Root Awakening writer Wilson Wong marks 10 years of helming ST gardening column

Dr Wilson Wong
Dr Wilson WongST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Dr Wilson Wong has helmed the Root Awakening column for 10 years

Shopping for gardening supplies at nurseries here is almost never a peaceful outing for Dr Wilson Wong.

Often, he is stopped by desperate home gardeners who flash him pictures of their wilting plants, with hopes that he has the solution to revive their green babies.

Other enterprising gardeners have tracked down the horticulturist's work e-mail or found his phone number and sent text messages asking him to identify plants.

Dr Wong, 38, has become something of a personality among home gardeners since he became a columnist for The Straits Times Life a decade ago.

As part of his Root Awakening column, he answers readers' questions - everything from identifying trees by the roadside to propagating plants. It is printed every Saturday except for the last week of the month. Five questions are answered each time.

Dr Wong, who is also a deputy director of horticulture and a curator of palms, shrubs and ornamental plants at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, says: "When I was growing plants as a boy, I could turn only to books for help. So, I wanted to write the column to help people be better gardeners and stop killing their plants."

The column first ran in The Straits Times in April 2007, when questions were answered by horticulturists from nurseries and the landscape industry.

Singaporean gardeners are a practical lot. They just want to know if a fruit can be eaten, if it tastes good, if it has medicinal properties and how to cook it.

HORTICULTURIST WILSON WONG, who has answered questions from readers in his Root Awakening column for 10 years. He is also a deputy director of horticulture and a curator of palms, shrubs and ornamental plants at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

Dr Wong came on as the sole writer in October that year.

By that time, he already had a fan base of gardeners at Green Culture, a local gardening website and discussion forum he started in 2004.

The website has different threads about growing and caring for various plants and is still a vibrant online community today, especially on its Facebook page.

Growing up, Mr Wong, who has an older brother, often felt like he was the odd one out in the family for taking an interest in gardening.

His parents were hawkers and, as a child, he often followed them to help carry the vegetables they bought for their stall. He started to get curious about where vegetables came from.

Soon after, he tried growing his own plants. Like most children, he started with green beans and, later, began buying many seeds from a distributor. His seed collection, which included plants such as Japanese cucumber and lady's finger, grew so big that he would store them in eight mooncake tins.

As his gardening skills improved, he was put in charge of tending his primary school's Science Garden, as his teacher noticed he had a keen interest in it.

But he tilled alone as his friends were more interested in gaming or sports. "I had no friends my age whom I could talk to about plants. I preferred to be in the garden tending to plants. My friends would make fun of me and call me 'farmer'," he says.

"But when I started Green Culture, I found that there were many people here who love gardening like me. I was no longer lonely."

Dr Wong did an undergraduate degree in food science and technology and followed up with a PhD in herbal drug discovery. He completed both degrees at the National University of Singapore.

He started Green Culture while completing his national service. The website gained traction and, by 2006, he was working with the National Parks Board (NParks) and the National Library Board to organise gardening talks for beginners.

NParks also approached him to helm the Root Awakening column.

His other greening efforts included started a community garden in his Serangoon North neighbourhood when he was living there.

After he completed the PhD, he joined NParks full-time in 2009.

The Root Awakening column revealed to him a community of keen gardeners in Singapore.

Common questions readers have include how to grow and care for edible plants and how to eradicate pests such as scale insects.

He is tickled by readers who wonder if fruit produced by trees in parks and planted along the roadside can be eaten. "All fruit can be eaten once," he says dryly.

"Singaporean gardeners are a practical lot. They just want to know if a fruit can be eaten, if it tastes good, if it has medicinal properties and how to cook it."

He tends to questions after work, usually in the late hours of the night when it is quiet. After sifting through readers' e-mails to pick those with clear pictures and good details, he spends about two hours crafting his responses.

He turns to reputable online gardening websites to check information and consults fellow gardeners or experts to answer questions with as much detail as possible. "I must admit I don't know everything."

Often, readers share common problems. Their plants die because of poor light or growing conditions. Creating a good soil mix often trips gardeners up too.

Questions that catch his attention are, incidentally, ones which he does not know the answer to immediately.

He says: "When readers write in with a new plant or a pest which I haven't seen before, I'm excited to read up and find out more. It's my quest to learn new things."

Ever the plant fanatic, he is surrounded by plants, even at home. The bachelor lives by himself in a five-room HDB flat in Hougang.

Rows and rows of potted plants line his window grilles and he has a "gardening room" filled with many plants such as succulents.

He kitted out the room with artificial lights so that his plants get the best conditions for growth.

He has gone through many phases of growing different varieties of a single plant.

For now, he is into mint and has more than 60 varieties at home.

"Besides being a visual plant, mint has aromatic leaves - it's instant aromatherapy. I also pluck the leaves and put them in my coffee."

With his experience, he makes gardening look easy, but he says it is a skill anyone can pick up.

"Gardening can be learnt. There's a lot of trial and error involved and you shouldn't take the easy way out, but there is no such thing as having a green thumb."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Milestone for gardening expert and his column'. Print Edition | Subscribe