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A Passion For Peculiar Plants
John Lim, Founder of This Humid House
Miniature watermelons. Rainbow-coloured corn. Sunflowers – not yellow – but black and white. Passiflora, the flowers of passionfruit that look like you are peering into a kaleidoscope. And grevillea flowers that look like post-nuclear spiders with two dozen legs.
Stepping into John Lim’s garden is like crossing into a strange horticultural wonderland that has been dreamt up by a mad botanist.There is, however, nothing fundamentally mad about Mr Lim, the founder of botanical design studio This Humid House.
Since 2017, he’s combined his longtime passion for peculiar plants with a bravura business concept that has many high-end clients, from top fashion houses to luxury watch brands, calling on him to design far-out floral arrangements comprising these kooky creations of nature, for their stores and events.
But Mr Lim says the demand for peculiar plants has been rising not just among corporate clients but individual customers too. Because of it, This Humid House will start selling a selection of rare and unusual seeds on its online store “very soon”, along with its striking and strange bouquets and maquettes.
Mr Lim’s garden, which is both his personal playground and his company’s botanical lab, has become even more ambitious during the Covid-19 crisis: “The pandemic has caused a significant disruption to our supply chain and sourcing practices… And so, for reasons of sustainability and the desire for more interesting material, we grow at least 20 percent of the material we use in our arrangements, which are often not commercially available.”
Mr Lim and his team raise a variety of passiflora, corn, cosmos, marigold, xanthostemon, okra, grevillea, cycads, musa, ixora and citrus.Most of what is grown is suited for Singapore's tropical humid weather. They include ornamental heirloom varieties of corn, such as Glass Gem and Oaxacan Green.
And then there are “annuals”, plants that bloom only once a year in cooler, drier climates. For certain seeds, he refrigerates them for a period of time to simulate the conditions of winter before sowing to trigger seed embryo growth and encourage germination.
"We try not to assume what will and will not survive, testing broadly for a chance of survival in our climate,” he says. “We give them a lot more TLC, putting them under a shade cloth to reduce the intensity of the sun on them, or staking them individually to withstand our torrential downpours.”
Mr Lim has no formal training in horticulture. Instead, he started his career as an architect, working for Steven Holl in New York and Ole Scheeren in Beijing. When he was studying at The Cooper Union in New York, he met Wee Teng Wen, the co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group. And when the group opened the private members club Straits Clan in 2018, Mr Wee invited This Humid House to run the floral concierge there.
Although his training helps him visualise floral arrangements as architectural edifices and sculptural constructs – rather than household decorations – his phytophilia took root many years ago, when as a child he helped his paternal grandfather raise mango, papaya, rambutan and chiku trees in their family garden.
But Singapore has come a long way from its kampong days. The green thumbs of today demand unusual cultivars with bold shapes and complex temperaments: “Not suited for the tropics? No problem! Requires extensive care? I’ll take it!” Garden shops and nurseries now receive frequent calls and emails asking for seedlings seldom spotted in these parts.
Mr Lim says: “We have a burgeoning following of people who are as thrilled as we are about some of the products we are growing. Our Instagram account has drawn 16,500 followers in under two years.Our miniature watermelons have proven irresistible!”
Maya Hari, VP and MD of Twitter Asia Pacific
Maya Hari has a busy life as Vice President and Managing Director of Twitter Asia Pacific. To wind down, she turns to her many plants which she grows on the three balconies and rooftop of her penthouse.
Lately, she’s become very interested in growing less common and more challenging species of plants, such as custard apples, mistletoe cacti, miniature eggplants, asparagus (not native to the tropics) and others edibles – on top of more common vegetables such as cabbage, spinach and chilli.
She says: ”I started cultivating plants five years ago, when I realised I enjoyed growing vegetables, herbs and fruits the most. I challenged myself to see if I could get our family to become sustainable on as many herbs and vegetables as possible.
“This is no mean task, but I am glad to say we have achieved sustainability in many herbs and a couple of vegetables. After that, I began growing unusual and/or challenging plants like the asparagus, triple-flowering blue pea and custard apple, which also happens to be my daughter's favourite fruit.”
Ms Hari finds “immense joy” in planting, harvesting and eating vegetables. She wants to create an “urban farm-to-home table” concept as a permanent way of life, and often invites friends over to try at least a handful of ingredients grown and cooked in her meals.
Unlike Mr Lim or Ms Chuah, Ms Hari prefers not to challenge nature by growing too many plant species that are not native to the tropics. “It is much easier to try and grow weather-suited plants. So I look at what grows in agriculturally-rich countries around us like Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and India, and source for seeds from these countries… I am currently experimenting with colder-weather vegetables such as the asparagus, though that takes two or three years to see results, so we’ll see.”
In 2016, Ms Maya’s daughter, who was then 9, was feeling anxious about the climate crisis. Ms Hari decided to help her work through her worries by starting a #ShareTheGreen online campaign. It involves them growing many plants and giving them away for free, in order to inspire other people to reduce their carbon footprint. To date, they have given away over 600 plants and made many new friends in the urban farming community.
Ms Hari, who’s a Singapore permanent resident, says: “We have a wonderful urban farming community in Singapore.It also helps that Singapore has such a diverse set of plants – it’s quite a gardener’s delight.”
Ultimately, though, gardening is a personal endeavor for her. “It’s a much-needed wind down for my mind. It helps me de-stress and also builds patience. As a mother, I enjoy gardening with my daughter and son. My 8-year-old son often will seed and harvest plants with me. We call him “the little gardener”. Gardening now holds a very important place in my life.”
Joanna Chuah, Founder of wwedibles.sg
Joanna Chuah is on a mission. For a long time, she thinks, Singapore has neglected its own rich botanical culture, because it was too busy becoming an urban marvel. She wants to bring back to our farms and tables the fruits and vegetables we once grew and/or consumed, but have completely forgotten about. These include limeberry, ramie nettle, sea purslane, rose myrtle, magenta plant and other edibles that can add relish, romance and high drama to our local cuisine.
“Limeberry is a trifoliate citrus with red berries that taste like sweet, refreshing lemons. It used to be very common in Singapore, and it’s still very common in places like Vietnam and Thailand, especially in the forests. But it seems to have disappeared from Singapore’s forests,” says Ms Chuah.“Similarly, sea purslane is native to Singapore. It used to grow in our coastal areas. But it has vanished because of land reclamation. And people forget that they’re edible and go well with some dishes.”
Ms Chuah, who works in the legal industry, spends much of her free time researching on native tropical plants. She also runs wwedibles.sg, a platform for gardeners, urban farmers, nature lovers and cooks to connect through their common interest in local horticulture.
wwedibles.sg (which stands for Weird & Wonderful Edibles Singapore) has an online store that sells punnets of edible flowers, seeds of rare plants (such as salty ice plant and white patty pan squash), and grow kits for new gardeners.
Her personal garden is a 20 metre by 6 metre botanical wonderland nestled on top of her terrace house. It is the manifestation of her mission to introduce – or in some cases re-introduce – a variety of rare and exotic plants and vegetables that Singaporeans can savour on their plates.
At the same time, she also cultivates plants not native to the region but which would nonetheless thrive in our tropical climate. For instance, she grows Alabama red okra (commonly eaten in the US), Star of David okra (popular in Israel), and Abigail’s coffee okra whose seeds are used as a healthy caffeine-free coffee substitute.
For kale, she has dwarf green curled, black Tuscany and red Russian kale. For pumpkins, she has Thai rai kaw tok, Thai kang kob and Ken’s special pumpkin. And for gourds, she has winter, birdhouse and apple gourds.
She sources these seeds from her travels, online stores and friends who have farms overseas. “Whenever I travel, I go to farms and markets to collect my seeds. Ultimately, though, my collection of seeds is a personal one. Because I only grow what I like to eat.”
Her extraordinary garden of over 100 plant varieties has attracted collaborations with over 100 restaurants, cafes and private chefs, to which and whom she frequently supplies small-batch edible flowers and herbs. She gives talks and workshops at schools and organisations, and has been vocal about the need to protect Singapore’s organic and sustainable farms, some of which are being reclaimed for public housing.
Ms Chuah, who started gardening at an early age with her grandmother, says: “Ultimately, I do it all for love of the country. For me, it is the best way to help revive some of our lost recipes and strengthen our sense of Singaporean identity. My team and I do a lot of research on the ground, talking to community gardeners and wet market vegetable sellers. You just have to ask the auntie: How do you cook this vegetable? And she’ll give you a bunch of instructions on how to cook and eat it. I don’t know why we don’t do this anymore.”
Horticulture is a sunrise industry
When the circuit breaker started, nurseries and plant shops quickly saw a boom in online orders, as bored stuck-indoors Singaporeans wanted new hobbies to engage in at home. GreenSpade, an online plant store, saw sales go up by almost 70 per cent. Other plant stores such as Noah Garden Centre and Tumbleweeds Plants similarly found their digital shops thriving.
Anika Zerin Kabir of GreenSpade says: “Fruits and vegetable seeds such as tomato, chives, chilli padi, arugula, spring onion, wheatgrass, lettuce, kailan, alfalfa, baby bok choy, okra, kang kong, choy sum are very popular, and some are already out of stock. We recently introduced a small batch of premium seeds from North America and they were snapped up almost immediately.”
Nurul Anisyah of Noah Garden Centre says: “Our Basic Starter Kits (a prepack with seeds and soil) sold out in the first few weeks of the circuit breaker, likely due to customers finding alternatives to occupy their time at home.”
To be sure, gardening was already on the rise among Singaporeans, variously responding to issues of climate change, food sustainability and mental health. But the pandemic has accelerated the trend, as more want to try their hand at growing their own herbs and vegetables to be more self-sufficient.
Meanwhile the popularity of Instagram accounts featuring beautiful houseplants has tempted many to grow their own. Dennis Law of Tumbleweed Plants says: “ We get a lot of enquiries from people who’ve been gardening for a few years and want to raise more unusual varieties such as the variegated monstera, aglaonema or philodendron… We don’t recommend difficult plants for newbies because some are expensive, require specific care and may die if you’re not sure what you’re doing.”
Here are some of the best places to shop for plants. (Note: The physical stores are closed during the circuit breaker.)
A landscaping company that has branched out into selling rare and unique types of carnivorous plants, begonias, orchids, tillandsias and other ornamental plants.
wwedibles.sg is now selling every seed packet at S$2.50 – which is a steal considering its packets typically contain more seeds than most in the market. The rare seeds on sale include the ice plant and varieties of pumpkin and gourd.
3. This Humid House
Its online store currently offers eccentric-looking bouquets and maquettes. But it plans to sell rare seeds soon.
4. Boutique plant shops
It’s hard to leave a boutique plant shop without buying anything. Even their gardening tools are charming. Our favourites are Tumbleweed Plants in Tiong Bahru and Potta Plantta in Telok Kurau.
5. Large nurseries
You can wander for hours in large nurseries such as World Farm, Far East Flora Garden and Candy Floriculture. They have just about everything you want – and if they don’t, they know how to get it.
6. Online plant stores
While physical stores are closed during the circuit breaker, online stores are open and thriving. Check out GreenSpade and Noah Garden Centre for their wide range of products.