A Gardener’s Review

A variety of Eugenia, showing white flowers. A common belief among naturalists is that white flowers attract moths, yellow ones attract butterflies, and red ones appeal to birds.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 54 no. 3, 2001.

I was a rank beginner when I started writing on landscaping with indigenous species. Since then my interests have broadened, and my garden has become an obsession, but why did I choose indigenous, and how far am I in achieving my goals?

The common stem fig is rarely seen ripe: as soon as it is edible it is plucked by bats.

My broad ideas were initially inspired by gardens in Australia, where there has been a growing interest in Australian plants over the last three decades. There, gardeners use local plants to create a specific sense of place, to conserve water and nutrients and to encourage native birds and animals. This same sense of place is special to me here in Malaysia, because I want my garden to reflect the fact that I am here and not in Australia, nor just in some unspecified tropical country. The garden had to assert the whole history of the place and the plants that were on the site for thousands of years before it was cleared for a coffee plantation just 70 years ago.

As well, the conservation of water and nutrients presented a challenge. An organic approach seemed the most appropriate, so we set up systems to compost and mulch, and selected hardy species that can naturally withstand insect attack or drought. As in the Australian example, this choice of local species simultaneously created an instant pallet of colour and form that is particularly Malaysian.

Here there is no drought as in Australia, but everything is relative. Deplete the soil of organic matter, expose it to the tropical sun and soon the situation will resemble drought or flood. With nothing to retain moisture and nutrients, plants have to cope with extreme conditions that flatten all but the hardiest. The instant gardener would intervene chemically to help his plants: fertilize, pesticide, herbicide and fungicide. A sure step to suicide…. for the planet, if not for the gardener. Far better, surely, to choose a wider species mix and conservative gardening techniques to create a naturalist’s garden.

In my previous garden in Kuala Lumpur, a neighbour prided herself on her roses, beautiful tall bushes that produced an amazing crop of flowers considering our location just 3 degrees from the equator, but to me the price was unacceptable as several times a week the unmistakable smell of agrocide came floating over the fence.

At that stage, I had a small garden that was low maintenance, of hardy species that screened us from the neighbours. It just required an occasional pruning, and apart from the aesthetic value of looking at green rather than street, I didn’t really think about it much. When we decided to move to our 14 acre dusun, or village orchard, the garden became a major element that had to be taken more seriously.

I wanted shade most of all, and was inspired by the arboretum at FRIM, where the massive dipterocarps soar a hundred feet overhead. Planting fruit trees was not a priority as there were already plenty, and although I had a brief fling with ‘cash crops’, like sweet corn, the returns did not justify the effort. The nice thing about trees is that once they are established they need little attention.

Once the dipterocarps were on the way, I needed bulk underneath to give form and volume to the planting, so then began the hunt for local ferns, gingers, palms and ground covers.

Searching around the nurseries in Sungai Buloh and everywhere I traveled in Malaysia became an opportunity to find new and unusual plants that had some relevance to a regional garden. My most recent find is the mauve seeds of the fish tail palm Caryota rumphiana from Gua Gomantong in Sabah. I had never seen them in fruit although this magnificent solitary palm has become common in KL planted by the roadside.

The search for plants has sharpened my awareness of species in the forest, and I was delighted to recognize, also in Sabah, the beautiful palm Arenga undulatifolia, growing on the limestone outcrops along the Kinabatangan River. I have tried to germinate seeds of this rare species that I collected from the Singapore Botanic Gardens, but failed. Now at least I know its natural growing conditions so can try again to replicate the alkaline, well drained habitat.

While many bananas are considered inedible by humans, they make excellent food for wildlife: insects visit the flowers, and birds, mammals and bats take the fruit. This Musa sp. called pisang belali gajah in Malay provides hundreds of fruits that ripen progressively over months, providing a stable food supply.

An important continuing project is the herb garden, which is more a spice garden with lots of ethno-botanically relevant plants: toddy palms, cinnamon, cloves, nutmegs, meninjau, pandan, chillies, vanilla orchids, lemon grass, pepper, turmuric and tamarind, as well as local medicinal plants. Organic vegetables make the garden useful, while the fragrant blooms of gingers and creepers provide the atmosphere of the ‘exotic East’ which is actually the here and now, not the remote and romantic.

We started Taman Sari by taking a leaf from the Chinese vegetable gardeners’ practice. We burned the clay left over from the house excavations, and if one can talk of a transforming experience, verging on the religious, this was it. Creating a garden is all about making something beautiful and productive that wasn’t there before. Burning clay, the worst kind of soil one could be blessed with, transforms it into a soil that is porous, retains and releases water slowly, that crumbles easily and is sterile and ‘sweet’, blessed as it is with charcoal fragments from the burning. Transubstantiating fire converted my gardening into a religion: to do everything as naturally as possible.

As I became more aware of birds in the garden and the processes of establishing plants, I realised how rewarding it is to share my space with other creatures. I am delighted to say that in the last month I have seen in my garden a pangolin, a two-meter keeled rat snake, chestnut bellied malkohas, crested serpent eagles getting their daily lift from the hot spot on our plaza, a blue winged pitta, large biawaks, a pair of hill mynas calling from the fruiting kenanga trees, and millions of iridescent flies attracting masses of swifts as the flies fed on a flowering Terminalia bellirica. I look forward to the spectacled leaf monkeys feeding on the Terminalia fruit in a few months time.
Not all is resounding success, though. Despite my mix of species I have recently had a plague of white ulat bulu, hairy caterpillars, that have completely defoliated several of these Terminalias. Without spraying, I just have to pray for some natural predator to arrive, but am none the less anxious about the monkeys’ food supplies. They must find enough forage elsewhere in the kampong, where trees are being cut every day to make way for more houses.

I experience a real sense of urgency about wildlife, not unlike worrying about one’s children, so I continue to plant as many species as I can to supplement available food sources. So rather than farming for people, which was the original objective of our dusun, I am now gardening for wildlife, and the animals make the seasons of my garden just as much as the plants do. When we have come full circle, I hope my garden will resemble the forest that was here for thousands of years before it was thoughtlessly replaced by a mono-cultural farm that was destined to fail.

I have one relic of that pre-agricultural era, a worn stump that has eluded all attempts to remove it, and it silently reminds me every time I pass of my mission.