WARM sunshine. Fluttering butterflies. Chirping of birds on the trees. And of course, the splashes of colours from flowers in full bloom. Nothing beats being able to enjoy a fresh cup of tea while smelling the sweet scent of roses in a well-groomed garden. But what if you live in a high-rise apartment in the middle of an urban jungle? Is it still possible to have a garden-scape in a small enclosed space above ground?
With April designated as National Garden Month in America, it gives us a good excuse to pay homage to our own green space. And in the case of apartment dwellers (like me), why not learn a trick or two for maintaining a smallish green ‘pasture’ for our humble space?
National Garden Month was initially known as National Garden Week and celebrations commenced on April 12 to 18 in 1987. But in 2002, the National Gardening Association of America resolved to extend the celebration and make it last for the entire month of April. Their reason? “Why only appreciate nature for a week?” Hence, the inaugural National Garden Month was celebrated in 2003.
The word ‘garden’ can be traced back to its roots in Middle English, French and German languages (circa 1300) bearing the simple definition of ‘an area of land, usually planted with grass, trees, flowerbeds, and etc. that’s adjoining a house’. But these days, particularly in our congested cities, not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to enjoy ‘an area of land. that adjoins a house’.
This is one of the reasons why, in America, the April Garden Month is celebrated not only by home owners lucky enough to have their own garden, but celebrations are also held in national parks, schools yards and even small community lawns for everyone to enjoy.
According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), there are currently more than 2,116 gardens (as of 2015) registered as People’s Gardens in communities across America, its territories as well as 12 foreign countries since 2009.
CREATING A SLICE OF GREEN
It has been more than a decade since I moved from my cushy landed family property in Johor to pursue my studies and later, a career in our bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur. Throughout the years in the city, I’ve had to live in little pigeon holes that many call apartments; most of which never came with a balcony. Being a naturally ‘brown-fingered’ person, i.e. nothing survives in my hands, not even the hardiest of plants, I have shied away from having any greens in my home.
However, that hasn’t stopped me from yearning for the refreshing aroma of pandan or the sweet scent of ixoras (a small bush that sprouts small red flowers in a bunch that attracts lots of butterflies and bees due to the abundant nectar) that grow in abundance in my mum’s yard back home.
“Certainly, staying in a high-rise building isn’t ideal as space is very limited and you’re totally disconnected from the ground — physically,” begins Nitish Ramanah, a young architecture executive who has been living in a three-bedroom apartment in Damansara for almost three years now with his wife and two housemates.
However, despite the challenges of living in a small space, he hasn’t let it deter him from turning whatever space he DOES have into a lush miniature garden. He utilises his window sill and the apartment’s tiny balcony to house his collection of small and medium-sized pots of plants, from aloe vera to succulents, and the usual Money Plant (Devil’s Ivy).
“Sometimes, all you need is good sunlight and natural ventilation,” he elaborates. This is one of the reasons why he limits the use of air-conditioning and uses the fan instead. He also ensures that the windows are almost always open, especially during the day.
In addition, he uses natural fertilisers to nourish his plants. He discards kitchen spoils such as vegetable skins, fruit fibres and even tea leaves into the pots and no, they do not attract bugs. However, he’s quick to add that he only throws these spoils in the pots located on the balcony and not the ones in his room.
Other tips? Nitish smiles before revealing that he waters his plants with rice water — the water used to wash his rice for cooking — because the starch helps to neutralise the chlorine that’s found in tap water, which is better for the plants.
However, not everyone can be as disciplined as Nitish. For some of us, the air-conditioning is a life-saver in our notorious climate. Any suggestions for hardy plants that can literally take a beating? Chu Fah Swee, who’s naturally green-fingered and owns a thriving mini Eden inside and outside of his house, has some advice.
“You should get plants that don’t need much sunlight and watering. Plants that can be neglected, in other words.” Non-flowering plants such as the evergreen Snake Plant (a green and yellow leaf plant), Cordylines (a leafy green and purple plant) or an Iron Tree (a palm-like tree that will bear tiny pink blossoms with the right care but are as tough as its name suggests) are on the top of his list.
“Most of these plants only need to be watered once a week,” he reveals, adding: “Most of them don’t even need direct sun¬light at all as the UV rays from our house lights are sufficient to help them grow.” In addition, these plants have very few insect problems and some none at all, making them perfect as indoor plants.
NATURAL AIR PURIFIERS
Having natural greenery inside your home, even if it’s just a small pot in the corner, is an instant upgrade to dull concrete. Not only does it offer visual comfort, both Chu and Nitish point out that many of these indoor plants have been scientifically proven to be great natural air purifiers too.
As Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration of America) research has shown, hardy house plants are known to absorb toxic air particulates such as for¬maldehyde (an oxidation of methane with other carbon compounds found in automo¬tive exhaust or tobacco smoke) at the same time that they take in carbon dioxide. These toxins will then be processed into oxygen through photosynthesis.
While some plants are known to be better at removing certain chemicals and toxins more than others, having at least two or three plants in your home will probably help improve your home’s air quality and increase the amount of oxygen for a healthier living. Even more so for city dwellers where pollution is unavoidable despite living so high in the skies. And some plants it seems, such as the Snake Plant, are great at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen at night, helping you to sleep better.
In addition, maintaining plants along the window sills and balcony can also help reduce dust accumulation in the home considerably, adds Nitish. The leaves of the plants are known to form a natural air filter system, trapping whatever dust which happens to be blown into your home. But make sure to water your plants from leaf down once in a while to give them a good ‘bath’ and washing.
Once you have gotten your little green pasture down pat near your windows and balconies, you may want to explore further by adding natural ‘green’ fragrances around your home. As Chu suggests with a smile: “Try planting some pandan in a jug of water instead of soil and place it in your kitchen area for more fragrance in your home and as a natural pest repellent.” And if all else fails, I guess you can always get yourself a small vase of lucky bamboo!