“We were curious to find out how private gardens had changed over the years, and what we could expect to see in the near future. There was no one more overly qualified to enlighten us than award-winning master landscaper, Inch Lim, who gathers top prizes from prestigious garden shows as frequently as calendulas bloom.”
BTT visited Inch at his office, which is a refurbished early century building on Jalan Sin Chew Kee, one of Kuala Lumpur’s lesser-known heritage rows. The office is reminiscent of a secret garden as the door leading in is composed entirely of small planter vessels, out of which a variety of indistinguishable greenery grows. For some
reason, the nostalgic interior, which still maintains its original wooden beams and staircase, suits our idea of a landscaper – natural and raw.
As we begin our interview, Inch indulged us with a quick history of modern day gardening. Gardening used to be a pastime pleasure of the privileged, who had both the time and money to indulge in frivolous activities unrelated to earning one’s daily bread. Private ownership of land by the average person really only became common practice a
few hundred years ago. Before that, the idea that one man could possess the rights to a stretch of land, much less plant fruit trees and pretty flowers on it for mere enjoyment, was unconceivable and thought of as the rights of only kings and nobles. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution, which started in Europe and saw the birth and growth of an intermediate social class between the aristocrats and peasants, that allowed more people into the esoteric world of gardening.
“During the Victorian era, gardening became a passion, and botanists combed the globe for plants that could be brought home,” Inch said. “The North Atlantic Drift keeps England warmer and more humid than the rest of Europe, and exotic plants could actually survive there”.
“Magnolias and peonies became popular during that time and remain so until now, but they actually originated from China,” he explained. This was the start of global flowering plant trade, and these miracles of nature no longer remained confined to their native soil, becoming immigrants who thrived, propagated and admired in foreign lands.
Less formal gardens were popular in the suburban areas, and started as much for practical reasons, with herbs, vegetables and fruit trees for sustenance. The Arts and Craft movement during the late 19th century influenced gardening themes, and more natural planting style became fashionable – the cottage-style design was romanticised
and spread to other regions, with Victorian plants now being exported to other countries where they too could adopt the rustic garden design.
‘Natural’ is a reoccurring theme throughout gardening history and Inch is seeing a reemergence today. “At the annual Chelsea Flower Show, the judges used to laud and award ‘perfect plants’, but I found that recently, there is a preference for the more natural look that is at least perceived to be less contrived.”
“For instance, master garden designers like Piet Oudolf are leading the New Perennials movement today, which uses the more practical perennials and native plants to create what would appear to be wild gardens,” Inch said.
Yet, in this time and age, there remains a distinction between those who have the means to maintain a garden and those who do not.
“The herbaceous border, which consists of densely planted perennials first introduced in the Victorian era, is also gaining popularity again,” Inch said. “But while seemingly the outcome of spontaneous planting, it is very labour-intensive to maintain.”
Although Inch relies very much on natural elements – like the sun or flickering candlelight to cast shadows and create movement – he finds that new technology has allowed landscapers to incorporate new features into their creations.
“For example, I’m trying to create seamless water features that are level with the deck, with barely a gap in between. This was not possible before,” he said. “Or the functional use of plants to create a hybrid system of plants and filter to clean swimming pools, dispensing with the need for chlorine.”
As urbanisation continues to draw more people into cities, who then live in high-rise developments with limited space, many have relinquished the dream of owning their own gardens. There is irony in that a few hundred years ago, it was progress that allowed the everyday person to own a private garden, and today it is progress that takes it away. But perhaps that need not be so. Inch ran through trends for city gardens and gave us snippets of his thoughts on them:
Rooftop gardens. “Entirely possible, and not even requiring any cutting-edge technology. We just have to figure out a better irrigation and drainage system for a flat surface.”
Vertical gardens. “Patrick Blanc invented the vertical garden, which doesn’t require soil for the plants to attach themselves to, so it doesn’t compromise the structural integrity of the wall.”
Edible gardens. Inch sighed before continuing: “Everyone should have an edible garden now, simply because food is getting so expensive nowadays.”
Thus the interview drew to an end, with us reassured that concrete jungles need not be the only type of ‘wilderness’ that our children will know in the future.
As Inch walked us out, we had time now to pause and admire the pond, in which Scissortail Rasboras darted nippily about and healthy water plants inhabited. We noticed how clear the water was, devoid of perceivable algae; it was a perfect hybrid system of plants and technology, as Inch has mentioned earlier, to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
As we stepped back out onto Jalan Sin Chew Kee, we suddenly remembered that we are actually at the centre of Kuala Lumpur. We realised that we have just experienced what was the garden of the future – little green sanctuaries in the mids t of tempestuous city life that will always keep us grounded.