Friday, August 31, 2012

Penjing shaped as Chinese characters

Just need to show this little detail from the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, the subject of my previous blog post: 

Wandering through the numerous courtyards, I found several penjing skillfully shaped as Chinese characters. Some of them were still in the making, offering an intriguing insight into the pleasantly low tech process that leads to the sophisticated end results. Definitely my kind of engineering. I would love to be able to read these kanji, but need someone to decipher them to me as I have no skills in that area. Definitely another good reason to start Mandarin lessons while here.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Stone, water and penjing at the Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery

The Mahavira Hall at the Lian Shan Shuang Lin monastery, with large penjing flanking the entryway and steps to the temple.

Pretty much since we came to Singapore, I've been intrigued by a sprawling temple area that sits just a stone throw from a hectic highway, amongst a sea of tall apartment buildings. It is the home of Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery, Singapore's oldest Buddhist monastery .

Large, carefully trained penjing (Chinese meaning "tray scenery", a close relative to the Japanese bonsai) in huge planters carved out of single pieces of granite are displayed all over the monastery. They require enormous amounts of maintenance - a sign of reverence.

Elaborate gates lead to the different temples and inner gardens (my favorites) of the monastery.

The history of Lian Shan Shuang Lin Monastery - locals seem to call it only the Shuang Lin temple - reflects Singapore itself. It was founded by a Low Kim Pong, a devoted Buddhist, who in the 1850s left his family and poor circumstances in mainland China for Singapore and became a highly successful entrepreneur here.

The story goes that Low Kim Pong literally dreamt this monastery into being; according to the notes, one night in 1898 he "dreamt of a sacred man, radiating golden light, approaching from the West to the water front. Believing this to be an omen and with a continuing enthusiasm, they went to the waterfront and waited patiently."

Water - an integral element in Chinese gardens - is present in pots, fountains and even a large half-moon pond. I love the huge dragon jars and the little waterlilies with their leaves streaked with dark burgundy.

More water and waterlilies, this time in a huge boulder carved into a birdbath. And another huge, expressive boulder typical to Chinese gardens; unfortunately the sign was in Chinese that I do not understand (yet?).

Luckily for Low Kim Pong, a boat finally arrived at dusk carrying Venerable Xian Hui and his family of 12 Buddhist monks and nuns. After six years of pilgrimage to India, Ceylon and Burma, they were stopping over in Singapore on their way home to China. Xian Hui agreed on Low Kim Pong's vision about founding a Buddhist monastery in Singapore, and he became the first abbot in the new institution built on 50 acres of land donated by Low Kim Pong in what today forms the busy suburb of Toa Payoh.

Petrified and carved stone together with expressive tree trunks form the focal points of the contemplative inner garden rooms.

Both originating from the Fujian province in China, Low Kim Pong and Xian Hui called in craftsmen from their hometowns there as well from the nearby Guangdong province to construct and build the monastery. The result is a blend of architectural styles typical for these regions that reflects the Chinese immigrant society of Singapore at that time. In the late 1900s, it fell into severe disrepair and was even partially closed from time to time. It was only in 1991 that an extensive restoration project (sometimes a bit too enthusiastic - I would have loved to see more patina left in place...) was started, and it is still continuing on many areas of the grounds.

More stone - a symbol of stability and endurance and a integral element of Chinese gardens. On the left, two petrified tree trunks, on the lower right, stone with surface that water has carved into a distinct pattern reminding of waves.

A passageway with several penjing shaped as Chinese characters - if I only would be able to read them!

Wandering through the gates, walkways and temples of the monastery easily transfers one from the daily bustle of Singapore into another, more spiritual world. I especially loved seeing how people and monks were sitting in the inner gardens, meditating and contemplating in silence (of course, no photographing was allowed  inside the temples). I definitely need to know more of the Buddhist religion as now I felt (and of course, am) just like a tourist who appreciates the temples and their beauty solely on their aesthetic and visual values. But even if so much of their deeper meanings were lost on me, just sitting there enjoying the quiet peace of the monastery with a scent of incense wafting around, I know I still gained a lot.

Details, details, everywhere... 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Orchids through a net

On my daily morning walks I sometimes stroll through Katong, a quiet residential area with lovely mix of both new and old houses - Milo, our doggie needs to get taken out before the quick-silver rises all too high. This morning, I encountered a somewhat derelict bungalow with a huge netted cage in front of it. Inside the cage, hundreds and hundreds of orchids were thriving in the shade it provided.
Besides two green-glazed ceramic lions on the top of the gateposts, I couldn't see anyone around, so  was left wondering if this this is the home of an eccentric orchid collector or a little home business supplying rare varieties to specialist gardens and collections. For me, it looked all too shabby and charming to be a business on a professional scale. I might need to "stalk" this front yard and see if anyone there can give me an answer, or in best case, a tour among the orchids. Until then, here are some snaps through the net.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Blue pea flowers for ice cream

While visiting the Gardens by the Bay, I tried a heavenly ice cream coloured like softly blue evening sky. It was flavored with butterfly pea flowers, Bunga telang in Malay or Clitoria ternatea in Latin (I strongly prefer the English or the Malay name...). I had already read about pea flowers as a traditional ingredient for tea and desserts in Sharon Wee's lovely Growing up in a Nonya Kitchen - book, so I was eager to give it a try. Its taste was pleasantly floral and refreshing, not overpowering or perfume-like, as sometimes is the case with desserts made of or with flowers.

Today, I stumbled upon the flower itself during my morning walk. Someone had planted several young plants on the parking strip outside their house and the little bushes were full of flowers. They are supposed to be very easy to grow both in sun and shade, and they usually flower already six weeks after planting the seeds.

To be used for a strikingly indigo tea or for more softly colored desserts, the flowers need to be sun-dried first and then soaked in hot water to extract the deep blue shade that no commercial colouring can compare to. Our ice cream maker has already got to serious use since we moved to Singapore, but now I might need to plant some pea flowers on our balcony too to be able to make that delicious ice cream myself.   

Photo by Tanya may, Wikipedia Commons.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay

The magical mushroom tour continues... this time to the Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore. Yes, that really was my first impression of these amazing, greenery-clad concrete and steel towers that resemble giant trees. Fueled by the sun and the park's own bio waste, they light up in the night and function as air-conditioning system for the two large greenhouses in the park. There is so much ambition and technology in just this one part of the huge park that it almost takes my breath away. (And don't ask me how they function; if you need to know, check it out here.)

As you can see in my photos, the scale of this installation is huge. There is nothing timid or tentative about these tree-resembling vertical gardens that reach up to 50 meters height. A suspended skywalk, a slightly terrifying experience for a acrophobic person like me, connects the trees and gives a great overview of the gardens below. Magnificently bold as they are, these solar-powered trees (but then, what trees are not?) give a somewhat other-worldly feeling to the park, like artifacts from another planet where greenery has to be produced, not grown... and to add to this artificial experience, they "emit" a colorful light-show in the evenings. But this is probably only my low-key Scandinavian mind speaking - in a couple of years, when the surrounding real trees and greenery have developed, the Supertrees will blend in more softly and add great sculptural structure to the garden.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay

From the oldest to the newest in one single week... Gardens by the Bay, Singapore's latest and most ambitious investment in green spaces opened for a months ago and has since been wondered and admired over all around the world. Just search the name and it pops up in whichever media you might wish.

Of course I needed to see this bold new park. Substantial and built with enormous resources, it is located on whopping 250 acres between the Marina Bay Sands casino, entertainment and business district and the Straits of Singapore. In addition to large, themed outdoor gardens with the much buzzed Super Trees (more about them in my next post), it also has two large conservatories that showcase vegetation from all around the world.  

While I visited, the unrelenting sun kept reminding me about who is the boss in these equatorial areas. After a short attempt, I decided to leave the outdoor areas to another time - if visiting daytime, do condescend to sitting in a large golf-buggy looking vehicle with a roof; you will dearly need the shade it offers. Instead, I headed to the cool and moist Cloud Forest dome, eagerly drinking in the soothing shelter it provided.

The Cloud Forest dome displays plants from tropical mountainous areas from heights of 1000 to 3000 meter. A whole 35 meter high mountain has been built inside it, with water cascading down and creating a misty environment for the plants to thrive. A suspended walkway lingers through the different areas and inside its internal caves; educational signs and multimedia presentations tell about the habitats and the effects of our behaviour on nature - not always a very cheering experience, but then, there's no reason for shutting one's eyes from the sad truth either. Greenery and flowering plants weave their leaves on the sides of the mountain; you can still see the shallow planters their are housed in, but I'm sure in a couple of months they will form an uninterrupted tapestry of varying leaf forms and colours.

It is amazing how a small country like Singapore with just a bit over 5 million inhabitants had the courage and resources to build a green space the Gardens by the Bay. I can't imagine many countries that would put away all millions needed to complete and then maintain the areas; the scale surpasses anything I've seen within the garden area so far, and this is just the beginning - a second part of the gardens will follow in a couple of years. But then, Singapore seems to be seriously committed to its slogan "City in a Garden" and as I noted in my previous post, sees green spaces as an important mean to enrich the quality of life of its citizens. And artificial as it is, Gardens by the Bay is also hoped and expected to create public interest to the remaining mangrove groves and other natural areas of greenery.

As a park, it is the early days for both the Cloud Forest dome and Gardens by the Bay as a whole. Most of the plants, however impressively large when planted, need time to develop their canopies to provide shade and to weave together into a coherent whole. Compared with the Botanical Gardens, the oldest of Singaporean public gardens, Gardens by the Bay gives an absolutely spectacular but at the same time quite hard impression to the visitor; there's too much dramatic architecture and grandeur, too little unattended freedom and soothing greenery. Nevertheless, in my opinion it is an amazing and bold display of the confidence that Singapore and Asia show for themselves and for their future, and therefore I would already call it a "must" for any garden lover visiting or living in Singapore. Just don't forget your sunnies, your hat and your water bottle!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Strolling through steamy Singapore Botanic Gardens

Water is an ever-present feature of the Singapore Botanic Gardens - even if you unfortunately can't jump in, its sound provides a relief in the hot, humid climate.

Midst all moving bustle, we managed to squeeze in a morning walk at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a favorite from our earlier trips to Singapore. Dog-friendly (they even offer bowls to fill from a special tap) and with a good coffee-house, it makes a perfect treat before the equatorial sun climbs too high and turns the gentle activity of garden strolling into a high-endurance sport.

The National Orchid Garden is situated in the middle of the Botanic Gardens. It holds many unusual plants I've never seen before, but unfortunately most of them don't carry any signs to tell their names, which I would expect from a 'botanical' garden.
With a history reaching over 150 years back, Singapore Botanic Gardens has often been called the "leading equatorial botanical garden" and for long, it has been the uncontested crown jewel of all Singaporean green spaces. It was only this June that its prime position was challenged by the bold, new "Gardens by the Bay" park (more about it in my next post). Starting from quite practical beginnings - its initial task was to introduce economic crops as cocoa, rubber and nutmeg to cultivation- Singapore Botanic Gardens has evolved into a delightful park that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also has world-class plant collections, research and educational facilities and a pronounced recreational agenda.

Groups of Singaporeans - old and young - fill the open spaces of the gardens, practicing tai chi, yoga or Chinese dances.

Walking through the gardens, groups of Singaporeans - old and young, native and immigrant - were using the Gardens as their outdoor living room. Expat moms practiced baby yoga with their mats spread out on the lawns, retirees with silver hair flowed though their tai chi-moves in deep concentration, dignified old ladies danced with red fans in their hands to traditional Chinese music. There was place for everyone, and everyone seemed to be able to enjoy their activities without disturbing each other or being distracted by passers-by.

Heliconias, Costus and other members of the ginger family form a large part of the vegetation - there is even a special section called the Ginger Garden.

For a tiny island nation with population density 457 times higher than my native Finland (!), it is essential to have a well-defined "green" vision about how to provide a sustainable and high-quality lifestyle for its citizens. This is something that Singapore and its government have taken seriously. Its recently minted slogan "City in a Garden" was chosen to express their deep commitment to creating, developing and utilizing green spaces, and they are doing much more than just creating slogans (more of this later...). But already from my short experience here, I can see that Singaporeans don't need any encouragement in embracing and using their abundant and lush gardens. Just like the wonderful Botanic Gardens, these green spaces are already a great public asset for all who wish to enjoy them.   

A pearl-pink Calathea loeseneri opening its delicate petals in the darkness of the jungle floor.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Back in action... now as a container gardener

Some well travelled garden furniture and pots - some of them are already into their fourth continent...

After living out of our suitcases for six weeks, we finally moved into our new apartment last weekend. Tired of having frenetically unpacked cardboard boxes during the last few days, I indulged in some serious plant shopping - after all, a gardening girl has to keep her priorities straight. I intently skipped all planning of any color or plant combinations and dived into a temptingly lush nursery I had spotted from a taxi window the week before. This might be more retail therapy than actual gardening, but boy did it feel good to plant a couple of pots and get some dirt under my fingernails again.

A bougainvillea, a Jade Empress palm (Rhapis multifida),  a Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa), a healthy-looking, erect Heliconia and a tiny little Frangipani (Plumeria sp. - I've wanted one for years as I love their scented flowers...) in their new home on our roof terrace in Singapore.

Our first weeks in Singapore were quite stressful; we found out that a building behind the apartment we had signed is going to be torn down in October, which means that we would have be living besides a major construction site for the next two years. And as things go here, builders work from 7 AM until 10 PM, seven days a week, so all our lunches and dinners on longed-for balmy tropical nights would have been accompanied by the less-delicate sounds of jackhammers and drills instead of chirping cicadas. We were extremely lucky to be offered another apartment (normally there is no way out from a signed contract), and we landed with two balconies, several planters and a roof terrace - enough place to enjoy at least some members of the amazing flora here.

More planters to fill on the first floor of our apartment - the question is how to water them, as all water has to be carried through the living room... Any good suggestions?

So what did I buy on my first foray into the local plant world? A couple of bougainvilleas, one delicate Jade Empress palm (Rhapis multifida),  two more robust Lady Palms (Rhapis excelsa), a tiny young Frangipani (Plumeria sp. - I've wanted to have one for years as I love their scented flowers...), one healthy-looking and erect Heliconia and one desert rose (Adenium obesum), all of which can take the somewhat hard conditions of a roof terrace. And no subtle, sophisticated whites for me this time; all my new "protégés" bloom in eye-popping pinks and oranges - well, besides the palms obviously. I'm not sure where this is going (and if I should change my blog name to The Intercontinental Container Gardener), but I'm definitely happy with the journey so far!