Community gardeners here have long been enjoying the fruits of their labour and the green pockets they created in their backyards. Sustaining these gardens near their homes, offices and schools on their own time and expense, these amateur gardeners have impressed the professionals.
To recognise their efforts, the National Parks Board (NParks) has given 15 community gardens each a Diamond Award - a new prize at its biennial Community In Bloom Awards.
This title is given to communal patches that have won three consecutive Platinum Awards in the past. The Diamond Award is the highest accolade given to a garden after Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze. The awards will be presented during the Singapore Garden Festival 2014 at Gardens by the Bay next month.
The Diamond Award was created this year to mark the 10th year of the Community In Bloom programme, which has seen more than 700 gardens sprouting up around the island since its launch. These are created around Housing Board estates, where there are communal areas; areas outside private houses and condominiums; as well as within schools and offices.
The programme was started to promote a gardening culture, led by residents themselves.
A committee of 10, drawn from government agencies, professional bodies and interest groups, scored the gardens on their aesthetic appeal, community involvement, how well they sustained interest and environmental quality as well as biodiversity.
Chief judge Tan Jiew Hoe, president of the Singapore Gardening Society, says "the bar is raised higher and higher by the gardeners at each competition".
Mr Tan, who has judged the awards since they started in 2005, adds: "The standard of our community gardens never fails to delight me. Maintaining a good garden is not easy and the gardeners are getting better at improving their garden designs.
"Many are also creative in using the spaces, making them relaxing and enjoyable places to be in."
This year, 343 gardens took part in the competition, up from the 257 entries in the last edition. Most of them were in the public housing category - 174 entries - while 26 were from private housing estates. Another 86 came from educational institutions and 57 from organisations such as Al-Istiqamah Mosque and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.
Besides the rankings, prizes were also given out to the Best Community Garden, Best New Community Garden and Environmental and Biodiversity Garden in each of the four categories.
A community garden usually takes root when gardening enthusiasts from the same neighbourhood meet NParks officials. Together, they decide on the kind of garden they would like, its size and design.
It takes a few months for a community garden to launch, from inception to construction. Costs are usually borne by the gardening groups, though some have funding from town councils.
Fruits and vegetables harvested are usually shared among the members. Some groups sell the produce at farmers' markets, with profits channelled back to the upkeep of the garden.
About 12 years ago, retiree Harry Lee decided to get a community garden going in his Mayfair Gardens condominium in Rifle Range Road. Then, the landscaping in the estate was minimal.
Today, the 65- year-old leads a group of about 10 regulars who plant everything from sugarcane to heliconias in the 11,000 sq ft plot.
He says these communal parcels of land need time and effort, and people have to get their hands dirty - a requirement that turns many off. The former managing director of an electrical and steel company says: "Some love to dig the soil and prune the plants, but there are those who don't want to touch the soil or are afraid of worms or snails. For those who enjoy gardening, however, it really helps you to relax and we love to share the edible plants we grow."
The programme also promotes neighbourliness. Mr Richard Ashworth, 60, who lives in Ivory Heights condominium in Jurong East, where he helps out at a 16,000 sq ft garden, says neighbours got to know one another better after meeting at the garden, even though they had lived in the same block for more than 20 years. The retired office manager says: "Gardening is a good hobby and promotes greenery. And it also brings people together."
Community Garden @ Chinese Garden (2CG)
Won: Best New Community Garden and Platinum Awards in the Organisations category
This community garden inside the Chinese Garden, a public attraction in Jurong, is one of the largest community gardens in Singapore. At 107,639 sq ft, the project was initiated by the People's Association and the Active Ageing Committees and supported by JTC Corporation, which owns the land.
It took seven months, from March last year, to get the garden up and running. Now, the garden is divided into smaller plots to include vegetable, herb and ornamental varieties such as bonsai plants.
There is even a small padi field where the gardeners have grown short-grain Indian rice - if only to experiment with its growth cycle. The rice project is supported by the science department at the nearby Lakeside Primary School.
Head gardener Tony Yau, 60, a semi-retired businessman, says: "The rice we plant can hardly fill more than two cups. Often, the plants are eaten by birds or squirrels. But it's more for educational purposes when schoolchildren or tourists come here."
A highlight of the garden are the clever, and quirky, recycling ideas adopted by the gardeners. For example, broken floorballs, which have holes in them, have been filled with soil and planted with seedlings. Old shoes, pots and toilet bowls have become planters and placed around the garden.
The plot has drawn retirees and enthusiasts with a green thumb. Mr Yau says 95 per cent of the 150 members are about 50 years old, and many come in the morning or late evening to help prune, plant and keep the garden tidy. Their oldest volunteer is Madam Ang Hor Cheoh, 85.
Some of them come from as far as Bukit Panjang and Choa Chu Kang and friendships have been forged. "They will bring food such as cakes and soya bean drinks to share with one another."
The garden looks set to grow, with Mr Yau planning to set up more sub- plots. After a successful run with a tented butterfly garden (inset), he plans to expand that area. He also wants to carve out a stream where children can catch fish. Mr Yau says: "Gardening is a passion that makes you feel young and green. That's why I don't mind spending time here."
Woodlands Zone 2 RC
Won: Diamond and Platinum Awards in the Public Housing Estates category
It takes Madam Salbiah Osman 11/2 hours to get to the community garden in Woodlands Street 81, but the long journey from her home in Tampines does not bother her. In fact, you can find the 68-year-old retired executive secretary there two to three times a week, tending her crops.
She lived in the Woodlands area for seven years before moving to the east.
The grandmother of two starts her gardening at 10am, takes a short break in between and leaves at about 3pm. The Community In Bloom ambassador, who has been gardening since she was four, says: "I take three buses to get here, but there's work to be done, so I'll come. The people here have become like family, so I come back and help."
The 10-year-old garden is maintained by a group of 20 volunteers - eight are senior citizens while the rest are in their 40s - from the neighbouring blocks. They have two gardens: One, modelled like a greenhouse, is kept locked when there are no volunteers while the other, a herb garden, is open to the public.
The enclosed garden has numerous types of plants such as lettuce, kangkong, eggplant, curry and pandan. There are eight plots of land totalling 10,656 sq ft, each of which is headed by a group leader who manages two to three volunteers.
In their neat rows and tented area, the vegetable plots look like they belong to a professional farm. The residents practise composting and make their own pesticides from garlic, chilli, soap powder and soap. But they use them sparingly.
Madam Salbiah explains: "A lot of the gardening is about experimenting. We don't know how some plants will grow so we plant and study them. We try out different species every time."
They share their produce with residents who want them or sell them at a farmers' market.
Those who want to volunteer at the garden have to meet stringent requirements. Madam Salbiah says gardeners have to go through an interview to weed out opportunists. "We talk to them to find out if they are serious about helping in the garden and really like gardening. There will be people who want to come just to take the vegetables."
She often gives talks at schools and to gardeners of new community gardens, while teachers and students from nearby schools visit regularly for hands-on gardening sessions.
Madam Salbiah shares her secret to a flourishing garden: Nurture them like children. "Every morning when I reach here, I talk to them. When a flower blooms, I thank the plant. I believe they have a life of their own."
Yu Neng Primary School
Won: Environmental Quality and Biodiversity Award and Platinum Award in the Educational Institutions category
The pupils and teachers at Yu Neng Primary School in Bedok proudly show off their mango tree, which flowers and bears juicy fruit. There is nothing unusual except that it did not fruit for seven years until the school used coffee compost as fertiliser.
Mr Hashim Mohd Shariff, the school's head of department for science, says: "We were looking for alternative ways of recycling.
"I did research and found that composted coffee grinds would work. I approached the Tampines branch of Starbucks to see if I could use its coffee grinds and they gave them to me."
Today, the coffee chain sends about 400kg of grinds to the school every month. They are put in two compost bins, which are pumped with oxygen to help speed up the decomposition process. This usually takes between three and four months.
After that, the compost is ready to be used as fertiliser, which the pupils pack and distribute to other gardens in the neighbourhood.
The 5,381 sq ft garden, which started in 2006, is flourishing, thanks to the efforts of the pupils and teachers, who use the area as a learning tool. The school received a Silver Award at the last Community In Bloom Awards in 2012.
Pupils from the Science Club, for example, have small experimental plots where they grow watermelon seeds with different composts - coffee, chemical and organic - to see how well the plant grows in each one.
There are also different types of gardens within the plot, such as a herb, spices and crop plant area, a fernery that is shaded for better plant growth and a desert habitat for plants that require drier soil.
Shreya Narang, 11, a Primary 5 pupil, says: "It's nice that we can learn facts about plants and fruits. It's also quite fun to get your hands dirty and we can eat the stuff that grows in the garden too."
Besides the garden, the school also has a biodiesel converter.
Working together with clean energy company Alpha Biofuels, the pupils bring used oil collected from their homes and their neighbours to school every Thursday.
Alpha Biofuels collects the oil and processes it into biodiesel. It then sells the environmentally friendly fuel to owners of vehicles that run on petroleum diesel.
Ang Mo Kio My First Skool
Won: Gold Award in the Educational Institutions category
A casual stroll past a small community garden stopped Mr Neo Kim Lim in his tracks. The 72-year-old retired contractor saw a messy green spot filled with assorted potted plants and he thought he could help make it better.
That was two years ago and the small garden - the size of a living room in an HDB flat - is now a pretty green patch outside kindergarten My First Skool's Ang Mo Kio branch.
The school initially created an open garden, but there were incidents of passers-by stealing plants or knocking over the flower pots. So the area was fenced up while Mr Neo helped to spruce up the garden, which is used as a learning and play area for the children.
Using his skills as a contractor, he picked up leftover or discarded materials such as wooden planks and cement from renovation projects around the neighbourhood. The planks became trellises for creepers and the cement was used to make ornamental dishes, which were filled with water, fish and lotus plants.
He also put in some money to buy seedlings for the plot. There are a number of edible plants such as lime and kangkong as well as flowering plants such as jasmine and anthuriums.
The father of four says: "I'm here every morning and evening working on the garden. I don't gamble or drink alcohol, so I'm fine with spending some money on the garden. The children call me 'uncle' because they know who I am. I'm very happy working on the garden."
Principal Gillian Neo, 28, says having a garden is a good teaching tool for her young charges. Those aged 18 months to three years help to water the plants while the older ones create signs with plant names on them to put in the garden.
Ms Neo says: "As an educator, I believe in an outdoor classroom. Already, Singapore has few outdoor areas for children to play in. So I approached the town council to use the space as a garden and it was quite receptive to the idea."
But the garden is not just for the young children to enjoy. Ms Neo says residents in the surrounding blocks have also come by to help out. Two of them - Madam Margaret Tan, 64, a retired horticulturist, and Madam Christina Khor, 41, a purchaser for a water-recycling company - have been helping to tend the garden. Both women live nearby and started volunteering last year.
Madam Tan says: "Since I retired, I have time to spare. And since I like plants, I thought I can help out here. Working on the garden is like therapy."