Russel is a plant collector that I got to know through Instagram. His user name is @journeythroughparadise and it’s easy to see why this description is apt. His account showcases his exceptionally wide range of plants. From bromeliads to cycads to palms, gingers, and aroids, this is one of the most amazing private gardens in Singapore that I have viewed.
In this garden plant tour and interview, he shares how he designed and built his garden from scratch. Also, meet his four friendly dogs, who get along well with his plants.
For the full garden tour and interview, please watch the videos below.
When did you start getting into plants?
I’ve always liked plants and animals since I was a kid. Growing up as the only child, you are left to your own devices. When I was really young, I would follow my grandma on morning walks around the estate and we would look at flowers and we would collect stuff, so I’ve always been close to nature and have always enjoyed nature.
But I only got into it properly when we moved to Chip Bee Gardens and every house had a plot of land. I’ve always been very project-oriented so I wanted to embark on this project. What can I do with this plot of land? Turning it into a nice green patch with trees and with a forest, tropical feel to the home was what I had in mind. At the time I wasn’t really clued in to plants that I wanted. It was a mish-mash of stuff.
I had bamboo, because I like bamboo, I had anthuriums – the bird’s nest type – I had heliconia, calathea, mainly foliage plants and gingers as well. That was when I really started to enjoy the whole gardening process because I actually had land to work with. It was kind of different when I lived in apartments for me to do something on the balcony, it’s not quite the same. For me, land made all the difference and started my whole gardening journey.
I don’t want to say that I have a short attention span but I do like to try different things. I do maybe get tired or bored after a while with a particular type of family of plants, for a different experience and to learn something new. The next group of plants were bromeliads. How I got into them was when I went on a trip to World Farm and I saw this really nice rosette looking plant with thick leaves and pink tips, it was a Neoregelia cruenta. It was the first time I had seen it in a bromeliad because I had seen it in home decor magazines of tropical houses in Brazil and you would see these plants all over the place. What’s that? I found out they were bromeliads.
World Farm was selling it at the time for $60 a plant and this was 2007. $60 for a plant was a lot of money back in the day so I was like, “Hmm should I get it or not?”. At the end of the day I bit the bullet, I bought it and brought it home. I liked it so much I went back to get the other one which was completely dark, it was also big and had pink tips but it was dark burgundy. From there, I had gardening friends and they were also into it. So there was a small community of bromeliad enthusiasts but Singapore had no market for it. It was such a new family of plants, not many nurseries were selling it. So what we ended up doing was to import.
We started doing mass orders and mainly ordered from Florida, there are one or two suppliers we work with over there. The more people we had, the more plants we brought in, the cheaper your shipping cost were going to be. I think that was what started the whole bromeliad journey. You were suddenly exposed to a wide genus of bromeliads. The order list was so long and it was very interesting to find out what they would look like.
That really sort of kick-started everything. I moved from there to something else, and to something else. This is where I ended up today, a by-product of all these collections over the years, is basically what I have now.
Please tell me about the process of creating this garden.
This place I got it by chance. When we viewed the place at night, we weren’t very keen because of the highway. Hell, it’s so noisy, it’s so near the highway. But when we came in the daytime the next day to take a look, I saw a lot of potential because it’s an unusual plot of land. It’s very long and then it bends to the end like an L. With the whole gardening thing in mind, I saw that potential and what I could do with the garden. I could create layers and that was the intention. Even the house, we designed to create lots of layering. I got a lot of inspiration from shophouses, because I like shophouses. So I modelled both the house and garden on that concept.
It was just grass, there were no trees, so it was basically a blank canvas for me to work on. I’m not a landscape architect or anything but I just drew a schematic of what I envisaged. I knew I wanted a jungle feel to it, at the end of the day that was the effect I was trying to achieve. At the back where you see the roundabout, that was part of the design I envisaged. I could walk through, rather than just have a big open space and grow plants along the edge. I sort of filled up everything and created a path that walks through the garden.
I guess a lot of inspiration also came from the (Singapore) Botanic Gardens because that’s also the layout that they have. It has a lot of trees and a lot of plants which can be explored along the path. That was the feel I was going for.
From your Instagram account, I saw that you built this garden from scratch. Did you get any professional help with the garden at all?
Everything was done by myself, even the planting was done by myself. All the contractors did was they come with 7 truckloads of soil. Because the soil (on the property) was so bad, they had to swap 2 feet of soil. The contractors helped me spread it out but all the holes for the trees I had to dig myself, all the planting I had to do myself. For the type of plants I wanted, I went down to the nursery and told them that I’m looking for this tree or plant, because I had it all in mind.
But I think that’s where you learn because you make mistakes along the way of how certain plants or trees just don’t do well. Or how it doesn’t fit, or it’s not the right kind of tree because for example, Bucida has buttress roots that could destroy your piping and all of that. I had grown Bucida because those were the trees that everyone was growing along condominiums, it has a very nice form, it has a few tiers. It was a terrible tree to maintain because the leaves kept dropping so it was a bit of a nightmare. If I could do it again, I would not grow frangipani again because the leaf drop is ridiculous. But these are things you learn because you have no professional help, you trial and error and then you realise what works and doesn’t work.
At the end of the day, everything you see is an eclectic mix because it’s so personal, it’s based on the type of plants you like and you mix and match. You mix Cycads together with Gingers and Bromeliads and you find that harmonious blend, if it makes you happy.
What happens to your plants when you go on holidays?
Holidays have not been difficult because all you really need is just the watering. My helper has been really good. She is good with the dogs, she’s been good with the plants. She knows exactly what needs to be done. Sometimes I try to arrange the plants in a way that is easy. Anything that requires too much a fuss, I put in a particular area and I’ll say, “you only need to water once”.
It’s not really been that much of a problem. The only time I’ve lost a plant when I went on holiday is the Anthurium wendlingeri, which is terrible to lose. It was last year, when there was that heatwave. It got so dry that when I came back, all the leaves were burnt and singed. I made the mistake of cutting the leaves away, because I thought that if I cut the leaves it would encourage new growth.
But for some reason, the plant either went into shock or did not have enough energy to produce — because you need leaves. It just probably went into shock and started to deteriorate and eventually it died. It’s a real pain because it’s very difficult to find it today and if you can find it, it’s very expensive. I paid a lot but not today’s prices. Otherwise, I seldom get casualties when I go on holidays.
Have you ever worried about having dogs around your plants?
It’s interesting with the dogs, they are pretty good, they do not bother the plants. Other than the boys, who lift up their leg to pee and may spray on plants. I try to be quite careful about where I put plants which are more sensitive. I don’t put them on the floor because I know the dogs may pee on them.
The other concern is with plants that are toxic to dogs, Cycads are known to be very toxic. The good thing is these dogs don’t seem to be too interested in them. I’ve not had to be too concerned about growing a particular type of plant because of the dangers it might have on my dogs.
Do you have a wishlist?
Yes of course, everyone has a wishlist, right? It’s a wide spectrum based on the sort of plants that I grow. For aroids, there are certain ones I would like to have, Spiritus sancti is one of them but it’s completely out of range because it’s in the thousands. But otherwise, it’s more trees.
I like trees, There’s a ficus I really like that I’m trying to look for. I’ve actually got a list that I’ve drawn up, every time I come something I want, I put it down in my notes to remind myself.
For the full interview, watch the YouTube videos above. To view Russel’s extraordinary collection of plants, follow him on Instagram.