By Dr Noreen Chan,
Head & Senior Consultant, Division of Palliative Care,
National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS)

My late father had many interests and pursued each with alarming enthusiasm. Alarming mainly for my mother who constantly fretted when he was off on one of his shopping forays, never knowing what he would return with. The antique porcelain urinal was still manageable, but the blackwood opium bed presented some storage problems. His everlasting passion though, was gardening. Even in his later years when walking was difficult, he would find a way to spend time among his fruit trees and orchids. 

He would go to the trouble of assembling his own “personal protective equipment” (raincoat, mask, gloves, boots) when spraying his plants, and when it became difficult to buy certain fungicides and pesticides in Singapore, he would drive up to Malaysia to stock up. It seems incredible now when I think about what chemicals we had stashed in his workshop or garden shed, but then again, he used to keep bottles of ether in the stationery cupboard (for dental anaesthesia). 


As one of the younger (and more compliant) children, I often had to help him out with chores like watering the plants, often with great reluctance because of the heat and mosquitoes. As well as the smell from fertilisers like blood and bone, or fish emulsion (which drove the cats crazy). He would weed here, trim there, point out particular plant species, expound on the benefits of chicken dung, and I would wish I could be indoors watching TV.

And yet, after he died and the house was sold and we moved to an apartment, I insisted we have a balcony so that we could have plants. I paid almost $1,000 for a plant stand, recalling Pa’s advice and asking for a hardwood like chengai – “it will last for 20 years” – and as my initial efforts produced a long list of dead plants, regretted not paying more attention to what he had said and done.

But over time, as I put into practice what he had told me, and by a combination of trial and error, and luck, I now come home to a nice bit of greenery on my balcony. But my working hours being what they are, the only time I can devote proper attention to the plants is over the weekend. I have missed many moments of the kheng hwa plants which bloom for one day only, as well as catching attacks of caterpillars or mealy bugs. But I have also experienced the thrill of watching a “once a year” orchid unfurl its showy blooms.

The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway. 

- Michael Pollan

There is something enduring and therapeutic about gardens and gardening. Once humans had learnt to domesticate wild plants, they started to create gardens, growing plants not only for food and medicine, but also for enjoyment and pleasure. Gardens all over the world are products of their time, reflecting local geography, aesthetics, philosophy and even religion. You may not understand what a Japanese Zen garden is about – the carefully raked sand, the artfully placed stones - but you have to admit there is something deep and ineffable about it. 


Lee Kuan Yew is remembered for many things, but in my view, one of his greatest achievements was to encourage tree planting and greening of our island city state. We Singaporeans take it for granted that we can look out our windows and see greenery, but if you have ever lived in cities that were literally concrete jungles, you will appreciate how restorative it is to see, and be close to, trees and plants.


The presence of greenery is not just aesthetically pleasing, it has real impact on the ambient temperature and air quality of urban communities. Gardens also have therapeutic benefits for patients of all ages, from terminally ill children to elderly people with dementia. The late Oliver Sacks, who spent his career treating people with chronic neurological diseases, attested to The Healing Power of Gardens not only for his patients, but for himself.


I draw many parallels between planting orchids and education and training. Take repotting, a necessary activity when the plant outgrows the pot; when it comes to orchids it could seem a fairly brutal process. My father would insist that the old roots had to be cut away almost to nothing, then he would subdivide the old plant into two or three. Next, he would anchor each plant firmly in fresh charcoal, before placing them in a shaded part of the garden. He explained that the dense mass of old roots and the

old growing medium, was choking the plant so it could no longer grow well. We would not know for weeks whether the re-potted plants would survive, let along thrive; we could only tend them carefully and be patient.


There are many parallels to teaching (especially higher training): “old roots” or old habits may need to be pruned before new growth can occur. But at the same time, the young plant needs strong support, nourishment and a protected environment so it can grow roots of its own. You can do the same thing for a hundred “seedlings” but the outcome will not be the same for all; if you’re reasonably skilled and lucky, most if not all will survive, and if you are very lucky, a few will be not only robust but outstanding. And even those we consider irritating, have their place and purpose, in the words of American columnist Doug Larson, “A weed is a plant that has mastered every survival skill except for learning how to grow in rows.”

Help us to be ever faithful gardeners of the spirit, who know that without darkness nothing comes to birth, and without light nothing flowers.

- May Sarton

Everyone has their weekend activities, mine happens to involve pottering around my balcony garden, for the simple reason that I enjoy growing things. Even experimenting by planting seeds of chilli, pomelo and bittergourd bought for consumption, just to see what happens. If nothing else, it has made me appreciate what it takes to coax fruits and vegetables from the earth.

But it is more than that. Simply put, being in a garden, close to nature, replenishes my spirit. I think it was like that for my father as well, over and above

the satisfaction derived from a bountiful fruit harvest, or a profusion of colourful blooms. It gave him joy, even as age and illness were taking so much from him. That kind of connection to something or someone that is healing is what we all need, and many do not even know they yearn for it.

This need becomes more obvious and urgent during serious illness, and towards the end of life, but really, we all have spiritual needs throughout our life stages. And just as we work to “top up” and “maintain” our physical and financial accounts, we need to attend to our “spiritual back accounts” too, because one day we will need to consider how we will “Leave Well”, which is hard if we have never considered what it is like to “Live Well”.


If nothing else, understand yourself, and live authentically. My father certainly did, and unapologetically too. I did not agree with all his life choices, but I respected his grit and tenacity, his generosity and curiosity. During his wake, we saw the threads of his life coming together – his old Scout friends in various stages of frailty, our large extended family, former colleagues, the pump attendant from the petrol station down the road – and they spoke of a man who lived fully and without prejudice.


It has been 10 years, but I am often reminded of him, especially when I am in my garden, or indeed any garden. Pa, wherever you are – I was right about composting (yes you can do it on a balcony without mess), but you were right about everything else.


Noreen Chan 

May 2019

The author's father in his garden 

One Vast Garden


"I find one vast garden spread out all over the universe.

All plants, all human beings, all higher mind bodies 

are about in this garden in various ways, 

each has his own uniqueness and beauty. 

Their presence and variety give me great delight. 

Every one of you adds with his special feature to the glory of the garden."


By Sri Ananandamayi Ma