consultancy, says many of her clients, who are young couples with children, are now "willing to pay more" to do up their balconies so they can spend more time relaxing there. Green walls are another popular choice, she adds, as they save space and "people are enticed by the fact that some plants are good air filters".

 

One plant lover in favour of a less cluttered garden is Yishun resident Ng Siew Cheng, 60. She has a green wall - which was installed more than four years ago - of orchids and hoya onthe balcony of her flat.

 

The layers of plants on her wall tend to be orchids that grow well in shadier conditions, such as those belonging to the Bulbophyllum and Phalaenopsis families.

 

Madam Ng, who also has a few potted plants in her 8.9 sq m balcony, adds: "I have a lot of plants. If I pot them (all), I don't have the space - I'd rather stack them up."

 

• The Straits Times is the official media partner of Singapore Garden Festival 2018.

 

NO POTS FOR THIS GARDENER

 

Kim Tian Road in Tiong Bahru may be a dense forest of high-rise concrete, but long-time resident G.S. Selvam has managed to transform the balcony of his 19th-storey Housing Board flat into an oasis of calm.

 

Ferns, succulents, air plants, bromeliads, pittonias and wild orchids thrive on the floor and walls of the 6 sq m space. "We are living in an urban environment. Without greenery, everything is very 'hard' and you automatically feel uncomfortable," says Mr Selvam, who is the managing director of landscaping company Amozonia Landscape. "You need a lot of green to soften the area."

 

The 53-year-old grows his plants in lava chips and coco peat in teak and volcanic rock planters as well as on nutrient-rich slabs of cedar limestone.

 

He says that these give the garden a more natural feel. "The concept that 'if I need a plant, I need a pot' - that is very artificial to me."

 

Mr Selvam, who lives with his wife and their two children aged 19 and 21, enjoys unwinding in the balcony garden while sipping Milo or tea. His wife, who works as an administrator, sometimes meditates there.

 

The balcony floor is decked with slate tiles and chengai wood and the area houses a teak table and high chairs from Chiang Mai. Blinds and a wooden door separate the balcony from the living room when it rains.

 

His balcony garden hastwo ponds - fibreglass tubs surrounded by volcanic slabs - which are home to aquatic plants and guppies.

 

It might appear lush and well-manicured, but the garden design took shape quite serendipitously.

 

When Mr Selvam moved into his flat more than 20 years ago, he did little more than introduce a pond and grow plants around it. Over time, the roots of the plants made their way to the pond itself. They also started growing across the balcony, which was when he introduced a second pond to create another water supply.

 

Since the plants do not need to be watered often, they are "very low maintenance", he says. The absence of soil also ensures the plants do not grow too large, adds Mr Selvam, who does minor trimming every two months.

 

He advises would-be balcony gardeners to research how various plants should be cared for. Commitment is also an important factor - plants suffer "stress" when they are transplanted too often.

 

"People cannot swing the plants' mood. Let the plants do their own acclimatisation to the environment. When they are stable, they will show you their full potential," says Mr Selvam, who is taking part in the Singapore Garden Festival's balcony garden design competition.

 

Meanwhile, nature in his garden continues to chart its course. A pair of honeybirds visit the bromeliads for a water bath. A fast-growing Ficus pumila has started creeping up the table and chairs, while the roots of a Philodendron are now extending across the living room wall.

 

The gardening enthusiast says: "I'm waiting for the root to create its own art."

 

200 PLANTS, INCLUDING RARE SPECIES, IN 7 SQ M SPACE

 

Step onto the 19th-floor balcony of retiree Peggy Yap's condominium in Dover and what dazzles the senses is not the million-dollar view, but the hundreds of orchids arranged on horizontal pipes, vertical walls and trellises.

 

Mrs Yap, who has collected orchids from nurseries and her travels to countries as far-flung as Ecuador, grows as many as 200 of these plants in the 7 sq m space.

 

These range from "one-day wonders" to blooms that can last for months to rare ones from countries such as Vietnam and Australia.

 

"They are my pride and joy," says the globetrotting orchid lover, who is in her 60s and who used to work in the travel industry.

 

She lives in the apartment with her husband, a retiree.

 

Some of her orchids have won awards. Her Papilionanda Mimi Palmer, for instance, came in second in a Singapore Garden Festival Orchid Show contest last month.

 

To ensure that her plants continue to thrive when she is out of the country, Mrs Yap spent about $2,000 on an automatic irrigation system of pipes and sprinklers, supported by stainless-steel poles.

 

This has its pros and cons, she says, adding that some plants end up getting more water than others and become susceptible to crown rot.

 

Twice a week, she gives her plants a dose of fertiliser, pesticide and fungicide with the help of a hand-held battery-operated sprayer.

 

Her balcony receives the afternoon sun, which is "very harsh and no good for orchids especially", says Mrs Yap, who also grows ferns, lime and curry leaf plants there.

 

She places orchids that can withstand more sunlight, such as those from the Vanda and Dendrobium family, higher up, while those that thrive in shadier conditions, like the Cymbidium, are placed closer to the floor.

 

She has a soft spot for one Dendrobium convolutum orchid - a gift from a friend who picked it up from a nursery in Hawaii - whose flowers have a dark purple lip and a green and black veined base.

 

Last year, after returning from an overseas trip, she was dismayed to find that it had withered, leaving only the stem behind.

 

"I was so heartbroken. I refused to give up. I continued to 'nurse' it and water it every day."

 

To her delight, the plant sprang back to life six months later. It now has emerging shoots and roots.

 

She advises budding gardeners to start small.

 

"See what sorts of plants are suited for your environment. Then, gradually, when you build up more experience, you can start expanding.

 

"You really need to know your plants well and to know what they like. Then they will flower for you."

 

She adds: "When you see them bloom, you feel all this effort has paid off."

 

LETTUCE IN BALCONY, ROCK MELON IN ROOM

 

Secretary Stella Lee, 42, has the kind of "balcony" many Housing Board residents are familiar with - a narrow space near the front door with a window that does not receive much natural light.

 

But rather than clutter the 6 sq m space with shoe racks, she has transformed it into a fertile plot with tubs of lettuce, spinach, kale and water cress on shelves under the purple glow of LED lights.

 

These are harvested every day for salads and stir-fry dishes.

 

Ms Lee shares her four-room flat in Hougang with her husband, their six children aged one to 18, and their pet birds and rabbit - all of whom enjoy the fruit of her labour.

 

Her no-frills balcony garden is a one-woman, do-it-yourself project.

 

After buying the shelves and tubs from furniture chain Ikea, she drilled holes in the tubs before adding net pots from online marketplace ezbuy. She got the LED tubes from a factory and fixed them to the shelves with cable ties.

 

Ms Lee, who is married to a bus captain, started growing edibles in late 2016 as a form of therapy after suffering a miscarriage. "I needed more hobbies to kill time. The motor must keep going, I must keep working."

 

At the beginning, she spent hundreds of dollars on soil and plants without knowing how to properly care for them. She later learnt the basics from mentors she met on urban gardening groups on Facebook.

 

She grows her lettuce using the Kratky method, a form of hydroponics she says is "pest-free" and does not require daily watering. These are grown indoors as the neighbourhood birds used to ravage them.

 

Gardening has since become something of an obsession for her.

 

She grows onions and bean sprouts in the kitchen; rock melon in her daughter's bedroom; and mulberry, grapes, kang kong, ladies' fingers, cauliflower and dou miao (pea shoots) in the corridor.

 

"I'm crazy," says Ms Lee, who sometimes stays up until as late as 2am tending to her plants.

 

Yet it also makes perfect sense - some 60 per cent of the vegetables her family consumes is home-grown, which helps them cut back on grocery expenses.

 

Ms Lee still considers herself a beginner.

 

"It's not really about green fingers. Gardening is a science. If you get the technique right, anyone can do it."

 

And there is nothing like the satisfaction you get when you harvest plants from your own garden.

 

Does her lettuce taste different from the ones in the supermarket? She replies with a grin: "It's tastier because you put in the hard work."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.