Published on 5th June 2022 on Nedla mental wellness blog.

The smooth swards of grass burst with the hues of iridescent flowers. It is a dramatic juxtaposition: the idyllic garden, built on a nine-storey-high hill, is ringed in by tall blocks of old apartment flats. Trellises adorned with trailing leaves beckon you to enter. At the foot of the hill also are arrayed hibiscuses, portulacas and seven varieties of butterfly peas. Clamber up the hill and the sight of golden tecomas, melastomas and mussaendas swaying in tandem with the breeze greets you. It is not just the eyes that are treated to a spellbinding magnificence. Sundry frangipanis embalm the air with their sweet aromas. Kingfishers, bulbuls and doves compose melodic songs well into noontide. Butterflies, dragonflies and bees flit hither and thither at the slightest stir of approach. This is an oasis. And it was built painstakingly and lovingly by the hands of three persons: Ganesh Kumar, his father and their ex-helper. Today, the garden and its activities are managed by twenty volunteers across three groups: gardening infrastructure, and events.

Ganesh, tell us about your passion for gardening.

My grandparents and parents were the ones responsible for instilling in me a love of gardening. It was a weekend activity for us. What I derive from gardening is more than happiness; it’s the feeling of amazement. I find that no humans can create what nature can create so flawlessly. Just take a flower and examine its combination of colours: the gradience from red to orange, or the fading of a red centre to purple edge. Gardening cultivates patience: you plant a seed today and you have to wait three months for the first flower. The biggest mistake we can make as gardeners is to think we’re in charge. Each plant does what it does — we can mould children into good citizens, or teach our pets how to behave, but we cannot dictate that with plants. Through gardening, we learn that there is something bigger than us. We cannot control everything in our lives. We just have to know that good things will come our way if we wait patiently.

How did Woodlands Botanical Garden take root?

According to the older folks who have lived here for decades, this site used to be an old army camp. There are even claims that there are secret bunkers here — I cannot ascertain the veracity, as I’ve yet to come across them, but I sure hope to find them one day. The north face of the hill was at first filled with grass. Unkempt weeds peeked out of boulders. On the gentler slope of the hill, I planted a few golden tecomas amidst the lalang that were already growing. That was in March 2020. They were barely knee height back then and were easily missed. Slowly, we planted more cuttings that I bought from nurseries. As I already lead the garden at my university hall, I had connections and could bring in unique flowers to enliven the space. When we first began, there was no water source, so my father, ex-helper and I had to use trolleys to lug jerry cans of water up the slope every day. Just watering alone took us about an hour and a half; on hot days we would water the plants up to three times.

Given that Singapore is a strict country, how did you bypass the inimical laws and pull this off?

One day, I got a message that the NParks team would like to meet me and visit the garden. The officer informed me that I was in fact not allowed to do any gardening work here, as the area was a public space that belonged to the government. I initially didn’t know that it was so stringent: there were already other plants scattered throughout on the other side of the hill. I urged him to take a look at the garden, which by this time spanned about ten metres long and had fifteen types of plants. Where once it was just a bleak slope, now there was so much life. When the flowers opened in the mornings, a multitude of butterflies and bees came to feed on their nectar. The presence of dragonflies was also an indicator of how clean and fresh the water was. Birds were weaving their nests and laying their eggs here: they trusted our space.

I shared with the officer how I coordinated the arrangement of the flowers by colour, and how I chose plants that are suitable for Singapore’s hot weather. I also shared with him my vision: every country has her own unique plants and flowers and my goal is for this garden to be a showcase of Singapore’s unique flora. Malaysia has the beautiful Cameron Highlands, why can’t Singapore have something similar? After our chat, NParks got me to come up with an official proposal, which was subsequently approved. I think I had proven that I was not just some hobbyist but someone who knew what he was doing. I’m indebted to NParks for being so magnanimous, entrusting me with this space and supporting me. And with the official green light, my father, ex-helper and I hunkered down and brought to life our vision. Row by row, plot by plot, we expanded our garden.

The residents also wrote to our minister Mr Zaqy Mohamad to help us obtain a water source. Very soon, it became a community effort. Support came from members of the silver generation — these eighty-year-old retirees helped us to set up an irrigation system that goes from the base to the summit of the hill as well as build structures and trellises. After we were recognised by Resident’s Network as a community garden, we were able to set up a volunteer group. Today, we have gardeners who help with watering, pruning, clearing the weeds and maintaining the overall cleanliness of the space.

Japan is famed for her cherry blossoms and New Zealand for her fields of lupins. This garden, with its panoply of vibrant flowers, feels like a microcosm of these world-famous sites.

It makes me very happy to hear that. Minister Lawrence Wong paid us a visit and in a post he compared the garden to Singapore Botanical Gardens. It was a very proud moment for us: that our humble space can be compared to a UNESCO site.

Of this masterpiece, Ganesh says that God is the true painter, whereas he is only the paintbrush. He prays to Hindu God Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.

When residents could no longer care for their budgerigars and wanted to release them into the wild, Ganesh implored them not to, as the birds would likely not survive. Instead, he set up an aviary to house the birds. Free-roaming bulbuls would hold converse with them, Ganesh says.

This garden I’m sure is not just a space blossoming with flowers but also with beautiful stories.

Marsiling’s a mature estate that teems with elderlies. Many of them are cooped up in their houses, ever since their children have moved out. This garden is really blessed in that it offers an amazing view of both the sunrise and sunset. Many elderlies share that they now wake up early as they want to catch the sunrise, and appreciate the flowers as they glow in the sunlight. Once, I encountered an elderly Chinese lady who was walking with a limp. She told me that she had back problem. The surgery she underwent didn’t alleviate her problem. While she knew it was better for her to take it easy and recuperate at home, she shared that she felt happiness whenever she’s hiking up the slope. Seeing the colourful flowers made her forget her worries. She couldn’t speak much English, but she was trying so hard to make sure I knew how much she appreciated my effort. She thanked me profusely. It was a very touching moment for me.

Periodically I would encounter this young guy, who would push his wheelchair-bound mother up the steps. I’d never spoken to the two of them before, as I usually am engrossed when I’m working. The sight of them really moved me: the son was so filial to carry his mother step by step up a nine-storey-high hill. One day, I saw him again, this time alone. He shared with me that his mother had just passed away, and that before she departed all she wanted to do was to come and see the plants. He said that visiting this garden reminded him of his time with his mother. It’s something I can relate to: whenever I’m gardening, it brings back the memories of my late mother, who passed away in June 2018.

Are you able to share what happened with your mother?

Prior to her passing, my mother underwent a surgery, which was supposed to be a routine procedure. But it unexpectedly led to complications. She was then put on medications, which led to a whole host of problems such as high blood pressure and heart palpitations. When she was in the hospital, she had a fall. The ensuing tests found nothing severely wrong. The bruise she had was thought to be minor, and she was discharged. We were so joyous to have her home, because it coincided with the month that she was supposed to retire after working forty-two long years as a public servant. She had also missed her birthday as she was hospitalised. So, we were so relieved to have her back home. A few days later, however, her urine started to show traces of blood — this was unusual. She was admitted into the hospital, and that was when the doctors found that her injury from the fall was more serious than they had thought. There was in fact internal bruising. She was rushed into surgery. That was the last time we ever saw her alive: she never made it out of the operating theatre.

It’s a grief that many of my friends are familiar with, as they too are losing their loved ones. I tell them that until we’re ready to let go, we shouldn’t be forced to do so. After so many years, I still bring a photo of my mother along when I’m doing my prayers. I feel that my mother is still around, listening to my woes. And whenever I talk to her, that very night she would appear in my dreams. My family and I still celebrate Mother’s Day every year. I think as long as you’re not hurting anyone, as long as it doesn’t affect your life negatively, it’s okay to mourn however you want.

What was your mother like?

My mother was my most favourite person. She was the first person I saw every morning: our bedroom doors were always left open, so I would see her sitting on the edge of her bed. She would be reading letters or doing her work. I don’t get to see that anymore.

In all my years of living with her, she had never spoken ill about anyone, not even litterbugs that we came across. She never complained, not about the hot weather. She looked after us: even when there were financial struggles, she never lay the burden on us. She went through a lot when my grandfather fell ill and eventually passed away, but still put on a strong façade for us.

We had urged her to retire for so many years, but she had the typical mentality of a public servant: she only wanted to retire at sixty-two, because that was the official age of retirement. We had already planned a trip to Europe that was ten years in the making. I’m not a person who enjoys travelling as I find it to be a hassle, but I thought that my mother deserved a really good break. Even till today, I still keep the brochure. I don’t know if that can be called ‘regrets’ — maybe ‘unfulfilled dreams’. Even this jumbo house that I bought, I bought it specifically for her. She loved to entertain, and this house was for her to welcome weekend guests. She was there with me at the first viewings. It was supposed to be our forever home. My mother who would have made this house a home is not here anymore — that is something that is always on my mind. She passed away two months before the renovation works were complete.

I think I took after her resilient character: I didn’t blame anyone for her untimely passing. My mother was the main breadwinner along with me. She, like many mothers, was the one who ran the show in the house. Because she passed on suddenly, her assets were frozen. That put me in a tight spot. As the eldest, the responsibility of taking care of my family fell squarely on my shoulders. From living a relaxed life, I was suddenly thrown into the ocean. I had to be the pillar of support; I had to put food on the table and pay for everything. Because of that, I didn’t have the time or luxury to properly grieve for my mother.

About seventeen months after her death, things were beginning to look up. Then, the health of my father, who already had pre-existing medical conditions, suddenly deteriorated. To see him shuffling in and out of the hospital brought back a lot of trauma for me: I recalled the days when my mother was hospitalised, how she was discharged and suddenly passed away a week later. Also, the fear of losing my father, the only living parent I have left, was gripping. All the bad memories I had suppressed and all the grief undealt with resurfaced. I had to take a leave of absence from school. Eventually, I was clinically diagnosed with severe depression.

What were the signs of depression?

I ate for the sake of eating, and that was only when people were around. Whenever I was alone, I didn’t even want to eat. I had no motivation to work and it was a chore just to get up every day. I couldn’t sleep: I didn’t have nightmares but my mind could never rest. I just had so much on my mind. Financially, how was I going to cope, this month and the next? I had my coursework as a PhD student, and I couldn’t focus. It was like an avalanche: when I fell back on my work, the following week I had a lot to catch up on. And there was the persistent thought of why my mother had to die, especially when it was finally her time to enjoy life. Because my mind was inundated with so many thoughts, at night, I would wake up every half or an hour. Thankfully, I had my routine of daily prayers, which helped to calm my thoughts and keep me sane.

The Pageantry of Flowers at Woodlands Botanical Garden

Lavender Butterfly Pea
The golden tecomas that started it all.
A thriving ecosystem: Thus far, over fifteen types of butterflies have been spotted at the garden.
Red Mussaenda

Was your religion the only source of comfort or did you seek professional help?

I’m not ashamed to say that I was and still am a patient at the Institute of Mental Health. To me, battling mental illness is the same as battling a physical illness: if you’re sick, you need medical help and there is no shame in seeking it. Generally, advice from friends or relatives can be well meaning, though clichéd. They will say things like ‘don’t worry, everything is going to be okay’. I knew that in order for me to come to terms with the loss of my mother, someone I was so close to and someone I respected deeply, I needed the help of professionals. Thankfully, I had amazing doctors whom I trusted deeply. At their behest, I wrote in a journal and kept to my medications. I think I can say that I’ve come out of my depression, although the pain of losing my mother will always be near. But it is now my life’s mission to remove the taboo and stigma associated with mental health illnesses.

My depression was compounded by the fact that I had a myriad of things to do, from being a caregiver to my father to juggling my schoolwork, and I couldn’t focus on getting better. My psychiatrist did in fact tell me to slow down and put myself first. It’s not that people who are depressed don’t know that, or that we don’t want to. But it’s easier said than done. I know of people with depression who have to bring up their kids. I myself am my family’s sole breadwinner. There are bills to pay. Not many of us can afford to take a one-month break to recharge. Not many bosses are willing to give their staff even a week to sort their problems out. There is a lot of talk about mental health awareness, but not enough action. Personally, I think the government can step in by providing financial aid for people who are undergoing mental health-related treatments. I know many people in similar plight who had to curtail their treatments — be they for physical or mental health —because of financial issues. When the individual need not worry about putting food on the table, he can take proper time to heal. Consider the consequences. Loss of productivity. Loss of lives due to suicide. Or people with mental health illnesses doing weird things. It’s a very real problem.

Did gardening help you to overcome your depression?

I’ve shared this with other gardeners, who also echo this sentiment. For some reason, when you’re gardening and getting your hands dirty, no matter what you’re going through, your worries just won’t cross your mind. You’re just so immersed in the activity for those two to three hours. When I was going through depression, I would feel upset whenever I was walking to the garden or returning home from it. But when I was in the midst of gardening, I was completely at peace. For two to three hours, my mind was resting. I think that helped.

Even for non-gardeners, I think that strolling in this garden or embracing nature can help prevent depression. It’s a respite from the stress that you face, which can come from work or even family. It’s your alone time. Just a thirty-minute walk frees your mind, so that you can tackle whatever challenges you are facing afresh.

As your late mother was an avid gardener herself, would you say that this garden is a tribute to her?

Not exactly. My mother’s dream was for me to pursue a PhD — all my peers know that I’m only doing it for my mother. I subscribe to the rather old-fashioned thinking that our parents’ dreams are just as important as our own, and we must abide by them. My parents are very important to me, and to me they are akin to God. Just the fact that I was admitted into the programme made my mother beam with pride. I feel that I’ve lived up to her expectations already. To be honest, after my mother passed away, the motivation to continue my PhD has dissipated. Even my father told me that the time was now to do what I want to do.

The garden’s for the community. It’s always been my dream to do something like this. I’ve been with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for ten years, as well as Meals on Wheels for about five. So this garden is a combination of two of my greatest passions: serving the community and nature.

But what I would say is that I do plant several of my mother’s and grandparents’ favourite flowers in the garden. One of my mother’s favourites was the Brunfelsia pauciflora, or the ‘yesterday, today, tomorrow’ flowering plant. It is so named as its shades change from white to light purple and dark purple. And when I see these flowers, I feel that they are still around me as well. Is there a more beautiful way to remember someone than to plant a tree or flower in his or her remembrance? You do so much good for both the ecosystem and for people.

You’ve sowed the seeds and are now enjoying the fruits of your labour. Is this the end point for Woodlands Botanical Garden?

Oh no, this is just the beginning. I hope to transform it into a safe avenue where Singaporeans and residents can come and unabashedly share their mental health struggles and traumas without fear of judgement.

Many people have been saying that this is a miracle project. But to keep this grassroot initiative going and to realise my vision for the garden, I need more support. My background is in chemistry, not psychology, so I hope that more allies can step forward to help champion mental wellness. Maybe in the future, this could be a meeting place where elderlies in the estate can interact with animals from different shelters. Or ex-convicts can come to share their stories with at-risk youths. The possibilities are endless.

Ganesh sitting on what has been endearingly called the ‘Ganesh’s Rock’ by the residents: it is where he gets to imbibe the panoramic, breathtaking view of his thriving garden.

Woodlands Botanical Garden is located near Block 134 Marsiling Road. The best times to visit are 6:45am to 11am, and 4pm to 7pm.

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