Archive for September, 2009

Sungai Buloh, anyone?


“… want to go to Sungai Buloh?”

Ah, these words are music to my ears. How can I say no? I’d be ready in an instant.

IMG_2729This is one of the better known sites for garden centres (we call them nurseries) in the state. Imagine dozens of nurseries beneath the shady canopy of towering old trees. The trees are a delight; festooned with pigeon orchids, birdnest ferns and other epiphytes. I love the trees and the fresh water stream that runs through the place. But then, I digress.

A trip to Sungai Buloh has its own set of SOPs. First, the car. I empty the boot and line it, as well as the floor of the car, with newspapers. Once that’s done and I have the requisite bottle of water and cash, I am ready to hone in on one of my favourite destinations.

I make a beeline for the nurseries I like best, giving the rest a once-over in case I IMG_4633spot anything out of the ordinary. Before long, the car would be filled with flowering plants and herbs, and the boot with bags of soil. Often, fitting in the purchases require some ingenuity, especially when we usually buy more than we should.

Over the years, we’ve seen nursery ‘owners’ come and go. I miss old Mr Tan. He used to shuffle to the back and return with a pot in his hand. “This one’s special,” he’d say. “I propagated it myself.” More often than not, we’d leave with more than the bags of fertilizer and soil we intended to buy.

Mr Tan had a way of making you feel that you were a really special customer. He didn’t have a glib sales pitch but he could have sold ice blocks to the Eskimos with his disarming manner.

IMG_4639bSungai Buloh has seen many changes – the more recent being the clearing and disappearance of many nurseries and the emergence of new hospital buildings.

I have been collecting call cards and contact numbers of my favourite nurseries – just in case. At least then I can still contact them if they are suddenly relocated. I guess that’s the kiasu syndrome rearing its head. 

In the meantime, maybe I should just go there more often.

Anybody wants to join me…?


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Zesty zinnias

IMG_7465There are plants that take up more space than they are worth, and there are plants that you wish you could grow in every nook and corner. The zinnia augustifolia is one of the latter.

It is the first thing that greets me in the garden. Smaller than its larger and more flamboyant family members, zinnia augustifolia flowers are button-sized. But what they lack in size, the z. augustifolia more than make up for in numbers.

The z. augustifolia is a hardworking annual. It blooms its head off and fills the beds with colour. I can’t decide which is lovelier; the gorgeous white or the zesty orange. Planted together, they are a perfect foil for each other.

The z. augustifolia loves the heat, is tough and is generally pest free. What’s more, there is no need to deadhead these compact plants – at least I don’t. Let them be and you will be rewarded with subsequent generations.

Errant seedlings often crop up beyond the flower beds, and I gladly transfer these back to where they belong. And so another cycle begins …

Next time you see the zinnia augustifolia at the garden centres, grab a pot or two … or three. The flowers may look tiny, but they pay huge dividends.

Care and propagation: full sun; well drained, evenly moist soil; propagation through seeds



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The birdbath

P1050691sI first saw it in the English countryside about twenty years ago. It was summer and the wheat fields of Hopton were splashed red with scarlet poppies, much like a Monet watercolour.  With thatched cottages and windmills in the vicinity, it was picture postcard perfect.  P1050617

My aunt’s English cottage garden was brimming over with rudbeckias, roses, hollyhocks, fuchsias, lupins, aquilegias and pansies. In the midst of all the flowers was the birdbath. I fell in love with it. I liked everything about it; from the frog sitting on its pedestal to the rough-hewn, stone–like finish.

I wanted to get one for the garden too, so I searched high and low for it. But it was a futile exercise. I came across one in Perth about ten years later, but it was not for sale.

The birdbath was proving to be elusive so I resolved to make one instead. A good friend who was taking pottery lessons let me have a lump of clay. I toiled over the clay until I was completely satisfied that my handiwork was as close to the original as I could get.

Then disaster struck. My ‘masterpiece’ exploded in the kiln – and I was shattered. I learnt later that I should have used the coil method instead. I know there’s no use crying over spilt milk but I would have loved to bawl my eyes out.

And then out of the blue, my aunt declared that she was going to move back to the land of her birth. “I’m taking most of my things with me,” she said. “And the birdbath?” I asked, holding my breath. “That too, if you like. Would you like to have it?” my aunt asked. Would I? I would have shouted with glee if I wasn’t afraid of shattering the peace of bucolic Hopton. I was so happy I must have smiled in my sleep as well.

Sometime late last year, the birdbath came home. Now, whenever I am in the garden, I read what is etched on the birdbath – words that I had read and committed to memory some twenty years ago: 


The warmth of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One’s closest to God’s heart in a garden
Than anyplace else on earth!

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It all started when the number of members of Green Culture Singapore in the KL-Selangor region hit a decent double digit figure. Suddenly someone had this brilliant idea of having a get-together. “We can have a potluck and chit-chat session. Let’s all cook something and meet at someone’s home.” The question was, whose home? Thank goodness we didn’t have to mull over it for too long.

IMG_5274That evening my sister asked if I’d been to the Secret Garden. “Secret Garden? What Secret Garden?” It was like manna from the sky! Surely, everyone would love a Secret Garden! The pamphlet piqued my interest further; 500 species of plants in a 2787 sq metre rooftop garden with flowers, herbs and fruit trees, and a temperate section to boot!!

We kept the venue secret due to security reasons and that generated more interest than it would have done otherwise. Most of the forumers in Selangor confirmed their attendance and a couple from Singapore indicated their interest as well.

And then the day came. As we gathered for breakfast at the venue, the skies opened and it poured. We decided to brave the weather and collected our passes to the Secret Garden. Then wonder of wonders, the rain stopped.

IMG_5313With our passes safely in hand, we took the elevator up to the roof level. A luxuriantly green backdrop of foliage and huge suspended containers of nepenthes and lycopodiums greeted us as we stepped out. Everyone gasped in unison, “Are they real?” They looked too good to be true, so we put them through the ‘touch-n-feel test’ and whipped out our cameras.

It was amazing to discover this lush oasis on top of a shopping mall. Most of us did not even pay heed to the security guard who needed to collect our security passes! We were just too overwhelmed. And Nature had come up trumps by cooling the garden considerably with the morning shower.IMG_5281

“What’s that?” “Hey, look at this!” Curiosity got the better of us and we started to wander off in every direction. Before we lost each other entirely, we warned the gang not to leave before the obligatory group photo was taken.

There was so much to see. Flowers, climbers, herbs, spices, fruit trees, carnivorous plants, IMG_5514cacti, succulents, tillandsias, palms … you name it. There were meandering paths between beds of colourful hydrangeas, cannas, gerberas and coleus. There were plants and flowers we recognized and even more that we didn’t, so we were thankful that the owners had the foresight to label (almost) everything.

Plump longan beckoned invitingly and glossy passion fruit tempted from above our heads in the Secret Garden. The subtle fragrance of the quisqualis indica and telosma cordata enticed as we walked past. There were ripened oranges and IMG_5569variegated limes, and herbs and spices like rosemary, basil, miracle fruit, peppercorn, coffee and tea. Voluptuous bottle gourds and plump pumpkins were ripe for the picking.

The Garden even had a temperate section with apple, plum and peach trees. It would take forever to list all the species in the garden and I bet we only registered a small fraction of what we saw. This place needs to be savored and explored at leisure.

orangesWe had confidently assumed that an hour at the garden would suffice. In retrospect, that seems like a huge joke. We spent two hours exploring and would have appreciated another. All too soon we had to disband and leave our newfound Secret Garden behind.

I visited the garden again the following week. This time I saw something else – not at the Secret Garden, but at the Rainforest section – the incredible Victoria Amazonica. The gargantuan lily pads were leather-thick and the huge thorns beneath looked lethal. They were just amazing. For a while I was rendered speechless by the wonder of God’s creation. I was contented just to rest my hand on a cool pad and feel it beneath my palm. What a sight to behold. I felt truly blessed.IMG_5848b

Additional information…

Oops, how can I go on and on about the Secret Garden and the Victoria Amazonica and not disclose where they are located? How remiss of me.    😛

Secret Garden
location: Level – UR of 1 Utama of Bandar Utama, Petaling Jaya
visiting hours : 10am – 6pm, weekends only
entrance fee: NIL
(take a elevator up to the rooftop from the new wing)

Victoria Amazonica
location: Ground level of Rainforest section, 1 Utama
(the raised pond is out in the open)


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Retail therapy

My idea of retail therapy is to head for a whole lot of garden centers and fill the car with plants and soil. Few things in life are more satisfying …

I can never understand how anyone can spend a few hours gazing at plants in garden centers and leave empty handed. I have neither the willpower nor the inclination to do so. For me, it seems perfectly logical to get something after spending all that time, petrol and toll just to get to there. With me, the main problem is to restrain myself from buying too much.

Lately I have been exercising a bit more self-control. Here are a few of my more recent purchases :IMG_7579_torenia

First up is the torenia. Its lovely pastel colours remind me of apricots, peaches and cream – like some fruity dessert. Needless to say, I promptly chose a couple. I just hope these set seeds as easily as those I have at home. 

IMG_7685_wrightiaThen we checked out the rose garden behind one of the garden centers. After searching for 7-sisters and china doll and coming up with zilch, I turned my attention to other plants. There were huge bags of healthy chili and egg plants but these were not on my wish list.

Then I saw a group of diminutive wrightia religiosa standing between 4 to 5 inches tall. I had to kneel to take a closer look. It was the small leaved variety. But what held my attention was the fact that they were blooming and the flowers were double petalled.IMG_7686

I asked the worker how much the plants cost. “Not selling,” came the clipped reply. It must have been that injured look on my face that made him reconsider. I finally bought two after taking a good ten minutes to make my choice. These would look good in tiny bonsai pots.

Bonsais are not really my cup of tea, but they remind me of my gran. She loved them and would have bought more than a couple if she could.

IMG_7640I also picked up a thymus and a rosemarinus officinalis prostatus. The thyme had finer leaves than those in my collection and the creeping rosemary was just too good to let slip through my fingers.




IMG_7418To say that I was thrilled to see it is almost an understatement. “Don’t water in the evenings,” the man at the market cautioned. He probably thought I was likely to water it to death.

And I saw a plant that reminded me of the ornithogalum. I’d never seen the plant before so I asked for help with the ID.  My good friend Al found the answer for me – it’s Bulbine frutescens.

New plants always fascinate me and this was no exception. I figured it would look nice next to the lilac flowers of the thulbaghia violacea (society garlic). Let’s hope it turns out to be as tough as its new neighbour.

IMG_7698_Bulbine frutescens

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Weeping tea tree

Weeping willows (salix babylonica) are beautiful. But apparently they always have caterpillars and my folks don’t fancy caterpillars very much. There is no way they’ll welcome one in the garden.

Then I came across the weeping tea tree – leptospermum brachyandrum. I could hardly believe it. A combination of two of my favourite trees; the weeping willow and the tea tree (melaleuca bracteata). Guess what that meant? It meant I was on a mission …

For a long time, the only specimens I came across were whoppers that towered over me. Needless to say those were out of the question. I wanted a small one that I could grow in a pot and nurture over the years. It would also be kinder on the pocket.

I saw one standing at 18 inches tall. They wanted rm15 for it. I hesitated … and you know what they say about people who hesitate. When I changed my mind and went back to the nursery, it was no longer there. Looks like I am not the only one who likes the weeping tea tree.

It has many merits after all – a beautiful pendulous structure, a lovely trunk and soft narrow leaves which are fragrant when crushed. 

Yesterday, after checking out about half a dozen nurseries at Sg Buloh, I was ready to concede once again. Then we decided to make a final stop at a nursery tucked further in. I saw two trees standing at over 8 feet tall. I pointed these out to the lady there and asked for small bagged ones. She walked towards the row of plants at the back to check and beckoned me. BINGO! I could have hugged her!

There were about 20 bags of the weeping tea’ trees’, all below a foot tall. I selected one.  “Rm9,” she said. Anything under rm10 sounded like music to my ears. Even so, I got my trophy for just rm8 …

Oh, joy!


Care and propagation: Shade to full sun, water moderately, not fussy about soil; propagate through cuttings or seeds


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Warding off mosquitoes

I think my family and I have tried growing just about everything available locally that’s said to ward off mosquitoes.

At one time, Pelargonium graveolens was all the rage, and we jumped onto the bandwagon and bought a couple. My youngest sis was a baby then and we placed the two plants beside her cot. We were perplexed as she still got bitten. We were told that we had to rub or brush against the leaves to release the scent. I can’t imagine doing that all the time and I’m sure the plant wouldn’t appreciate that either. Dad, a sceptic, insisted that we had been conned. 

Next up was the citronella or cymbopogon nardus. We grow this in a pot to contain it as it grows as easily the IMG_7666lemongrass, cymbopogon citrates. It even looks like the lemongrass – except that it looks like an emaciated version without the typically swollen base of its cousin.

Once in a while, I would pick a citronella leaf and rub it to release its aromatic fragrance. This isn’t so much to repel mosquitoes as to get a whiff of its fragrance. I can’t understand why mosquitoes, or anything for that matter, would hate the lovely scent. There are still mosquitoes in the garden, of course. I guess the other option would be to replace the lawn with the citronella. Perhaps then the mozzies may be deterred.

Then we read about vitex trifolia in the papers. A village in Indonesia made news when its dengue cases fell by 80%. The village had a program which promoted the planting of vitex trifolia. It repelled mosquitoes and the people made incense from the plant.  http://thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=…1&sec=focus

IMG_7672I planted a few cuttings and these grew easily. I was told that the leaves can be used either as a relaxing and soothing spa bath, or as a warm compress for joint pains. It was a 3-in-1! Not bad, I thought.

One would think I lived in a mozzie infested place the way I kept collecting these plants. Well, I wouldn’t mind if it was totally mosquito-free. Then I started to look further afield. IMG_7695

This time a friend sent me some eucalyptus citrodora seeds from abroad. I was prepared for a low germination rate but contrary to my beliefs, the seeds sprouted easily. I contain the plants as I have no intention of letting them grow into the giants they are in the wild. 

My nieces (and I) love to stroke the leaves – ahhh, the lemony scent is just amazing! They don’t call it lemon eucalyptus for nothing.

And then, the ‘ultimate’ mozzie repelling plant came in the size of a tiny seedling. This is the zodia – Evodia suaveolens. A friend told me that the scent was so strong that a leaf in his pocket made him feel giddy. “It outshines vitex trifolia and the rest as you can smell it without having to touch or disturb the plant.” That’s like waving a red flag at a bull. I had to get my hands on one.

I looked for the zodia everywhere but it remained elusive. If I saw anything similar I would take a whiff to see ( ‘smell’ is probably a better word)  if it was THE plant. Then, thanks to Richard, I finally got my 1-inch baby which came with instructions for its care. I’ll do my darnedest to make sure it survives and thrives. Every now and then I’d check on it, lift the zodia up to my nose and inhale …..



Care and propagation

Pelargonium graveolens: semi-shade, water moderately, well-drained soil; propagation through stem cuttings or seeds is not easy
Cymbopogon nardus: full sun, water moderately, not fussy about soil; propagates through division of clumps
Vitex trifolia: full sun, water generously, not fussy about soil; propagates easily through cuttings
Eucalyptus citrodora: morning sun, water moderately, well drained soil; propagate through seeds
Evodia suaveolens: well drained soil, water moderately, well-drained soil; propagation through seeds and semi-hardwood cuttings

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Creamy butter crabs

There is something irresistible about a polystyrene box filled with live mud crabs. Especially when they are going for only rm16 or rm17 a kilo. I stood around to observe. A lady chose five and her bill was under rm20. Not bad, I thought. I resolved to get some … and I did … today.

I bought chilies and ginger with every intention of cooking our usual sweet and sour chilli crabs. As soon as I got home, I suddenly remembered the creamy butter crabs I loved so well. I’ve never cooked it before so this would be a first. And I didn’t even have a recipe. So I consulted the Internet and went out again to get the requisite butter and milk.

Then I killed the crabs – another first. Thank goodness they didn’t kick up a fuss so I don’t have to feel that guilty. After picking chilies and curry leaves from the garden, I was ready to heat the wok. 

Here’s the recipe I adapted from what I found on the net:

1 kilo mud crabs (wash and cut)
250 gm butter (1 slab)
400 gm evaporated milk (1 can)
3 cloves garlic, chopped finely
6 chili padi
7 stalks curry leaves (murraya koenigii) – remove the stems
2 slices cheese (optional)
½ teasp salt
1 teasp sugar
1 teasp cornflour + ¼ cup water for thickening

 1. Deep fry the crabs in hot oil till the shell turns red. Dish out.

2. In another pan, melt the butter. Add the garlic, chili and curry leaves and fry for 3 minutes.

3. Add the milk and simmer for 10 minutes till it turns a bit glossy.

4. Add salt and sugar. Add the cheese and thickening.

5. Add the crabs and coat well with the sauce. Dish out and serve immediately.


My niece who is leaving for the US soon came to have some and finished more than half the portion.

The verdict? She gave it the thumbs up. “Ace!” she said. Ahhh, such a sinful recipe, but it warrants a repeat, surely?


This is the website I referred to: http://zulkifly.com/2009/08/food/recipe-for-creamy-sauce-butter-crabs/


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I. Balsamina – da bomb

IMG_3199I love the sensation of a plump ripe balsam seed capsule exploding inside my palm. It gives a muted pop – and segments of the pod immediately coil up into tight whorls.

 I transferred to a new school when I was eight and was naturally curious about its various nooks and corners. One corner fascinated me like no other – the science garden which was located just behind the washrooms. The attraction? Several balsams which were planted within tantalizing reach. These drew me like a magnet.

Suddenly I needed to go to the loo more often than was necessary. My pitstops were also more protracted as I would stop and gaze at the plants or check to see if any seed pod had ripened. The impatiens balsamina were single petalled but were pretty all the same. Soon eager fingers sowed my first balsams into a pot. No prizes for guessing the source of the seeds.

With so many plants and seeds available today, only the double petalled variety which look like miniature roses seems to be worth growing; especially when one has limited space. Even then, we grow only those with what we think are lovelier colours.

I was at a garden fest in Singapore when I saw my first bi-coloured balsam.  I was instantly smitten. I had to get the seeds but these remained elusive until I returned to Singapore on another occasion. An ever-obliging, long-suffering friend got them for me. Richard, that was a coup!

We have a few double petalled balsams in the garden; sweet pink, scarlet, carmine, lilac, two other shades of purple and of course, the lovely bi-coloured specimen.

Balsams are really obliging and cooperative annuals. They are one of the first plants I recommend kids and newbies grow as success is almost guaranteed. Balsams are not fussy about soil and as long as they get lots of sun, they flower their heads off.

And the best thing is, there is something else to look forward to after the flush of flowers – plump ripe seed pods begging to be popped!


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Rosemary for rememberance

P1080155Ah, who doesn’t know the rosemary? I love all mediterrean herbs and would plant them all if I could. So me being me, just had to have this herb.

I almost jumped for joy when I saw pots of rosmarinus officinalis plants at potted herb section of the supermarket.

I bought my first … and watered it to death with my enthusiasm. Wisdom stepped in and prompted me read up before I sacrificed anymore of them. The second lasted longer and grew to thrice its size before giving up its ghost.

IMG_2900I guess we learn from our mistakes – I had better! I didn’t want anymore (rosemary) blood on my hands. So I controlled the watering further and and it paid off. Subsequent rosemary plants thrived and grew in size.

Then I decided to plant the rosemary out in the open where they would have more space. This meant subjecting them to full sun and our punishing torrential tropical storms.

I had to make sure the plants never got wet feet for too long, so I dug a trench along the trough and planted the rosemary shrubs on mounds of well-drained soil. It seems to be working.

IMG_3554But the rosemary and I have yet another battle to fight. There are pesky black


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