SINGAPORE: Nine years ago, Mdm Lee May La, 64, nearly lost her life.
She had gone to Australia to attend her son’s graduation when she had a sudden onset of meningitis - an infection of the membranes that cover the brain and the spinal cord - which left her unconscious in an Australian hospital.
For two months, she could not walk. And with the medication she had been taking, she started suffering from reduced bone density.
“The doctor (told) me, you need vitamin D,” she said, which is why she joined her fledgling neighbourhood community garden as a full-time volunteer in 2012.
When asked if she found the work taxing at first, as she had been recovering from her infection, Mdm Lee, who is now retired, said: “Once you enjoy, you don’t feel anything.”
Now, almost a decade later, she manages the three award-winning community gardens in her Bukit Batok neighbourhood, runs workshops for gardeners and has been enlisted to work on several other gardening projects, including a garden for patients with dementia at the Institute of Mental Health. Her bone density has also returned to normal.
A FEW CROPS AND MANY QUARRELS
Anyone visiting the three community gardens at Bukit Batok Central will be struck by the size of the plots. Where most community gardens tend to be smaller, Mdm Lee’s gardens span the length of the adjacent Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, covering about 20,000 sq ft.
The first is a sprawling vegetable garden, and at 10,000 sq ft, it is brimming with salad greens, fruit trees and koi ponds. In the corner, there is a small hydroponics set-up, built by the volunteers themselves. It even has a long-tailed myna that says phrases in Teochew and Mandarin.
The second garden, at 3,000 sq ft, takes its inspiration from art. Donated sculptures are the centrepieces here, and a small path guides the visitor through the garden.
The last garden, a 7,000 sq ft plot, is dedicated solely to fruit trees - there are papaya trees, banana trees and even a temperate Brazilian Grape Tree that has somehow managed to flourish in Singapore’s humid, tropical environment.
But this community garden did not always look like this. When she started in 2012, said Mdm Lee, the garden was only a third of its current size, with only a few fruit trees and few individual lots.
The community gardeners were also individualistic and fought often, she said, recalling that they often quarrelled over soil and gardening implements.
“I (didn't) like seeing everyone fight,” she said. So when she took over as garden leader in 2014, she started to put the garden in order.
“I found (the individual plots) very messy. The aunties simply plant anything inside, like rojak,” she said. “And then after that I influenced the uncles and aunties. I don’t divide. Once I take over (as) garden leader, I don’t let them become (individualistic). All plant together, all share together.”
Over the course of a year, she bonded the quarrelling gardeners together by organising monthly birthday parties, volunteer potlucks and sharing her own produce with everyone else.
Now, they all work together as a team to maintain the garden. According to Mdm Lee, there are about 20 to 30 volunteers and 10 active gardeners working on the plots, with the oldest aged 80 and the youngest aged 17.
“I LIKE TO SEE THE GREENERY”
Although the residents volunteer their time, there are still new plants and fertilisers to buy. In all, Mdm Lee forks out a few hundred dollars a month to maintain the community garden.
She said with a laugh: “My husband said, you take my salary and you spend in the garden.”
For her latest project, the hydroponics garden, Mdm Lee spent a further S$3,000, topping up the money already subsidised by the Residents’ Committee.
But her dedication does not stop there. Every time before she plants something new, she will do her research on Google to make sure she understands how to care for the crop. She, along with five other gardeners, also used their SkillsFuture credits to attend a one-day course on hydroponics.
She even went to Chiang Mai, Thailand, with two other volunteers to learn how to make enzymes, which they use to enrich the soil.
To spread her love and knowledge of gardening, Mdm Lee started to work with childcare centres in the vicinity to educate preschool children about the plants and crops in the community gardens as well.
For her future plans for the gardens, Mdm Lee just wants to “plant something special”, something different for the children who visit her garden.
She also wants to add an arch to the entrance of her second garden and plant more flowers and plants over the sculptures, so that when people look over the community gardens, they can see a “small botanic gardens”.
“I like to see the greenery,” said Mdm Lee, on why she likes gardening. “I saw the children, so happy, looking at the crops. I feel so satisfied. And now you see our volunteers, so (harmonious), like kampong spirit, I feel so good.”