SHE admitted she knew nothing about gardening or growing plants.
“Give me some lalang grass to grow and it will die,” she told thesundaypost.
“Well, at least that’s what I’d say about myself before. But now, look at those green babies over there. They’re all under my tender care. And I think they’re very, very happy,” she said about the new hobby she has picked up.
Eileen Choo, a university lecturer, then pointed to a table at one end of her car porch, packed with little pots containing little plants – objects of her newfound interest in home gardening with an eye on houseplants. It was something she previously ‘knew nuts’ about and never thought of doing, she confessed.
So what made her decide to embark on this journey into the unknown as she described it?
The 46-year-old said when Covid-19 struck early last year, she was locked down at home. She could not go to her campus and had to work from home. But soon, she discovered, to her chagrin, that this type of working arrangement was not as cool as many people might think.
For a start, she had to re-orientate to the unusual working environment which she said turned out to be a bit of an emotional struggle for her.
“It just didn’t feel right doing my official work at home,” she said.
“Lots of distractions … for example, dogs barking now and then, clunky noisy trucks suddenly rumbling by when things had quieted down a bit, sounds of my hubby fighting with the pans and pots in the kitchen, the droning of a grass-cutting machine somewhere, and my curious adolescent daughter occasionally poking her head into my room to check what I was up to. But the most challenging distraction was trying very hard not to think about the fridge full of snacks only a few steps away,” she chuckled.
Choo said lecturing online was more demanding than actually teaching at the campus because doing things virtually required her to be more vigilant, persevering, and enduring, adding that such a daily grind was more exhausting and needed more patience as she had to deal with her students one by one.
She had to put in more time and quite often had to work late into the night. If she had a choice, she would prefer working at the campus.
Choo said she also missed her social life – the company of colleagues and friends, talking, laughing, and having lunch with them.
She said this was a consequence of working from home, adding with a sigh that besides her two immediate family members, she had only a cold all-business-like computer to interact with.
One of her ways to unwind after spending hours in front of the computer screen was going out of the house for a while to breathe in some fresh air, look at trees and shrubs, listen to birds singing, and, perhaps, do some weeding of the potted flowers around the car porch.
While weeding and nipping off old wilted leaves, she discovered the activity gave her a very calming feeling. So, whenever she needed to take her tired eyes off the computer screen, she would go outside and spend some quiet moments, de-stressing among the plants in her garden.
After a while, she found this ‘plant therapy’ to be restorative and settling. Any time she wanted a break from work, she would adopt this therapeutic approach to clear her mind of work-induced stress. As the days passed by, Choo sensed her love for plants had grown stronge r.
Peace of mind
While googling for information on plants, particularly houseplants, she learned about a species known as succulents, popularly grown as ornamental plants. Although quite similar to cacti, succulents are generally smaller and come in all shapes and colours.
She explored succulents on the Internet and discovered they are commonly found in Malaysia – even in Kuching. It was then that she thought of taking up the hobby of nurturing and growing succulents. Since taking care of plants has given her a lot of comfort and peace of mind, she thought she might as well pursue it as her ‘happy hour’ time.
“There’re over 500 varieties of succulents and I have accumulated more than 100 types. The reason I stopped having more is that the table I put them on has run out of space. I care for them like babies. Some of them are quite delicate and fussy to nurture.”
After tending to succulents for over half a year, Choo noticed these little plants seemed to have different personalities.
Some needed tender care, some fared better by themselves, while some were so sensitive that they needed pampering or would just die, she observed.
Generally, succulents need much more light than water which is why she has placed her plants under a transparent roof to shelter from the rain but still get ample sunshine.
Choo waters the plants herself to control the amount of water needed. According to her, some varieties need more water, some less, while some only develop and show off their best colours with enough sunshine.
Succulents are suitable for planting in terracotta pots made of clay that is unglazed so that it’s porous. Although the porosity prevents waterlogged soil, it still retains moisture, keeping the soil moist and cool for a longer time.
Succulents grow best on potting soil with good drainage. Learning to produce the right potting mix takes time. Several kinds of ready-mixed succulent soil are sold at pottery shops in Kuching.
“In fact, I went crazy over the terracotta pots. A pottery shop I bought them from ran out of stock because of me,” Choo said.
“I waited for their new stock to arrive and I ‘sapu habis’ (bought) all the 100 units on the shelf as soon as they became available.”
Choo has different kinds of treatment for plants, including pesticides, fungicides, wound dressings, rooting hormones, and fertiliser.
Anytime her ‘green babies’ fall sick, she becomes their doctor. She even has an ‘ICU’ area to keep those with growth problems under special care.
Occasionally, she has to play ‘surgeon’ when the diseased parts of the plants have to be cut off.
There are also times she has to chop off the roots and carefully nurse the plants until the severed parts grow back. It didn’t take Choo too long to learn how to care for and propagate her plants.
She would reproduce some of them by using their leaves and some by separating the suckers from the mother plants.
Since getting into succulents, she has learnt a lot about plants – growing and looking after them – mostly from the Internet and fellow hobbyists and friends.
Choo obtains her succulents from various sources. Her first and main one is a local dealer. While searching for succulents in Kuching, she got a lucky break when she discovered an elderly couple at Jalan Arang were growing and selling the plants. For her, what was fortuitous was that the couple happened to be the parents of her friend.
When she visited their place, she was overwhelmed by the huge varieties of succulents the couple had. Their selling price ranges from a couple to over RM100, depending on variety, size, and age.
Choo’s other sources are fellow succulent enthusiasts. She either buys from or exchanges plants with them. She has also gotten to know many succulent growers from Facebook, with whom she either exchanges information or strikes some kind of micro business deal.
Loss of special plant
Then suddenly looking a tad forlorn, she recalled she had one very special succulent she named Elsa. One day, it wilted and died.
“It was all because some stupid lizards pooped on Elsa,” she said with a hint of annoyance.
“You see, that plant was actually an indoor plant, and it thrived in a very cool or slightly cold place. Roughly once in two weeks, I had to put ice cubes and let them slowly melt around it. I kept the plant in my living room.
“Once in a while, it would be good for Elsa to get a little sunlight so that it would blossom. One day, I moved it to the veranda outside. True enough, it opened up until it looked like it was in a dancing pose.
“However, soon after, I noticed something was not right with the plant. The petal-like leaves started to darken and on closer look, I found they had begun to rot from the core. Further scrutiny revealed bits of lizard droppings at the rotting centre. I couldn’t save it.”
Asked why she called the succulent Elsa, Choo said it was the plant’s generic name, adding that every species has a name – too many to mention – but among the few she can remember are Jades, Hen and Chicks, Green Prince, Donkey’s Tail, and Panda Plant.
Choo said she has diversified into growing two more types of ornamental plants called Caladium and Alocasia, related to the yam family.
There are many varieties which have names of their own. Caladiums are easier to look after because they love both rain and sunshine and can be planted in pots or in the ground and left out in the open. Alocasias are more sensitive.
Both varieties can be propagated by suckers, tubers, or rhizomes. Some are quite costly, especially the ‘rare and unusual’ ones.
Choo has heard of some of these plants fetching up to several hundred and over RM1,000. She found one Alocasia sold by someone in Sabah at an irresistible price and quickly placed an order for it. The young plant, still attached to its rhizome, was packed into a small parcel and sent by courier service.
Due to some posting hitches, it took nearly 100 days to arrive. She expected to see a dead plant when she opened the parcel, but miraculously, the only leaf on the young plant had not wilted.
Choo revealed her new hobby had given her life some tranquillity. She now treats gardening as a form of relaxation.
“I am not an expert on succulents or gardening. I am still learning by trial and error. It’s challenging but that’s where the satisfaction and fun are,” she said.