A Study in Contrasts

by Michael N. Hofman

What a wonderful opportunity Janet and I have to get the chance to see different parts of the world.  It’s even more special when we can view our travels through the lens of our years of working in landscaping.  When we see a new place, or even view one we’ve been to before, it’s often through our experiences in designing, installing and maintaining beautiful gardens and in around San Francisco for all these years.

Some of you may know that we have been travelling to Southern Asia for a number of years.  In particular, we’ve spent many layovers in Singapore, more recently visiting with our friends Cat and Terence.  We’ve always considered the area to be heavily populated and industrial in nature.  Most of what visitors see when they go to Singapore are the manicured freeways, highrises, construction everywhere and developed city spaces.  Singapore is also known for its beautiful urban parks (including the Botanical Garden and Gardens by the Bay), which are usually well planned but still in the urban environment. On this trip, however, we had the chance during our recent visit to see the other, more rural part of this island country, which honestly I didn’t know even existed!

One such place is Coney Island, (yes named after that Coney Island) is a small island attached by a short causeway, purchased by a local in the 1930’s who wanted to create a second Coney Island in Singapore.  His plans went awry, and in the 1970’s the Singaporean government purchased the island for a park.

In this photo, you can see the grand entry to the park behind Janet and our friends.

In this photo, you can see the grand entry to the park behind Janet and our friends.

What’s interesting is that the park has retained its rural feeling, even while the paths and facilities are fully developed. It’s a favorite destination for weekend bike riders and walkers (as the park is about 4 km or 3 miles long).  Since it’s on the border of Singapore, from the beach the Malaysian coast is only a short swim away (maybe a mile away).  There are picnic spots, places to have a BBQ and shade houses, what one would expect in an urban park.  So in this this park, separated by only a small walkway, wild monkeys roam the island (so much so that signs are necessary to make sure they don’t eat more than they should.  Nonetheless, they are pretty aggressive and see their human visitors as sources of extra food!

Park restoration occurs even in the oppressive heat (for us), with staff performing additional planting and manual watering of new trees.  In this setting it’s quite difficult to water, so that staff uses a water truck to water the new trees (just in the same way SF DPW staff water the new plants and trees in street medians).  You can see two staff watering new trees in this photo – the water tank is in the back of the Toro utility truck.

One morning after coffee, Janet and I took a stroll from the housing complex where we were staying (our friends’ home) to a large nursery across the street.  While we saw numerous times beautiful plant material in hotel lobbies, street spaces, offices (even the airport), I didn’t think that there were local nurseries located right in the middle of Singapore.  But here was one – right across the street.  It was quite fun to realize that even though we were halfway across the world, we were at a nursery serving both the public and the trade doing exactly the same thing the nurseries we frequent do. In addition to warehousing plants, we saw employees performing propagation tasks and replanting work at the back (along with other housekeeping including soil mixing).  What was also interesting (and not similar to our wholesale nurseries) was the juxtaposition of the nursery (which was quite large) right across the street from a large housing complex (oh and by the way a new Google server building in just a block away)!  I was also fascinated by the quantity of plants ready to go in containers (rather large plants) and these beautiful intertwined trunked plants (can you figure out the species?).

Our last natural expedition on this trip was to the Kranji region in Singapore, specifically to the Kranji Marsh Park.  This small park is a bird watching mecca. The park has a number interesting elements, including a series of bird watching blinds, an observation tower, several marshes and shade houses with living roofs.

What’s interesting about this natural space is that it’s located in between a new housing development and a power plant (the pano taken from the top of the observation tower shows the power plant on the left, with the area on the right cleared and being made ready for construction).  Notice the living roof on top of the shade house in the foreground.  The park itself ends at the observation tower and extends from the photo along the band of trees to the horizon.

One of the most interesting trees on the way back was a large tree enveloped by a philodendron (of course I didn’t know the tree species).  See how much it’s grown to take over the tree?  Just so you know I’m not fibbing, look at the close up to see the leaf detail.  Many of the trees in this location were overtaken with the philodendron, which we can use to remind ourselves whenever a client wants to plant one!  We saw many other rural features that day (including an aeroponic vegetable factory and an organic farm). 


The aeroponic farm was quite interesting (and very large).  It consists of a series of tall green houses with growing “plates” (look like gutters) which are connected to a large gear which rotates the plates (we didn’t learn the schedule).

Our days of exploring in what we previously thought was one large city reminded me how we’ll find natural features in the most unlikely places, and how lucky we are to know how to enjoy them!