Garden Nocturne

Much can be done to a garden's design but there's little you can do about the views it enjoys. That belongs to the the luck of the draw. I'm lucky to have a couple of good ones in my garden, the one pictured above is interesting in that it only really 'works' at night.

Walking from the gate to the front door is a view of my six durian trees. The land is stepped with the house on  the upper step and the orchard on the lower one so the view is more of the upper part of the trees. In the daytime all this is visually busy, your eye doesn't really settle on any one place. When darkness falls however all this is cleaned up into a few shadowy tones and the inky silhouette of the trees trace the edge of the vast negative space that starts where they end. You are compulsed to look heavenward at a huge sky that on any given night could be anything from cobalt to a deep sapphire or fifty shades of gray.

The spell is more potent on nights with a full moon. In fact I'm very likely to come outside again and again, just to see what games of hide and seek are being played.  Occasionally there is also the dazzling sight of a cloudless night encrusted with stars.

This part of the garden is also where night creatures dwell. When the durian is in flower it is alive with bats who dart madly in the darkness, furious at work. On occasion I have seen the silhouette of a civet walk the top of the fence like a tightrope artist.  Beyond the fence and across the street is jungle from where sounds from even wilder nameless creatures sometimes carry on a still night.

Some nights my dog Dusun will bark at something that has, in his opinion breached our territory. I follow his gaze into the  darkness as he continues to berate the intruder. Eerie as that is, its happened enough times that I just acknowledge that it is something but not anything of great importance. 'Good boy' I tell him to communicate these two things.

Less sinister is the call of the nightjar, the hum of crickets the rat a tat of a moth bouncing off the porch light watched patiently by the geckos. Occasionally I see fireflies high in the trees or catch the perfumed drift of Tembusu blossoms from down the street or the Gardenia from just across.

Its usually at night that I water the potted bamboos and orchids on my porch and my other dog Pala takes this as her cue to burrow into her kapok bed. After which I go to padlock the gate and on returning to my front door take in that heavenly view one more time.

Sharp White

I've described some of the types of plants I have growing in the Gravel Garden but not the color scheme. You can see in the photo that accompanies that post that I have some orange Portulacea flowers and that is largely what I have gone for, warm sunset accent colors because they go so well with the color tones of the succulents. Orange is gorgeous with grayish foliage and I remember that red tassel flower looking spectacular against the blue green foliage.

Getting those colors in is still a work in progress with failures like the Portulacea - too messy. I tried a few orange flowered Kalanchoe, they just didn't like it there which is this garden's most challenging problem, a hostile, dry, hot environment. What has worked so far is some Euphorbia Milii including a dwarf variety and a potted Lantana. Both the Jartropha Podagrica, and Pereskia keep in constant bloom. Other constants are the berries of Ficus Deltoidea and occasionally the Duranta Erecta throws out these strings of orange beads.

What also works is adding the contrast of white and not necessarily flowers. I have variegated accents like the Agave Angustifolia Marginata with its white edges pictured above left. I also have a white striped Sansevieria Guineensis, pictured right, in the background. In the top right of that photo you also see some leaves of some Pineapple plants that I planted from some discarded crowns, their dusty white leaves in perfect harmony. In the foreground is an attention grabbing Euphorbia Lactea White ghost. It looks like its been dipped in a white glaze.

Speaking of white glazes, I'm on lookout for more white pots like the one pictured where the glaze is  imperfect as opposed to a clean opaque white which tends to have a colder cast. Also the brushed on quality seems to echo how the white  variegation is expressed in foliage.  I'm also thinking on other ways to get this white element into this space like some whitewashed outdoor furniture. I also like how the bleached look of driftwood would fit in quite nicely here, an idea sparked by seeing this in Singapore's Gardens by the Bay.

When I say 'sharp' white, I am really alluding to the fact that tending to a garden full of thorny plants is a new and painful experience. This in fact deserves a post of its own dedicated to this subject later but let me just say for now, ouch, is the operative word when weeding. Besides the straight forward stab that is likely from the agave, there's also the grazing of the spines on the pineapple leaves that, certainly for me, cause a mild allergic reaction. Wickedest of all is the Pereskia but I'll whine about that another time.


Ulam is an interesting local culinary concept of Malay origin that is somewhere between a herbal garnish a salad and a vegetable side or green, except raw. It's not as thoughtful as a salad. There's no chopping or tossing in a vinaigrette or even contemplating mixing it with other greens or ingredients. It's a generous if spartan handful of uncooked leaves that you add to your plate, as pictured above, and you're done.

On the right side of the plate is a fairly common ulam, Ulam Raja a type of Cosmos (Cosmos Caudatus ) and the lacy leaves have an aromatic herbal bite. The flavor is not unlike a herb like Parsley or Chervil,  or a strong flavored green like Arugula. The fish on my plate, rubbed with turmeric and fried could be interchangeable with a slice of fried tempeh or chicken similarly prepared. The curry gravy that flavors the rice is called assam pedas, a concoction fueled by chillies and tamarind that make for its literal meaning, sour hot. Some experience is required to make the combined choices on your plate find the right groove of pungent, spicy, savory and starchy.

Below it is Euodia redleyi from the citrus family which is not so common, in fact today is the first time I've tried it. It has a chalky slightly bitter flavor but also a light crunch. Besides herbacous greens, the tender young leaves of  certain shrubs and trees like this one or the Cashew nut tree are also used for ulam.

Pucuk Pegaga or Centella Asiatica, is another popular ulam green with a bitter tang. I used to buy this at the supermarket and then discovered that the version in the supermarket was in fact an aquatic plant Hydrocotyle ranunculoides. Centella Asiatica's leaves are more fan shaped and not so leathery. When I tracked this indigenous version down at a market stall, I asked the lady about the difference. She said the aquatic plant had longer stalks and was easy to cut and sell in bundles. The Centella has short stalks, usually including its roots and was not as tidy. The roots of course make it easy to press a few into pots and I've discovered an excellent ground cover that does double duty.

I'm determined to have a good selection of ulam growing in the garden. Apart from the nutritional punch of a handful of leafy greens, they are also usually imbued with medicinal properties. To be able to step outside, snatch up a some leaves and instantly have on your plate something aesthetically pleasing, nutritious and therapeutic is quite something.

Water Feature

When I went to buy the ceramic pots for the dark verandah with my friend and neighbour, she drew my attention to a large water pot (top left corner) with a purple water lily in it. She had wanted to buy it the last time she was there a year ago, and there it still was. I asked its price and it was a steal since it had a small crack. I asked if they would include the water lily and they agreed and so a water pot with a purple water lily in it came to be the focal point in the design of this corner of the garden.

I've seen a fair few water pots in my travels here. There were the ones in Malacca with LotusSagittaria Japonica and Colocasia. When I went to visit Rimba Ilmu botanic garden I took note of their interesting assortment of aquatic plants. There was also the gorgeous water pot at Rimbun Dahan with golden gardenias floating in it.

Apart from the water lily though,  I haven't really done much more than just add some penny wort and a couple of stalks of Pandanus that I've seen grow really well in water, in fact I pulled these two stalks out of a monsoon drain near where I live. This is largely because the  water lily is doing a rather spectacular job. It appears every day, often in a different place, sometimes there's two flowers. With the drab dark colors of the overall color scheme, the vivid purple blue flower provides a sharp accent. I believe it is a Nympaeae Nouchali or Blue Star Water Lily.

Then of course I needed to populate my water feature with some fish to avoid it becoming a mosquito breeding ground. I got four Golden Gourami who are thriving on whatever finds its way in there, including the ants that march up my bamboo that I apprehend and send to their watery fate. There are now more than four fish in there so life must be good in that aquatic haven.

What is it about about a water feature that garden visitors find so delightful? Is it the shimmer and ripple of shadows and reflections and the occasional dart of something below the surface that keeps the eye engaged. Or is it because it's an ecosystem or 'world' in it's own right rich with all kinds of detail that commands all our attention.

In any case the water feature is a big hit. As soon as a visitor enters the porch they head straight towards it and stare into it for a few minutes. I do it myself somedays, but in my case I am always incredulous that it never looks the same, everything seems to have moved around and I wonder if my fish are still alive  and then I catch a glimpse of one of them. And of course my neighbor who contends that the water pot is in fact hers makes a beeline straight for it whenever she visits.


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