Singaporeans are Growing More Plants and Urban Gardens, But is it All That Sustainable?
As global warming continues to be an oft-debated topic amongst the public, scientists, teenage activists and the adults who get riled up by said teenage activists, the one topic that’s gained traction is that the real solution to climate change is planting more trees.
The Science journal published a study in 2019 that mapped potential tree coverage of 4.4 billion hectares and its ability to absorb the carbon dioxide emissions that are driving global warming. Dr Jane Goodall is one of many environmental influencers leading the reforestation agenda (find out more at 1t.org) and has committed to planting five million trees this year.
In Singapore, where land is scarce, districts are built up, and most residents keep home in high-rise apartments, many have taken to greenifying their homes, offices and even public spaces through the use of plants, urban gardens and rooftop urban farms.
Plants have become big business for nurseries. In the most recent study conducted by NParks in 2016, the revenue generated from the sales of plants by the nursery industry was estimated at $265 million. This figure includes both commercial and private purchases of ornamental plants, orchids, shrubs, trees and turf.
Plant shop founders and owners, like Alex Low of Potta Plantta and Cheryl Lee of The Botanist and Her Thieves (TBHT), credit this ever-growing love for plants to social media and the online community of “plant parents” (#plantparenthood).
“Pinterest and Instagram have definitely played a huge part in inspiring people to ‘live better’, for example, styling their personal spaces, or learning to cook,” said Lee.
These inspirational images, worthy of any interior design hardcover, have put plants on the must-have decor item list—green thumbs optional. Visit any pop-up boutique market and you’ll spot plant stalls hawking Philodendrons and Monsteras, only the hottest plants to own right now. (Move over, fiddle-leaf fig tree).
Another “It” plant is the succulent (plants with thick, engorged stems or leaves), which has found its way into weddings as potted favours or on wedding cakes alongside fresh flowers. Companies too have caught on to the plant-loving trend and started to incorporate gardening workshops, like terrarium potting, into their corporate team-building efforts.
Tumbleweed Plants is one such business that runs these workshops. But much more than that, Denise Law, one of the founders of Tumbleweed, helps to greenify offices too.
“We are working with some very prestigious brands, helping them create the kind of work environment that their employees, customers and clients want to spend time in,” said Law. “The tech-focused companies, in particular, have really caught on to the importance of plants to the look and feel of a working space.”
Besides the obvious aesthetic appeal of plants, this boom in plant ownership can also be attributed to our increasingly digital, indoorsy lifestyles.
“More than at any time in our past, we are living in big towns and cities and often in confined living spaces, spending work and leisure time in the digital world, without much connection to the natural world that we’re inherently part of,” said Law. “Being around plants is a kind of antidote to our busy, urban, digital lives.”
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“Gardening has physical and mental benefits. It is good exercise which also has an uplifting effect on our mood,” said Ng Cheow Kheng, Group Director, Horticulture & Community Gardening, NParks.
“It invigorates the mind and enables us to satisfy our innate need to connect with nature—also known as biophilia. There is growing scientific evidence to support beneficial biophilic effects on health, such as reducing stress, enhancing positive mood, improving cognitive skills and academic performance, as well as moderating the effects of ADHD, autism, and other childhood illnesses,” he added.
Plants offer other health benefits too. According to Far East Flora’s Sales & Marketing Director Peter Cheok, air-purifying plants are a popular choice for their customers. “Plants [such as Anthurium, Snake Plant, Peace Lily and English Ivy] filter harmful indoor airborne toxins (or VOCs—votatile organic compounds) from the air around and release clean air to improve air quality at homes and offices. VOCs are emitted from materials found anywhere at home—from paint on the wall to fibres on the couch.”
PLANT OWNERSHIP AND CARBON FOOTPRINTS
On the surface, this growing green scene is good news all around with its environmental and social benefits. However, digging a little deeper, any trend and increase in demand for products means more logistics (to have plants supplied) involved, and more packaging to ensure safe delivery to customers.
What does this mean for our carbon footprint and how are plant shop owners mitigating the negative impact on the environment?
For small businesses like Tumbleweed, Potta Plantta and TBHT, every small step makes a big difference in preventing adverse effects while helping to make Singapore greener.
“All our bags are paper rather than plastic,” said Tumbleweed’s Law. “But we do use some single-use plastics in our packaging (though we try to keep it to a minimum). We’ve also introduced waste-reducing measures by encouraging customers and local businesses to share organic waste such as coffee grounds and eggshells that we can use as organic fertilisers.”
Potta Plantta’s Low said, “We keep packaging to a minimal and often transport plants for deliveries in recycled fruit or vegetable baskets that are collected from the market. For our customers, we provide paper bags that can be reused or recycled. For deliveries, we always plan the most efficient route to minimise our time spent on the road, and we [also] tend to do our deliveries at night when the roads are less congested which reduces the time taken and fuel used, ultimately reducing our carbon footprint.”
Even big businesses like Far East Flora are making efforts to reduce their carbon footprint through “the promotion and education of gardening, and the introduction of biodegradable bags at all four retail garden centres. There are more green initiatives in the pipeline—for example, the introduction of reusable tote bags,” said Cheok.
However, a potentially bigger culprit in reversing the positive effects of gardening could be lack of knowledge in how to maintain a garden.
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It’s always easy to buy a plant off the shelf. But how long has that plant survived? And how many times have we replaced that plant and the plastic pot it came in and continued buying product after product to keep that garden alive only to fail time and again?
For Lee, The Botanist & Her Thieves started as a retailer for beautiful plant pots. But it soon morphed into a business to solve gardening problems and the wastage in resources they faced themselves as home plant owners.
“We were making a mess at home when repotting. There was confusion with the range of fertilisers found off the shelf. We eventually amassed so many different types that you didn’t know what worked or not. Plants were dying even though we kept to a watering routine. It became our mission to design solutions to solve problems other houseplant owners might face too.”
“Plants are living things, like any other pet,” said Low. “Time and effort are needed to successfully care for plants, and some people might not have the time or energy to do so.
“In order for [plant ownership] to be sustainable, people must be able to pick a plant that is suitable for their home or office environment. Too often, we get customers coming to us for advice after the plants that they bought elsewhere died in a matter of days or weeks. This happens because they lack the proper knowledge to determine whether the plant is suitable for their environment,” said Low.
Education is key to fixing this waste problem. NParks has been fostering a love for gardening through their Community in Bloom (CIB) programme of creating community gardens and indoor gardening options. Sustainable practices are important to reduce waste but are not difficult to do, said NParks’s Ng.
“Members of the public can take simple steps to ensure that they are as environmentally-conscious as possible,” he said. “Used containers can be recycled to become flowerpots for gardening. Biodegradable pots can also be used as greener alternatives. Food waste from the kitchen can be recycled via various composting methods.
"Where natural light is lacking, more energy-efficient LED grow lights can be used to provide the right spectra of light for indoor plants. In addition, low-maintenance plants that are less pest-prone can be planted to minimise the usage of pesticides. Some of these plants include the Mini Monstera (Rhaphidophora tetrasperma) and the Trailing Watermelon Begonia (Elatostema pulchrum),” he offered.
“We know the environment is straining under the weight of human impact and people want to make a positive contribution, wherever they can,” said Law.
Ultimately, going greener can only benefit our environment when done right.
Access is a collaboration between Singapore Tatler and CNA Luxury.