Exploring Singapore – A city in a garden

I had the opportunity to visit Singapore recently. The big draw – visiting my cousin (number one) and seeing the very photogenic Gardens by The Bay development (number two.) How would reality compare to the screen images? I’d read that the city’s aim is to transform Singapore into a ‘City in a Garden.’ A government committing to massive spending on horticulture? Interesting!

My first impression of Singapore – apart from the exquisite stone paving used at the airport, was the beautiful street trees – wonderful umbrella shapes harbouring lush epiphytic ferns. These trees were everywhere, co-existing happily with the gleaming sky scrapers. The rain tree  Albizia saman was particularly striking.

DSCF1793Subsequent walks round the city showed a network of jungle paths – many used as jogging tracks by locals connecting different city parks. We did a 6.5K walk from Kent Ridge to Mount Faber Park, taking in the Hort Park, the fantastic Henderson Waves bridge, views of award winning starchitecture with trees and climbers, lizards and screaming insects, accompanying our every sticky step.

I loved the native Asplenium nidus, a distant relation of our own smaller Asplenium scolopendrium, with its lush transluscent leaves and chocolate mid-rib – happy perched on a tree or rooted in the ground. Seeing Monstera growing on the forest floor was amazing – a climate where our fussy UK house plants can thrive outdoors.

Reaching the end of our walk, comfortably sheltered under a canopy with chilli crab, beer and gorgeous views of the sea and cable cars to Sentosa island I was reminded how all this strong growth occurs, when a monsoon hit – spectacular lightning and powerful rain. A storm that passed quickly so we could enjoy a cable car ride to Sentosa island.

So this sets the scene of Singapore – hot, rainy, luscious foliage and trees coexisting with city structures – this is its essence.. but what about the big things I’d set out to see? How did they fit in this context?

Before visiting Gardens by the Bay I took a trip to Singapore Botanical Gardens – a beautifully landscaped range of habitats – wetland, ancient heritage trees, national plant collections including an orchid collection. Now even with my horticultural training and professional experience I still found myself looking for a glasshouse when approaching the orchid collection! Of course Singapore has exactly the kind of conditions orchids need so of course there was no glass house *shakes head. There were some unusual beauties, and some familiar friends. It was great to see the gardeners at work, and signs up explaining to visitors why there were dry leaves covering every bare patch of ground (as seen during my jungle walks) This mulch was preserving precious soil moisture – and providing cover for the many monitor lizards. The standard of maintenance here – and across the city was exceptional. Singapore is really investing in horticulture at a level I’ve never seen anywhere before. A particular delight was a toilet block with a living wall of epiphytes – stunning.

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So, to Gardens By the Bay – a new development on reclaimed land, and the super trees I’d ogled on the internet.

Well, first I took a trip to the Marina Bay Sands hotel – a fabulous high rise with a roof garden and external planting all the way to the very top – where I saw a dragonfly – a vertical wildlife corridor up into the sky.

The view from the top was fantastic… but I thought the super trees looked rather small… anyway, I took the lift down and walked the Dragonfly Bridge to the gardens.

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The tree-lined bridge walk really showed off the awesome scale of Marina Bay Sands and framed the approaching super trees – ventilation outlets for the vast cloud forest and flower dome biomes. Yet the small, human scale touches, delicate flowers in lower level plantings, kept that feeling of warmth and friendliness.

And then the super trees – you can walk beneath them, on walkways up in their ‘canopy’ and even eat your dinner in one of them… and at night they put on a show, along with the rest of the city.

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Finally to the Cloud Forest biome – the biggest, most luxuriant living wall – or should I say mountain, I’ve ever seen. Epiphytes, orchids, tree ferns, steam.. multi levels, but with a sense of humour too. A display of small but beautiful carnivorous plants was exuberantly enhanced by some bold lego models. And in every direction, the views out of the biome – sea, city, gardens, were well considered and spectacular.

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So, did Singapore live up to my expectations? I have to say it utterly surpassed them… Being in a place where quality of life and the beauty and maintenance of the environment is such a priority was quite a powerful experience for me. It felt utopian – a futuristic fantasy of how the world could be.

Singapore doesn’t have the social problems prevalent in much of the West – with over 85% home ownership – many in government built flats (Singaporeans are obliged to put money aside in savings to pay for this) and a low crime rate (big fines for minor infractions such as littering and extremely harsh penalties for serious crime are a strong deterrent) the government can afford to invest in more than just the survival of the population. One could argue that Singapore has left the UK far behind at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Or one could argue that at the heart of every paradise utopia there is darkness – in best sci-fi tradition – with an oppressed population blinkered by the comfortable beauty of their surroundings, with the world outside imperfect but free.

I’ll let others judge the socio-political situation for themselves but I am left with the heavenly horticulture, the smiling friendly locals, the oh so tasty chilli crab and the joyous Singapore slings on the top of the world.

And the airport – orchids and sunflowers to de-stress you as you await departure. How thoughtful. Thank you Singapore.

Author: Border Designs

A planting designer with muddy boots and an eye for beauty

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