Monday, July 11, 2016

The grass is always greener … ?

A flowering rosemary bush in Melbourne
I had a good laugh when friends from Melbourne stayed with me recently. They kept ooh-ing and aah-ing over my modest collection of mother-in-law's tongue succulents. In my tiny collection of plants on the apartment balcony, they’re the only ones that aren’t in danger of my killing them! In fact, I have to constantly prune them back and repot them because they grow pretty easily in the hot climate here. It wasn’t until I made a quick visit to Melbourne myself a couple of weeks back that I discovered that what I consider really common plants here are being sold for many times more in Australia!

I usually make it a point to visit gardens and plant nurseries wherever I’m traveling. I’m constantly looking over fences at other people’s gardens as well. I’m usually the one ooh-ing and aah-ing over plants grown in more temperate climates, especially the fruits and vegetables. Whenever I’ve traveled to countries like Canada, England or Italy, I always think their flowers just sprout up everywhere without anyone really taking care of them.

A zen-like Japanese garden
I especially love it when I have the opportunity to stay with friends or family and get to spend time in their gardens. A few years back, I had the privilege of staying with a Japanese family I’m related to in their farmhouse just outside Osaka. I was absolutely gobsmacked at breakfast when I was presented with farm fresh eggs and spinach just plucked from the garden. What a treat! It was just the beginning of spring when the mountains were magically turning pink and white with cherry blossoms, and flowers were popping up everywhere. On my walk around the farm community, I had a peek at wooden houses that looked like they’ve been standing there for centuries, with guardians of  gnarled trees that resembled gigantic ikebana arrangements.

A communal garden for all
Very often, I tend to think of Singapore as a cold, impersonal city state, probably because of its many rules and regulations, and myriad fines imposed if you don’t obey them. So I was delighted to come across a communal vegetable garden near where my sister-in-law lives. Avid gardeners take turns to maintain the plot, and grow herbs and vegetables for the consumption of everyone in the community. They’ve turned it into a social meeting place as well, with a covered gazebo and stools fashioned from tree trunks for tea parties and gatherings. Best of all, the municipality has stepped in with a grant for residents to buy organic fertilizers and pesticides as well as seeds. Amazingly, no one steals from the garden (no one dares commit a crime in Singapore!) and there’s plenty for everyone. Part of our dinner that night were some cucumbers and Thai basil freshly plucked from the garden!

Well-arranged and clearly marked plants at World Farm
While in Singapore, I also visited the nurseries along Thompson Road and another, World Farm, out in Sembawang. All the plants were clearly marked and the nursery staff were helpful with their planting tips. I came home a happy camper with a tiny bay tree.

I was in Melbourne for a quick visit in the dead of winter and really didn’t expect to see the nurseries so busy. But when we went to a particularly large one, Gardenworld, it was during school holidays and the place was humming with parents and children. There were all kinds of programs being run for the little kids and it was great to see them get involved with gardening from such a young age.

While looking for some rooting powder, I was taken aback by the sheer number of fertilizers, pesticides and other thingamabobs gardeners use. The organic pesticides alone, for every kind of pest imaginable, took up a whole shelf!

Outdoor plants at Gardenworld
The nursery was laid out systematically, with plants arranged by genre. The collection of native plants was impressive, as was the flowers and edibles. The weather was crisp, the sun shining, and it was delightful being outdoors without working up a sweat!

Six months ago when I was also in Melbourne, I went to Bunnings, a huge Australian hardware shop. I got myself a 4-in-1 hanging plastic terracotta pot, niftily packed into a compact box. This time around they had sold out the item, so I had to console myself with - another bay tree! There was no way I could take any more plants with me as I knew they wouldn’t survive the change in weather. As it is, I’m still mollycoddling the bay (having almost killed one before!) and taking it indoors when the weather gets unbearably hot.

I spent many freezing moments in my friend F’s garden, admiring how well her herbs were doing, even in the dead of winter. Her rosemary bush was even flowering and needed to be pruned. She cut some rocket and salad leaves for dinner, saying that they’ll grow back in no time. We arranged the tiny pot of mother-in-law tongue I bought her. I still couldn’t believe that my humble succulents were being sold for upwards of AUD$40!

My plant would fetch AUD$95 in Australia!
When I finally got home, the first thing I did was say hello to my plants and give them a much-needed drink of water.  It’s true what they say about the grass being greener elsewhere. Sometimes we just have to look at what we have through someone else’s eyes to truly appreciate them.

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