Latest Garden Adventure: Malaysia July 2011

July 1

Dear Everyone,

Another lovely breakfast on the terrace at our lovely budget hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the Classic Inn, with the opposite shopping center’s huge air conditioning unit’s ambient noise shutting out the awakening of the city. Yesterday we took the handy and elegant monorail from Imbi station to KL Sentral train station where we got a train to Putrajaya to check out our garden. The monorail is new and silently glides over the city in the tree tops giving views of wildly decorated temples, decaying colonial era masonry buildings, sky scrapers, in totality, a present day Indiana Jones landscape of mystery and the fundamentals of life, giving us tantalizing views of the city we didn’t have time to explore.  The KL Sentral station is under construction and is reached by a long and circuitous narrow walk along which many people travel in both directions, From Putrajaya, the gov center, we took a bus to the precinct where the garden show is.  We managed to find our contractor and garden site.

July 3

There were 3 outdoor gardens, all 8×8 meters- ours, Koji from Japan and Robin Williams from the UK. Our garden was a series of bomb craters in a former parking lot, completely out of square.  There was no string, no scissors and spikes to tie the string to. There was a hammer however.  We had asked for the entire site to be dug with a back hoe or soil brought in to fill the whole site as we had been told it was too hard to dig by hand.  We had a number of large yuccas, agaves and palms to go in that needed deep holes.  After some back and forth about the need for a backhoe, we decided to put the plants in the bomb craters and the smaller plants on top of the existing parking lot grade.  We would bring the grade level up to where we could cover the pots by edging the perimeter with rocks and filling in with the extensive rubble from the site.  A dry desert landscape with some colorful ephemeral annuals turned out to be the perfect choice for a difficult situation.  It was a low-budget garden.

Day 2:

9:00 am: we check into the 5 star hotel in Putrajaya and are told that our room is not ready.  Ben manages to discover it is in fact ready but it is hotel policy not to allow check in until 1:00.  Ben manages to get us into our room by saying we just flew in from California.

On the site- a backhoe arrives for our friend Koji’s Japanese garden.  As they didn’t have a strap he could use for moving and placing rocks with precision- the backhoe (that was impossible to get the day before) was idle so we grabbed it and had the operator dig our site.  Dwelling on the impossibilities one day and arrivals the next is not good for the soul.   We managed to get all our large plants planted and pathways delineated and rocks laid out for the next day. We found a good lunch kiosk under some trees with a variety of very hot, spicy food that we ate while we sweated and sweated in the sweltering heat.

The show staff are VERY nice, helpful and attentive, all pleasant, our family away from home.   There is an air conditioned office we can take cool-off breaks in next to the site, with water and a fridge stocked with cold, very sweet teas.

Day 3

The general impression of each day is sweat, crushing heat and rubble with brilliant hues of annual flowers arriving by the truckload daily for the show.  After mistakenly trying to acclimate and get used to it- we realized it is impossible to tough it out, so would all come periodically to the air conditioned sanctuary of the office building to gasp for breath in wilted piles and drink water We were all universally soaked in sweat all day, but Ben was like a walking monsoon.  He changed his clothes 2X a day to no avail.  They were caked in salt, his face beet red. He did a remarkable job laying our stone edging on the paths and garden perimeter- his best work ever and inspired by Koji’s high artistry.  We called it Koji express.


Dinner at night varied from cheap but good food from a shopping center via hotel shuttle or expensive food at the hotel restaurant. Robin, a floral designer from New Zealand and myself ate at the hotel restaurant.  Most of our food never came.  When we asked the waitress she was quite charming and giggled very prettily for us.  Ben arrived after we sat there in a state of starvation for 1.5 hours, ordered and got his food in 10 minutes.  I wanted to put the waitress in the Cuisenaire.

Day 4

Garden completed!  We feel like wilted noodles with a great sense of relief, and spent the rest of the afternoon by the pool because we could do nothing else.

There is basically 1.5 days to go and it looks like everyone will make it.  The plants I had specified as understory never came or were completely different. Lavender was a Streptanthus.  Sage was a magapotamicum.  Only the gomphrena was true.  Lavender refers not to the species here but the color.  So I had a glorious array of tropical bright colored flowers in what was supposed to be a garden reflecting aridity.  It would be laughed at at Chelsea, but here it is what people expect and we have to confess we like it.  The staff was extremely generous with plants and however many I wanted I could use- almost anything of the 1000’s and 1000s of plants that came in each day were available.

July 10

We went to the botanical garden yesterday after the show ceremonies- Koji, Mamai-chan his helper, and ourselves.  Or what we thought was the botanical garden.  We climbed hills and dales in the sweltering heat, through gardens, past very interesting monolith stones, across busy 5 lane roads, until an hour later we came to the real botanical gardens.  There was no water or ice cream except in our fantasies- only excruciatingly sweet sodas from the machine- refreshing momentarily in their coolness. The botanical garden is fairly new- about 20 years old but planted with a great variety of tropical trees.  In about 30-50 more years it will be a remarkable place.  It was a quiet, peaceful place and had some interesting plants and birds.  Though devoted to nature, nature is kept at bay, and the whole place and every park for that matter, is kept raked of fallen leaves and any undergrowth, so it appears quite sterile.  The corresponding bare soil is clearly not healthy for the trees and plants that all come from environments with a good matt of decaying vegetation and fungal growth over the poor, infertile soils.


We were saved at the end of the day by Den, the taxi driver who arrived with 2 taxis to ferry us back to the hotel’s happy hour with its life restoring fluids.


July 12

Dear Everyone,

Gardening is over. We are on a rather musty bus going to Penang.  Becky and Ben are asleep in the huge reclining seats in wild blue green colors with fancy curtains. The air is very hazy from fires in Borneo and Sumatra.  It hasn’t really rained except fro a few isolated downpours since we arrived.  Some of the land is a foresty jungle, but much of the landscape is completely clear cut and terraced for palm oil plantations.  The color of the soil is a harsh, stark white in contrast to the lush softness of the forest. Every so often, with great atmosphere.  Abrupt steep hills with limestone crags and caves leap up from the forest.


We are glad to leave our fancy hotel where we have been for the past 9 days and head for new territory- back to a city where all is at ones fingertips.  We had to take a taxi everywhere from the hotel in Putrajaya except there wasn’t much of anywhere to go to from there. We went to the botanical garden there a second day for a stroll, and walked by the lake under the trees where we sheltered from a torrential down pour in view of three small round islands planted with trees with round canopies- very Japanese in the mist.  We asked directions to the wetlands that were at the head of the lake- and a car then stopped with the herbarium collections manager at the wheel who took us on a tour of their collection of tropical and semi-tropical fruiting trees from all over the world and the wetlands.  We stopped at a variety of fruit, berries and leaf trees- some sweet like the ice cream bean from Brazil, to a sour berry from a tree in the Euphorbia family, to rare jungle fruits that tasted plums or figs.  Then he took us to the wetlands that were constructed to clean waters from 3 polluted rivers.  It has 137 pools with rock and various water plants that act to clean and filter he water.  It is an amazing place of several hundred hectares.  The whole wetlands is densely planted with trees and shrubs with fruits and berries for birds and monkeys and wetland plants in the lower areas.  We didn’t encounter any monkeys, but saw some gorgeous pink storks and a 4 foot long, hideous monitor lizard that are supposed to be good for snake population control as they eat snake eggs.  There are apparently a number of very poisonous snakes.  He invited us later to go into the jungle with him to a location about 100 kilometers away to collect mangosteen fruits- a type of lichee fruit- where fireflies lay their eggs on snails that inhabit the trees. When the larvae hatch they climb up the tree canopy and pupate to emerge as adult fireflies. I don’t know the mechanism with the snails but they are essential to their lifecycles.


The wrap up to the flower show was full of events. Koji and I were interviewed on national TV, as this is the first time they have don large outdoor show gardens at the show- though in general people were far more interested in the massed explosions of flowers and the nightly fireworks than our gardens.  All of us designers had to participate in judging various other gardens or flower arrangements.  I had to judge the children’s gardens- primary school and secondary school.  Koji judged corporate sponsored gardens and Robin university gardens.  The two other people on my team were a noted architect who had a MS from a US- Univ of Tennessee, and a woman landscape architect with a MS from Harvard.  We had 27 gardens to judge.  I’ve never had such a workout in my life and in the sweltering heat. The kids had a 2.5 X 2.5 meter plot.  The gardens were collaborations of a whole class, the teacher and parents. They were all present and watching.  I hardly need to say more except each group of kids were all absolutely darling and so enthusiastic!  Their presentations were in great depth and extremely professional especially considering their young ages.

Yesterday Koji, Robin and I gave hour long lectures each.  Koji on the history and contrast of Japanese and Western gardens, myself on sustainable gardens and Robin on a lifetime of gardening.  Robin had a couple of stunning pictures of himself with princess Di at Chelsea.  He had by far the most royal photos, though Koji came in a close second.  I admit to including one of the queen myself.

We had an appreciation dinner for everyone with speeches, very good music, food and appreciation certificates.



Love from us,

Kate, Ben and Becky


This entry was posted in Main. Bookmark the permalink.