The Gardening Lifeline

by Angela Hijjas

from The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 50 no. 1, December 1996

Some of us share a compulsion to garden and find great tranquility as we perform the apparently mindless tasks of watering and weeding. Gardening fulfills a desire to beautify our surroundings by rearranging things but there is more to it than that. Our connection to a particular place is shown by the marks we make on it: what we plant or build, or choose to weed out and destroy. Gardens reflect the world we want to see.

My personal view of the world is not particularly optimistic, and my need to focus on the positive is met by gardening. I would rather not see the natural environment diminish around me and so concentrate instead on the smaller delights of my own land: deciding were to plant a tree, finding the pigeon orchids, or catching sight of a rarely seen bird: all occupy my selective view.. Living in Kuala Lumpur, I have come to accept change as the norm, but since I started gardening in earnest I have begun to focus instead on the plants people choose and to wonder about the landscapes of their imaginations.

I know that gardening is my survival mode and I kid myself that I am developing the answer to sustainability, despite the facts that no one else I know has fourteen acres to plant and that after five years I am barely self-sufficient in anything but nutmegs! Perhaps my garden will provide sanctuary for a few plants and birds, as well.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

In these articles I would also like to share this understanding of ‘occupying’ a place by gardening. What do you want your garden to say about yourself? Do you want to work in it or should it be low maintenance? Do you want fragrance or colour, or both? Are you content with just greenery? Are there any cultural icons you want to include: a shrine or a piece of sculpture? A garden gnome, perhaps? The results can be surprisingly revealing.

My own thoughts on gardening are strongly influenced by having come from Australia. In Australia, planting indigenous species has become common as people have acquired a sense of belonging to the country and their knowledge of its plants and animals has grown. I have chosen to plant and learn more about dipterocarps and dillenias, instead of the eucalypts and grevilleas of my birthplace. What I learned elsewhere, I want to apply here with local materials to create my version of a Malaysian garden.

The idea of planting indigenous species in Australia had wider implications that an emerging sense of belonging in a formerly foreign country: they are better suited to the environment, so maintenance and inorganic intervention are minimised. More important, local plants only need as much rain as they get naturally. Thus, in Australia, thirsty emerald lawns were replaced by bark chips and pebbles, simultaneously creating a sympathetic ‘canvas’ for the bluish greys of Australian bush species. Presto! A ‘new Australian’ aesthetic for landscape design!

By planting local species and pursuing organic techniques, I plan to enrich my local biomass and shape it into a Malaysian landscape of tall canopies under-planted with palms and ferns. I have compromised at times when choosing plants, particularly in the earlier years, and I constantly find myself justifying the entrance avenue of Madagascan travelers palms. The lush extravagance of the ‘pan tropic’ style was just too tempting and I was overwhelmed by such exotic choices, but as I find more suitable local species those early anomalies will be replaced.

This series of gardening articles was supposed to be packed with hands- on, practical advice and information. Sadly, I lack the qualifications to satisfy the techies who want hard data. For them, in fact for anyone interested in gardening, I would recommend the wonderful ‘Tropical Planting and Gardening’, first published in 1910 and still in print thanks to our own Malaysian Nature Society. All of its 767 pages are packed with information about plants and techniques guaranteed to be environmentally friendly, predating the age of chemicals as it does. It offers a wealth of facts and figures, a wonderful insight into a world long gone and all the how-to advice you are ever likely to need.

Unlike most MNS members, I have little desire to see the places we are trying to protect; just knowing they are intact would be enough. I have no recreational need to see them because I garden and what naturalist’s adventure could be as challenging as creating a Malaysian garden? It is an artificial construction but it is also my most important contact with the natural world. I am delighted to share the experience, but be prepared for opinionated tracts on the importance of the indigenous, the organic and the appropriate, because that is my quest.

By Angela Hijjas
Malayan Naturalist, vol. 50 no. 1, December 1996