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Garden Stories: James Ip and his balcony fern forest

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[photo courtesy of James Ip]

When I first began following James Ip on Instagram a few months back, I dreamed of seeing his balcony fern forest in person. I was amazed by his love of ferns, how he had dedicated his entire balcony to plants, and how beautifully put together his garden is. I paid a visit to his apartment in Kembangan to experience it for myself, it was a marvellous sight!

From his choice of plants and how he has exhibited them, it is immediately obvious that he has a keen eye for details and is a romantic at heart. The plant arrangements present lots of depth, visual texture, and demonstrates careful curation on his part. By staggering his collection of plants at various heights, he has managed to ensure that his balcony accommodates his numerous plants and their needs, as well as allow enough light to enter his home.

His two fish ponds form the backbone to his garden. With its arrival, James began adding plants, and it lends an adequate amount of humidity to his plants. Other than ferns, the garden also features begonias, ivy, dracaena, syngonium, bromeliads, umbrella papyrus, pink alpinia, among others.

His ferns require a bit of care, such as an afternoon misting on very hot, dry days. The water in his ponds experience a 30% per cent evaporation rate daily, which is as frequent as he needs to top it up.

James has done a remarkable job creating a zen balcony space. Read on to find out more about how it all came together!

JIP

[Images from James Ip’s Instagram account]

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1. Thank you for allowing me to visit your balcony garden, it looks amazing! When did this love of plants start for you – and why ferns?

It’s a pleasure having you.

As far as I can remember, I have always liked plants.

As a kid growing up in the island of Mauritius, I was surrounded by plants & nature and there’s nothing I enjoyed  more than going around exploring river banks and woods, collecting wild plants and catching fish.

My love for ferns, I guess, started when a neighbour gave me my first maidenhair fern. After that, I went on to acquire quite a collection, even from a young age – usually, these would’ve been plants we exchanged with neighbours or relatives, I can’t recall purchasing any of them.

Actually, it helped that my home had ideal conditions for growing ferns, both outdoors in the veranda and indoors, in the cool, well-lit living room.

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DSCF486520160320_1051462. What is gardening to you, and what do you love most about your balcony garden?

Gardening literally keeps me sane, it’s an escape from the daily grind at my IT job – tending to my plants is immensely relaxing and gratifying.

It has to be the fact that I can see it whenever I’m in my living room [that probably will not be feasible in the case of a rooftop or outdoor garden] and I like to think of it as an extension of the living room.

And I love how it looks so different at  different times of the day: in the early morning light, the plants look fresh, with crisp colours & rich texture (that’s when I like to take my Instagram pics of plant combos);  in the afternoon, I love how when the sun shines through the curtain of tassel ferns and rhipsalis, the whole place glitters; and in the evenings, when the garden lights and water feature are turned on, it’s another relaxing & rather enchanting experience  I never tire of, especially when I come home after a long day.

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[Images from James Ip’s Instagram account][Images from James Ip’s Instagram account]

3. What strikes me about your balcony fern forest is how well you have curated the presentation of plants and its various layers. What are the different considerations that you have when purchasing and arranging your plants?

I wish I could say it was all part of a grand design on my part… haha. The fact is that the garden has all slowly evolved over almost a decade.

I guess the primary objective was to maximize the space for growing plants  – right from the onset, I knew this was not going to be a balcony I would spend time sitting in – it was way too small and too hot in the afternoon [Indeed, most of my neighbours use theirs to dry their clothes], so I was willing to give up all the available space for plants. And I had to have a pond as I love to keep fish and water plants.

The pond helped to create a perfect microclimate for my ferns and things grew from there. The dracaena, the umbrella papyrus and the pink alpinia were there from day one, to add tall elements to the garden.

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Vines like philodendron and syngonium were added to climb up the walls and quickly invaded the ceiling.

Flowering plants and foliage plants like episcias, russelia and some bromeliads were introduced to add colour.

A few years ago I discovered tassel ferns (aka huperzia or lycopodium) and rhipsalis and these now form the green curtain that’s the first thing u see when u step into my place. These hanging plants are positioned such that they let the light through and do not block each other.

One more thing, you can see that I grow several ferns (mainly nephrolepis) indoors just behind the glass doors , to give an impression of the balcony garden spilling  indoors.

DSCF4844 DSCF484220160320_1124014. You have many different types of ferns, do you have your favourite fern from your collection – and why?

It would have to be the Adiantum tenerum “Farleyense” – not exactly because it’s the most beautiful – it’s just that it reminds me of home and childhood.

You will find that a lot of plants I grow today and even the fish I keep are those I used to have back home.

So, it’s some kind of connection with the past and the place I grew up in, I guess.

Other than that, I’m quite smitten at the moment by my platycerium alcicorne 🙂

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5. Are there anymore plants that you wish to add to your collection, if you had more space?

Actually, not particularly at this point. I seldom go to a nursery thinking ‘I need to find this plant’ – more often, it would be plants that happen to catch my eye or plants I never considered before. Actually, Instagram has been very instrumental in me discovering new plants. In fact, Instagram inspired me to grow my platycerium collection. Oh, recently I discovered billbergias – I may consider adding more of them.

Regarding space, I think we plant lovers never have enough space and I’m always trying to squeeze in more plants. Today, whenever I introduce something new, something else has to go or get banished to some corner. Indeed, this gets increasingly challenging and sometimes, it takes me days to decide what to reshuffle  😛

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6. Do you have any advice for those who would like to keep ferns – in apartments or landed property? What kind of conditions should they create for these plants?

For any kind of plants, you have to be well aware of your conditions or constraints. Lighting is the limiting factor, I would think – so you’ll have to be realistic about what plants can grow in your space.

For ferns, especially maidenhair (adiantum), you’ll need plenty of ambient humidity coupled with adequate air movement. So sticking an adiantum in an enclosed space, like a terrarium, won’t do in the long run.

If humidity is a problem (e.g. in a windy corridor) You can increase humidity by growing them next to a water feature, placing the pot on a tray of pebbles or growing your plants closer together.

Oh, and one more thing I personally observed: you know how most ferns sold in nurseries are grown in 100% sphagnum moss…I’ve never been able to sustain them long-term in this medium – I’ve found it best to repot them in normal potting soil.

JIP1

[Images from James Ip’s Instagram account]

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James also has a separate area for germinating fern spores and housing succulents, including cacti.

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Thanks so much James! To admire his relaxing balcony garden and follow his plant-inspired journey, find him on instagram here.

All images by Olivia Choong unless otherwise indicated

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