Sowing the seeds of a garden city

From nursing young plants that would line the roads and fill the parks, to propagating and conserving rare native species, and sourcing for plants from around the region, the NParks Pasir Panjang nursery has, since the 1970s, played a pivotal role in the greening of Singapore. The Straits Times takes a peek at what goes on behind the scenes at the 12ha nursery which, in conjunction with the Community Garden Festival, is open for tours on Nov 4 and 5.

Nestled in a gentle valley between Pasir Panjang and Canterbury roads, close to the back gate of the HortPark, more than 3,000 species of largely native plants grow.

From pretty flowering plants that attract pollinators to various species of padi, edibles like the golden papaya and rare native plants like the lowland foxglove tree, the 12ha nursery is an Eden of growing plants, cared for by experts.

In the nursery's propagation house, plants are babied under optimum conditions to ensure their survival. First, seeds and cuttings are prepared, then seedlings and saplings are sent to a misting room for hourly watering. When appropriate, young plants are moved to a hardening area for them to acclimatise to the natural environment.

When they have grown enough, a majority will be sent to various parks, nature reserves and roads. Some are seen at events, such as the upcoming Community Garden Festival. Some, like the paddies, remain in the nursery, to educate visitors. Others are stock plants, providing seeds and stems for the future.

Besides contributing to the greening of Singapore, the nursery also plays an important role in the conservation of native plants. Every week, seeds and saplings of native plants are collected from forests and parkland islandwide and cultivated in the nursery until they are can be reintroduced.


A couple of critically endangered native plants the nursery helped to conserve were the twin-apple tree (Ochrosia oppositifolia) and the Hopea sangal.

Two saplings from a twin-apple tree kept in the nursery for more than 10 years were planted on Coney Island in June, after the tree was found to be locally extinct.

As for the Hopea sangal, cuttings were made from a rare tree discovered in Changi in 2002, before it was cut down by a property developer. A sapling has grown into a young plant at the HortPark.

The nursery also sources plants from countries in the region, such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, to increase the variety used in the National Parks Board's (NParks) planting programmes.

For details of the tours, visit www.nparks.gov.sg/gardening/community-garden-festival/guided-tours

Managers at the Native Plant Centre at the nursery, Ms Cherish Yong (left), 30, and Ms Ng Xin Yi, 28, collect seeds of the lowland foxglove tree (Radermachera quadripinnata), a critically endangered species in Singapore, at the Botanic Gardens. The collection and propagation of seeds from threatened or endangered species are part of routine nursery work. The seeds are planted and nurtured in the NParks Pasir Panjang Nursery before being planted in nature areas throughout Singapore. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A plain tiger butterfly flits among blood flower plants (Asclepias curassavica). ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The stems of the golden papaya (Carica papaya "Golden") glisten with raindrops after a short drizzle. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Assistant officer (nursery management) Veeranathan Kogila, 63, makes cuttings from the crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica), a non-native ornamental plant. Leaves are cut in half so the cuttings do not dry up as the leaves undergo photosynthesis. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Young plants in the propagation house's misting room. In the day, a fine mist of water is sent out for 15 minutes at hourly intervals, helping to maintain humidity at 80 per cent. This helps to reduce water loss and improve the rate of survival. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A worker prepares orchids for propagation in one of the nursery's shade houses. Adjustable racks were introduced last year to optimise space usage, enabling more plants to be housed within the area. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Workers unload plants from Thailand. The nursery acquires a variety of plants from South-east Asia, chosen based on their ornamental value, purpose and suitability to the local climate and site conditions where they will be planted. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A worker waters plants in the hardening area in the propagation house. This is the final stage of plant establishment in the nursery's three-in-one propagation house, where seedlings and saplings are placed to acclimatise to the environment. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A flower of the Ormocarpum cochinchinense, planted along the coastline as part of NParks' habitat enhancement efforts. Once presumed to be extinct in Singapore, it was recently rediscovered in Tekong and is critically endangered here. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

The Hairy Water Lily (Nymphaea pubescens) populating a canal that cuts through the nursery. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

NParks Pasir Panjang nursery senior officer, Izzul Haq bin Abdullah, who has 20 years of experience, tending to a lime plant (Citrus x aurantifolia). ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Zebra doves roosting in the misting room of the nursery. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Manager (Native Plant Centre) of the nursery, Cherish Yong (foreground), 30, look through plants at the trees section in the nursery. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Workers unloading plants, such as the Plumeria (in photo), from a container truck that has arrived from Thailand. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Seeds of the Lowland Fox-Glove Tree (Radermachera quadripinnata), a critically endangered freshwater swamp forest tree species in Singapore, lying in sphagnum moss in the nursery's propagation house. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A nursery staff rubs seeds from a coastal plant, the Necklace Pod (Sophora tomentosa), on a piece of sandpaper before planting it. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Bags of soil at the nursery's propagation. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Workers unloading plants from a container truck that has just arrived from Thailand. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A plant from Thailand still wrapped in Thai newspaper after being unloaded from a delivery truck. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A worker plants a rare Ormocarpum cochinchinense, cultivated in the nursery, along the coastline in Singapore as part of NParks’ habitat enhancement efforts. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A thread-waisted Wasp feeding on the Leea rubra (pictured) for nectar. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 30, 2017, with the headline 'Sowing the seeds of a garden city'. Subscribe