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GREEN FINGERS: Noor Ridah and Sherrie Quek are among the 10 Starhub staff on the building's level three who have created an ornamental garden.
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GREEN FINGERS: Ee Tiang Hwee, Metta Welfare Association deputy executive director, and Metta School alumnus Seah Chee Meng tend to the lush indoor garden in an airwell.
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GREEN MOVEMENT: "It helps with the general mood. And it also teaches us to be patient and sensitive. I draw a lot of parallels with what we do here at Reach," says Joe Chan, head of the new Reach Community Services Society in Bukit Batok.
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GREEN MOVEMENT: "It helps with the general mood. And it also teaches us to be patient and sensitive. I draw a lot of parallels with what we do here at Reach," says Joe Chan, head of the new Reach Community Services Society in Bukit Batok.

Green rooms

Indoor gardens take pride of place at several organisations, with both corporates and institutions bringing the community garden concept a step further. BT Weekend takes a walk in the park.
Apr 11, 2015 5:50 AM

JUST as the idea of community gardens and getting office staff to bond together while harvesting fresh kailan and chye sim at their workplace began to take off, several companies have gone another step further and brought their gardens indoors. Over the past three weeks, employees at StarHub have literally added more of their corporate colour into their office space: by setting up indoor gardens in their three pantries.

The move came about when the National Parks Board (NParks) suggested that the telco create gardens on its premises in Ubi Ave 1. "It was a great idea, but we told them that we didn't have much space, nor do we own the office building," says Chan Hoi San, senior vice-president of human resources. "But the Nparks staff came by, looked around and suggested that the window area by the pantries would be ideal spots."

With that, StarHub reached out to its staff to gauge their interest in setting up gardens. "Initially, we were apprehensive about getting response from our staff, but it is encouraging to know that so many were interested," says Ms Chan.

The company takes up three levels of an office building, and there are indoor gardens on each level. Noor Ridah, a business support executive, and Sherrie Quek, who handles finance payroll, are among the 10 staff on level three who have created an ornamental garden.

"We had a brainstorming session and everyone came up with creative ideas, such as creating a vertical garden," says Ms Noor. Ms Quek adds: "Rather than buy new items, we thought about using recycled stuff as well. So we began digging through the rubbish bins for items that we could use."

Plastic water bottles are cut to hold plants. Empty Milo tins are wrapped with gunny sacks and jute rope, and turned into flower pots. A wooden pallet was recycled to form a rack for the vertical garden. The gardening group would come together during lunch and after work to set up the garden.

The plants they grow include orchids, African violets, fittonias, and airplants. "We had guidance from Nparks on what kinds of plants would grow well indoors," says Ms Noor.

Now that they have the garden set up, they've worked out a roster on maintaining the garden, which includes watering and pruning the plants.

"I've seen some of our colleagues come by to take pictures of the garden, and it makes me feel proud of our efforts," says Ms Noor. Ms Quek adds: "Some other colleagues even offer to help water the plants over the weekend as they live nearby."

On the fourth floor, is another ornamental garden, while staff on the fifth floor created an edible garden. Vegetables such as pak choy, chilli, rocket and laksa leaves are grown in plastic troughs. The gardening group on level five have even put in place a self-watering system.

Each group was given a budget for gardening, and they are encouraged to expand their gardens. "We hope to get more staff to be a part of this," says Ms Chan. "It is a good form of relaxation for the staff, not just for the ones who tend to the gardens, but even for those who come by to take a look."

Such indoor gardens fall under Nparks' Community in Bloom (CIB) programme. Over the years, under the programme, gardens have sprung up in homes, schools and offices. With the success of the programme in promoting gardening as a healthy hobby which also builds bonds among the community, NParks is now extending the programme to promoting indoor gardening.

A new initiative called "CIB Indoors - Now, Everyone Can Garden" was introduced last August to give indoor options for anyone and everyone who wants to garden, be it in common spaces in buildings, offices, balconies or even homes with colleagues, friends and family.

"Through indoor gardening, we hope to promote gardening among office workers. Many people already grow plants at their work stations in their offices by having a potted plant or more on their desk," says Ng Cheow Kheng, director of horticulture and community gardening at NParks.

For organisations interested in setting up indoor gardens, NParks provides basic workshops on indoor gardening and starter kits for three types of indoor gardens including aquascape, a designed collection of plants, fish, and decoration inside an aquarium or water garden; dish garden which is a miniature garden planted in a shallow dish, and terrarium, a self-contained, self-sustaining garden enclosed in a closed, clear container. Workshops are conducted at the offices.

Mr Ng says that an outcome of this outreach to offices can be to help people have better knowledge of what indoor plants to grow or display at their desk.

"The other way plants can be increased in order to make the office more pleasant is to set aside a dedicated area in the office to grow more plants. Once set up, we envisage that the indoor garden will turn into a common space where staff can meet, interact, and exchange gardening tips while tending to their plants," he says.

On first impression, it looks as if Ms Noor and Ms Quek have been friends for a long time. "It was through gardening that we got to know each other," says Ms Noor. "The garden has helped me get acquainted with more of my colleagues."

By Tay Suan Chiang

taysc@sph.com.sg

@TaySuanChiangBT

For more details on the CIB programme and starting a CIB garden, please visit www.nparks.gov.sg/cib or email communityinbloom@nparks.gov.sg


Budding talent

FOR staff of the Metta Welfare Association, creating green spaces within its Simei building is not so much about aesthetics but a therapeutic activity to benefit both themselves and students of the Metta School.

"Our students with mild intellectual disability, special needs or autism enjoy growing things with their own hands and experiencing the joy of taking care of other living beings, instead of always having others take care of them," says Ee Tiang Hwee, deputy executive director of the Buddhist charity organisation. "It is very good for developing their self esteem."

Founded in 1992 by Venerable Shi Fa Zhao, abbot of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, the association's six-storey building was opened in 2002 and has always been adorned with plants and greenery. Today, apart from housing its special education school, offices, art studio, cafe and retail store for vocational training, it boasts multiple green spaces - from an indoor garden located in an airwell of the building and butterfly garden that flanks the carpark, to a herb garden corner and offices filled with potted plants.

The school's special needs students tend to the gardens and paint or create batik artworks featuring butterflies or blooms inspired by the plants that they see around them. Mr Ee would also pick up caterpillars from "host plants" - plants that attract the insects to lay eggs, and keep them in netted laundry baskets so students could observe the stages of metamorphosis before releasing the butterflies.

And it isn't just the children who engage in gardening. Every Friday evening, staff members are encouraged to engage in recreational activities such as brisk walking or badminton. Around 20 staff would attend workshops on gardening or tend to the greenery. Mr Ee personally conducts workshops on various aspects of the pastime, from planting orchids to creating terrariums. In fact, most of the office cubicles resemble miniature gardens with pots of plants lining desks and shelves.

"My office is really a nursery," reveals Mr Ee, who lovingly cultivates young plants, saplings and terrariums in his office before transferring them to the gardens when the plants are more developed. "I also like to give our guests of honour and VIPs a potted plant. They already have so many acrylic mementos from various organisations. So they will always remember us when they see my plant."

From a tender age, Mr Ee would help his parents tend the garden in their Serangoon Gardens home. His mother was a fan of orchids while his father enjoyed the fruits from their own fruit trees - Mr Ee recalls climbing up jackfruit trees to retrieve the pungent-smelling fruit. He even sold cuttings of African violets to nurseries to earn extra pocket money as a pre-university student. Asked if he has green fingers, he remarks: "You don't need to have green fingers. Even my plants die. It's all trial and error."

Among the plethora of plant species found at the Metta Building is a wide range of edibles, including fruits like pomelo, starfruit, rambutan, longan and jambu. Its Metta Cafe, which provides food and beverage vocational training for the school's graduates, also harvests the produce from this mini farm - especially its curry and laksa leaves, and other fresh herbs. Mr Ee, who stashes a plastic bag in his pocket on his jogs, keeps a lookout for seeds which he collects. Through a Skype chat, he announces his newest acquisitions to Metta's gardening group and passes them on to any takers. These budding gardeners also help themselves to soil and gardening tools kept in the pantry.

"There is no grand master plan," admits Mr Ee, who recommends indoor gardening newbies start with growing money plants. "Sometimes I wonder if I am gardening or working here."

By May Yip


A soft touch

THE money plant is about as familiar as most people will get when it comes to landscaping in the office.

For Joe Chan, it also happened to be the only plant he could identify with any confidence until quite recently when he decided he would try to use plants to engage the people at work.

The 'office' is the new Reach Community Services Society located at the void deck of an HDB block in Bukit Batok, that provides programmes and services like family counselling and sports engagement to the local community. As the head of the new premises, Mr Chan had the opportunity to provide input on how the space would take shape and he decided that a greener environment was the way to go.

"We wanted to add a soft touch to the work we are doing. The greenery would also help to alleviate stress and calm people down," he says.

Prior to the opening of Reach in Bukit Batok in late January, Mr Chan did not know much about plants at all. "Our previous space was like any office with workstations," he recalls. So with the hope of getting some pointers, he got in touch with the National Parks Board (NParks).

This proved to be a fortuitous call because NParks had just launched its Community in Bloom - Indoor Gardening programme in 2014.

As part of this initiative, NParks was able to provide Reach with starter kits to create terrariums and dish gardens as well as conduct workshops.

"They advised us on suitable light conditions, plant requirements, water chemistry (for aquascaping) and creating eco systems," adds Mr Chan.

This greening effort has so far proven to be a draw with the community and volunteers with groups of seven to eight people having attended the workshops. Reach staff like social worker Lee Hui Yi like to get involved on a daily basis, spending 10 to 20 minutes a day on general maintenance and care of the plants. "You learn about how much sunlight is needed and how much water to use," adds Ms Lee.

Mr Chan has also noted a change in the staff. "It helps with the general mood. And it also teaches us to be patient and sensitive. I draw a lot of parallels with what we do here at Reach," he adds.

With the positive reception to the greening efforts, Mr Chan has plans to take gardening further and hopes to introduce more plants in and around the premises, "as along as it does not obstruct anyone", he adds.

So far, he estimates that Reach has spent just over S$1,000 on the purchase of plants and landscaping/aquascaping material. This includes a custom-made terrarium that is in the process of being landscaped.

Among some of the plants to be found at Reach is the inevitable (and almost indestructible) money plant, but there is more. Revealing his new-found knowledge, Mr Chan can now also point out the anubias, java fern and moss balls that have gone into the aquascaped tank.

By Arthur Sim