The roots of my obsession with gardening and growing can probably be traced back to my early childhood. I had no idea that it would later be labeled as Garden Therapy. I remember at five — flushed with the repeated success of jam jar germination experiments with green beans — how I had tried to coax the nascent life out of an orange seed. Having decided that temperature was key into tricking the seedling into awakening, the carefully chosen subject was housed in a used Planta margarine tin, lined with a thick wad of moist cotton wool and tucked away within the tiny ice-encrusted freezer of the family fridge. All my grandiose fantasies and hopes of nurturing my very own orange tree were dashed and by the end of nearly three weeks of daily observations, I was crestfallen and resigned to the fact that my orange seedling was never going to emerge from its slumber. Sometimes the lessons we learn from Garden Therapy are like that.
Fortunately for me, subsequent botanical epiphanies were less spirit-crushing and gleaned from rich memories of frolic and play in the wilderness of a rural Singapore landscape. Late afternoons were reserved for outdoor play with the rest of the raggedy bunch of scrawny kampong kids from the neighbourhood. A single cosmic tree, growing by the gatepost of our home became our aerial fortress and from the seclusion of its luxuriant canopy, we planned and plotted our daily excursions into the wild countryside of brambly bushes, lalang-invaded fields, thick bamboo clumps, stands of tall rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) and pig farms. We would return by sundown, drunk from sipping on nectar from Ixora flowers, the skin on our limbs embroidered with scratches and bruises from grassy blades. Stubborn spikelets of love grass (Chrysopogon aciculatus) stuck with Velcro-like affection to our tattered socks and clothes. On other days, familiar gunshot sounds of exploding rubber capsules would send us bolting to the foot of rubber trees to forage for the seeds that had just been dispersed. These we would stash away for future mischief in school. The prank we would play was benign and involved evoking the heat of friction in the rubber seeds by rubbing them vigorously against a concrete surface and then pressing it against the skin of our unsuspecting victims. The yelps and screams that followed were worth the fun of the entire playful exercise. It was in those early carefree years spent playing in the leafy cathedral of our beloved trees, that I sensed the meaning of ‘sanctuary’ and experienced an inexplicable kinship with trees, a deep reverence for nature and an almost primal need to garden and grow.
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In university, I majored in Biology, specialising in Botany in my final Honours year. The focus of my thesis was the Oak Leaf Fern (Drynaria quercifolia), a handsome epiphyte that is often found clothing the trunks and branches of our larger local wayside trees. My days were spent peering into the dazzling microscopic world of my subject, and making inked biological grade drawings of spores as they germinated and morphed dramatically into heart-shaped emerald-coloured prothalli, in all their backlit, gossamer splendour. From there, I gained a lifelong love and appreciation for botanical art and illustration. The old-world charm of vintage seed packets, antique seed catalogues, and gardening almanacs with their detailed coloured drawings of exotic flowers from faraway places captured my imagination.
Stirring The Senses
My garden, and my personal sense of garden therapy has evolved to what it is today over a span of 25 years. My garden is still a work in progress and my favourite distraction and pastime. Hugging the periphery of my single-storey semi-detached home in Seletar Hills, almost every square foot of earth has been lovingly tended and worked into with fork and trowel. In terms of design, I’m an unabashed maximalist and this works extremely well for both the botanist in me with the penchant for species collection and the art appreciator with an eye for organic outdoor art. The most invigorating outcome for a species-rich garden given to the joyous explosion of colour, form, and texture, is the diverse fauna that it attracts, and the subsequent delight that it brings to a family with young children. Besides the resident Golden Retriever, Brewski and our three cats, Koa, Freya and Madam Cutie, our garden has seen a wide range of nectar and seed-feeding birds, roosting bats, bees, and butterflies. We have, on occasion also had very special visitors such as skinks and snakes wandering into our green haven. The still, reflective pond, which I fashioned and built with my own hands, is a self-sustaining ecology comprising a much cherished specimen of pink water lily (Nelumbo), a variety of pond fish as well as frogs and tadpoles in the rainy season. Recently, when I had to clean out the pond for maintenance, I was pleasantly surprised by the pond’s role as a veritable time capsule, for there in the soft muck of the pond I found lost treasure; little toys that my sons had lost growing up — Lego blocks, a little cast iron truck, glass marbles and glow-in-the-dark stars.
The most important reason I garden must be the therapeutic benefits it provides for the mind, body and soul. Garden therapy is very much a sensual endeavour, recruiting all five human senses as few other activities do. Domesticating nature involves getting down on your knees, and digging into the earth and from that intimate perspective, we observe the myriad forms of life in the soil that are otherwise concealed to us when we are upright and walking: earthworms twitching and writhing before they tunnel through the soil, snails gliding as they leave a silvery trail behind and plump caterpillars devouring the young moisture-filled leaves of a Star of Bethlehem shrub. Whether it’s the velvety fuzz of a Gloxinia’s leaf, the heady fragrance of Jasmine, the sweetness of a berry, the cool note of mint or the exalting beauty after a tropical shower, a garden simply stirs our senses. For the tropical gardener like myself, the absolute nirvana must be the musky redolence of petrichor; the distinctive scent that the soil emanates immediately after rain.
It’s from tending to the garden that I begin to embrace the woven tapestry of relationships in the natural world, and learn that nothing in nature is either independent or isolated. Sowing seeds makes us active participants in the mystery and magic of the cycle of life, while the stewardship of our little patch of Earth exposes us to the vagaries of nature such as weather and pests. An important lesson we learn from Garden Therapy is patience from bearing witness to the stages from sowing to sprouting to blooming and fruiting. We learn acceptance and gain humility when we realise that some things are beyond our control and catch a true glimpse of the Divine. That perhaps is part of the Tao of gardening: to the novice it looks simply like the gardener is making a garden, but the larger truth is that the garden is all the while making the gardener. And this becomes more significant over time; the longer we have been practicing Garden Therapy, the more we become the products of our gardens.
Originally published in Storm magazine on 12 Sept 2014
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