City, Garden Stories

Garden Stories: House plant tour with Nicole Seah

In her private domain, Nicole Seah is a plant hobbyist who simply loves her aroids.

Her growing collection of foliage plants are beautiful and are elegant accent pieces in the home. These include Philodendron pastazanum, Philodendron verrucosum, Monstera esqueleto, Monstera albo variegata, Begonia tamaya, Anthurium Big Bill, Anthurium veitchii, among others. From the set up it is easy to see that she is pretty serious about plants.

Living in a well-lit apartment, she found that the surroundings were not necessarily suitable for all her plants. As an Anthurium enthusiast, she quickly realised that she had to provide special conditions for them. By housing some of these plants in enclosures kitted out with adequate lighting, humidifiers and handheld fans to create a rainforest microclimate, her plants began to fare better. She also uses a light meter and humidity meters to to aid with this.

In my chat with her, she shared her journey as a plantswoman, both the joy and the challenges — all of which is highly relatable for plant parents. For the full house plant tour with Nicole Seah, be sure to watch the video interview below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed creating it : )

Plant tour Singapore

How did you get into the hobby of gardening?

When I first got my own place, I wanted to fill it with house plants. When I first started out, I geared more towards the trendy plants, back then it was the Fiddle Leaf Fig that was very popular. I wanted a Bird of Paradise in my home, based on what you see on your Pinterest boards and all. I had a rude awakening because when I put plants in certain areas, I would put them in dark corners or wherever I wanted to put them then I realised that they couldn’t thrive that way. I learnt the hard way with my first round of houseplants. You have to understand what the plant needs and then you try to give it what it needs, rather than putting it in a very dark place, thinking it would survive.

So after that as I went down this rabbit hole, I realised that you start off buying plants from supermarkets, from Cheers or wherever catches your fancy, and then you start to realise you go into a certain genus and realise maybe you like philodendrons and anthuriums. And then after that you go even deeper and you realise that you really like a different type and you just want to see all the different varieties and all the different forms it has. So for me personally, I really like Verrucosums, my friends on Instagram do make fun of me a lot for it. Every time they see a post on a Verrucosum, they forward it to me. I think there are about 20 forms of Verrucosums that are out there and possibly a lot more that are not documented, and I just find the form very fascinating. It’s one of those plants where I could just stare at the leaves all day long. I find it very calming and soothing to look at plants.

house plant tour Singapore
plant cabinet Singapore
pictum tricolour Singapore
plant tour Singapore

Which of these is your favourite plant?

My favourite plant is the Anthurium Big Bill. It’s actually not a super popular or trendy plant in Singapore right now but I was very drawn to it. It’s actually a hybrid Anthurium. What I found out was that when it grows in an environment more suited to its (preferred) climate, its leaves can grow to about 3 metres long. So what I have here is a baby plant and I thought that was so cool because with every new leaf that comes out, it is always very, very small and it looks like a tiny, tiny leaf but the moment it unfolds fully it starts to expand. This is not even the full size yet… With every new leaf that’s come out, the leaf length I noticed, has gotten a little bit longer and wider.

It will be quite interesting to see where it goes with this because I find it quite difficult to keep big plants in a setting like this. I don’t know whether big plants need a more natural environment to thrive. So far all the big plants I’ve had, I had to rehome because it either ran out of space or they were just not happy, like the fig tree (Ficus lyrata) outside. It’s a lot happier and it’s very low maintenance outside, but indoors it was almost dying. This (Anthurium Big Bill) is my favourite plant, I really love it. I got it from Shawn of Green Fingers.

anthurium big bill Singapore
Anthurium Big Bill, also known as Anthurium pendulifolium x cubense

The other plant I’m proud of as well is this, it used to be called Monstera epipremnoides but now it is called the Monstera esqueleto. When I first got this from Terrascapes, this plant can be quite expensive, like if you buy a mature version it can be $300-$400. When I first got this from Sandy (of Terrascapes), he was very very kind, he sold it to me as a one-leaf cutting and he told me not to worry about it, just give it the right care and it will grow very, very big. I got this from him not too long ago, just earlier this year and it’s gotten to this size. You can see that with every new leaf that comes out, the fenestrations just get more and more pronounced to the extent that it’s very lace-like. I don’t even dare to touch this leaf on most days because you can see that it’s so thin, it’s practically like thread, and there is a new leaf on the way.

monstera esqueleto singapore

Where do you buy your plants from?

In the past I used to buy from Carousell and then at one point I was buying quite a lot from Sindo. Sindo for me, is a bit of a risk to take on, even buying from places from Ecuagenera is a risk. My recent haul, some of my plants came in quite battered, I didn’t really like what I received, so I feel like whenever you ship in from overseas, there’s always that risk that you don’t get exactly what you thought you were paying for, it’s a risk you just have to take on. I’ve started to really support local sellers a lot. When I say local sellers, I really mean people who have really been in the business of growing aroids and are very passionate about it. Sandy from Terrascapes, I really love Sandy’s plants, I really love his nursery. Every time I go there I always tell him that I can walk through his entire nursey 3-4 times because whenever I walk past a second, third time, there is always something new that I might have missed out on. I’m happy to support him because I think his aftercare is fantastic, it’s probably one of the best that I’ve ever experienced in Singapore where if I have a problem with the plant, he really walks me through it and tries to diagnose what the issue is. So it’s been very helpful.

The other person I would like to buy more from more often that I haven’t had the chance to, and that’s who I got my Big Bill and Pastazanum from is Shawn from Green Fingers. Shawn, again, is someone who is very trustworthy, he would likely choose the plant for you. The last time I bought from him, I didn’t choose a specific plant, but he delivered a very, very healthy plant to me and I think it’s grown ever since. I’m just very thankful for sellers like that, who take on the risk when they ship all these exotic plants in from overseas to Singapore, and then they have to take on the risk of acclimating the plants and making sure the plants can thrive in our climate before passing it on to us, so I feel it’s worth paying that slight mark up because it really doesn’t even begin to account for all the time and all the effort and all the resources they’ve had to put in just to make sure that the plant is stabilised for us. I would really support local growers, in that sense.

Tell me about the microclimates in your home

I’m playing around with cooler microclimates. For a period I went to measure the ambient temperature in all the different rooms in the house and I realised that the living room is the hottest room of them all and sometimes with the lowest humidity. For most plants they can tolerate being in the balcony. For some of the Anthuriums, I realised that they tend to prefer slightly cooler temperatures, I think anything above 31-32 degrees, they really start to freak out and panic big time.

Because of that, I ascertained that this room, which is currently my daughter’s room for now – as long as she doesn’t need it, I will take it first – has been very good for anthuriums. I have a humidifier that runs and every time I work here, if the weather is hot, I tend to turn on the air conditioner. I won’t turn it on specifically for the anthuriums because I think that’s a waste of energy, but at the very least, if I get to use the air conditioner, it also gets to enjoy a little bit.

Nicole Seah home plant tour
anthuriums Singapore

There was a period of time when I put all my plants in my living room and I realised that they were starting to really wilt and falter and I did not know what was happening, so that was the first time I thought about buying a light meter and I thought about buying a humidity meter. What I realised was that it gets very scorching hot in the mornings to the point where the leaves were not only burning, but the leaves were baking, because it’s so hot and dry at the same time, even the humidifier was not doing anything for it. I think that was the time I toyed with the idea of buying a custom made terrarium and my husband panicked a bit. I think maybe it’s a bit too much for now, it’s a bit high involvement. So we just thought that we would just get a class cabinet first and see where it goes.

There were 3 main factors I took into account when I built this glass cabinet, it’s very makeshift for now. I’m just using existing grow lights, I haven’t had the time to buy proper grow lights yet but I am using what I got from Taobao, in total it gives me the equivalent of bright shade. I also have a humidity meter here that tells me what the temperature is and what the current humidity levels are so you can see… because it (cabinet doors) are open so it has dropped to 73% but usually it goes up to 95%-99% and you can see that they (the plants) are quite happy. My plants were suffering for a while, I realised it was spider mites but I also realised that it was humidity but ever since I put them in, they have started putting out new leaves, which is a good development and I still need to figure out what to do with the spider mites issue.

The other factor I have included apart from light and humidity is air circulation. I’ve made sure I have a cheap handheld fan, this costs about $10, just to run for around 4 hours a day so that at the very least, there is some circulation and it doesn’t become susceptible to fungal infection.

exotic plants singapore

Let’s talk about pests and how you keep it under control.

I find that they spread quite quickly and I think it’s because I’m in an enclosed environment also. Initially when I first started, I really thought I had a fungal problem and that was something that I kept trying to resolve. Initially my friends would tell me, “oh you should try neem oil”, if you spray neem oil, it really contains the fungal infection”. I realise that neem oil is not that great, because it’s quite heavy on the plant. It gives plants a sheen but some plants cannot take it and the leaves start to falter after you apply neem oil. So I’ve been trying to see what kind of gentler, yet effective alternatives might work, so honestly this is still a work in progress for me. I’ve even experimented with things like hydrogen peroxide and all but I really think it’s a bit harsh, and if I don’t know the right amount to use and the right proportion to use, I could end up killing the plant completely, especially for the more fragile ones.

For now I use Plant Buddy, I use a very diluted version of it. I make sure that I drench the soil and I drench the foliage with a very diluted Plant Buddy and so far I think it has worked pretty okay. I haven’t really seen a lot of new pests ever since, so for now – choi, touch wood – it’s under control. The other thing I really like is the Baba brand Plant Acid, so everytime I chop off a leaf, and that stem is exposed, I don’t want to expose that wound unnecessarily. So what I do is I spray plant acid on it just to cover it up a bit. I’ve heard of people using sphagnum moss, sometimes I do that. I’ve heard of people leaving it out to dry, I’m a bit paranoid about that because I’m afraid that if I leave it out to dry too much, it will wilt on me. So I haven’t tried that method yet.

Nicole Seah house plant

Do you have any wishlist plants at the moment?

I think I have gotten most of my wishlist plants. Right now it’s about expanding my collection and whether I can grow them well. I feel that if I can’t grow them well and I can’t make them thrive, then I don’t want to keep amassing more plants so I’m currently at the stage where I think the Equador haul was probably the last of it for a while. I’m just really focused on the plants I have now and I haven’t really thought about what plant I’m going to get next.

Thank you Nicole 🙂

Looking to buy plants? Here is a list of garden nurseries and shops where you can buy plants online.

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