A friend presented us with a plaque engraved with the words, “My garden is where my prayers are planted and my dreams are born“. It describes the energy invested in the home garden we have nurtured for the past 40 years.
In 1979, we bought a bungalow in Petaling Jaya. It was old and needed much repairs but the main attraction was the 7,200sq ft (669sq m) of land – enough to fulfill all my gardening aspirations.
The previous owners had grown a large rambutan tree which provided many sweet, juicy fruits. I bought a lawn mower and spent weekends trimming the grass; I taught our son to play badminton and football and ride a bicycle in the garden.
I still vividly remember our daughter plucking a flower at the age of three, holding it to her nose as though she was enjoying its fragrance. She then gave a coy smile and strutted very self-consciously like a lady past us as we stood in the garden.
From about 1995, I seriously started to draw a plan to convert our garden into a tropical paradise that the family could enjoy. I consulted books on tropical and Balinese gardens, surfed the Internet and made many trips to Sungei Buloh to source plants from the many nurseries there.
I brought the children along during those trips and they had unhappy memories of being pushed to one small corner of my Fiat 128, as the rest of the car would be filled with plants and trees.
Our garden slowly took shape and won the admiration of visitors. I remember each and every plant as I planned their location and planted them myself.
My wife had an uncanny sense of which part of the garden would enable a particular plant to flourish; I planted a Alpinia purpurata (some call it the Chinese ginger) in several locations but tragically the plants died in all those places.
One day, she suggested that I plant the Alpinia in a northern location of our garden, in an alcove which allowed it a few hours of afternoon sun and then shade. The plant thrived, reaching heights of five feet (1.5m) and producing large blooms. I have not been able to reproduce this elsewhere in my garden.
I have a similar experience with jasmine trees – those that I planted in front of the house produced scanty flowers but birds carried the seeds which produced four large trees in the garden at the back of the house.
These trees caught the rays of the morning and afternoon sun and a day after a heavy rain, the trees would be covered with hundreds of jasmine flowers, their intoxicating smell wafting throughout the house.
One realises very early that the joy and thrill of gardening is not when you first bring back a plant from the nursery (though there will be reason to celebrate when you get the rare plant you have been searching for).
The adrenaline rush will come when your toil and effort (read: fight off the bugs and snails, or knead in the manure ) enables you to propagate the plant and produce new flowers.
For the next 20 years, we were to experience days of unbridled joy as our garden grew bountifully and nature produced beautiful flowers.
Occasionally, there would be a roller coaster of emotions as a freak thunderstorm would destroy a bud that was about to bloom. About one-and-a-half years ago, I bought some Curcuma ginger plants that yielded beautiful lilac and purple-coloured flowers.
Suddenly overnight, snails destroyed all the plants. I harvested and replanted the rhizomes, but nothing happened for four months. Then one morning, we saw a shoot which grew quickly, and on the first day of Chinese New Year, we were gifted with a beautiful flower! What ecstasy!
Some of our plants and shrubs have been with us for more than 20 years, whereas bugs and parasites, despite my best efforts, would destroy others after one to two years.
Over the years, I have cultivated roses, lilies, heliconias, jasmines, orchids, bauhinias, Thai and Chinese ginger flowers, bottlebrushes, passifloras and frangipanis with varying degrees of success. The flowers attracted butterflies and birds; I learnt patience as I waited to capture on film birds sipping nectar from my flowers.
Our dining table was always filled with mangoes, starfruits, Moringa oleifera (or drumstick tree, considered a superfood by many ), lime, water spinach, curry leaves, karuveppilai (curry leaves) and pandan leaves.
In 1995, we decided to build a small pond in our garden. I installed a small water filter and fountain and on many an afternoon, was lulled to sleep by the sound of trickling water.
I stocked the pond with local koi fishes – far cheaper than the original variety and more hardy – and grew lotus plants which produced beautiful red lotus flowers until aphids destroyed them a year later.
The fishes attracted herons and kingfishers which occasionally succeed in stealing a fish. We built pergolas at the southeast and southwest corners of our garden and trained Burma and Rangoon creepers to climb and produce bouquets of flowers.
Now in my mid-60s, my worry is maintenance of the garden. My joints creak and muscles ache much more when I work in the garden. But there are no regrets looking back; it has been a labour of love repaid multiple times with joy and a feast for all my senses that I will unreservedly encourage all to experience.