The retiree behind the roof garden that brought back a kampung spirit

The retiree behind the roof garden that brought back a kampung spirit

Hidden away on a rooftop in Dover is a community garden that is lowering the walls among neighbours and helping to forge friendships. But it realised this potential only after Benjamin Ee decided to turn it around.

‘Take what you need,’ invites the sign at Dover Crescent’s award-winning open community garden. Meet the retiree who set out to bring back the old kampung spirit of sharing, plant by plant.

SINGAPORE: Every morning, 92-year-old Madam Lim Yee Mun can be found on the top of a multi-storey car park in Dover estate, gently moving her arms and legs through the motions of exercise, amid a lush green haven of tranquility.

Once she is done, Tai Chi Ah Ma – as she is known to other residents – gets down on her haunches and starts on her other daily routine: Weeding the rooftop garden, where countless herbs, edibles and ornamental plants grow in profusion.

“These plants keep the air fresh. The air downstairs isn’t so good,” she said, scrabbling at the soil.

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Mdm Lim Yee Mun, or Tai Chi Ah Ma as she is known to other residents.

Fellow volunteer Lim Kiat Kee has been growing herbs there for over seven years. The 75-year-old has a nickname too: Bus Ah Ma, on account of being a former bus driver.

They live in the same block, on different floors – but it was in the garden where their friendship blossomed, and where many other bonds between neighbours were forged.

A unique signboard captures the open-hearted spirit that flourishes here. "Pick our herbs and spices for free," it invites everyone, even those who did none of the gardening.

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In community gardens elsewhere, fears of abuse have commonly led to locked fences and turf wars. But here at Dover Crescent, there is a special kampung spirit at work.

WATCH: Measure at community gardens sufficient to limit cases of abuse: Teo Ho Pin

It needed one resident, however, to turn what was once a humdrum patch of green – so uninspiring that Tai Chi Ah Ma used to exercise on the ground floor – into something much more.

That man was Mr Benjamin Ee, and he has been guided by a simple philosophy since he became gardener number one: “You can’t call it a community garden if it doesn’t bring people together.”

CHOOSING TO BE GENEROUS

Mr Ee, who recently retired from his job as project manager in the construction industry, has always loved gardening. But this personal pet project in his estate is his first stab at a community garden.

And he has chosen not to be territorial. “Because we’re growing different types of plants, invariably we’d have people coming to ask us, ‘Can I have this? Can I have that?’ And I say, let’s be generous,” said the 60-year-old.

“Whatever we can afford to give, let’s give it to them because we want to engage the community.”

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Mr Benjamin Ee.

He does not mind that some people want the produce without putting in the hard work, as he wants to “make this garden a bit different”.

What tends to be a sore point among green fingers in Singapore – the damage done to pots and plants, the pilfering and the littering – does not seem to faze him either.

“People have deliberately broken the branches, stolen the whole plant, taken the pots or broken them, taken some of the slabs and thrown them around,” he admitted.

“There are people who smoke and leave the cigarette butts here, and beer cans – not here on the paved area but on the garden ground. So we have to be gracious about those things.”

Such incidents have not detracted from his concept of an open garden, one where students come to study, foreign workers sit to have their meals and other residents have other reasons to be drawn to it.

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“We’ve had people come here in the mornings to read their papers and someone reading the bible. I had a lady one evening who came here crying, to be by herself, and she asked me for some advice,” he recounted.

I’ve had neighbours from other precincts, even the condominium nearby, coming to ask for some of the edible flowers, giving them seeds. I’ve had people on wheelchairs looking around, so I gave them the water hose to spray (the plants).

“We have people, this afternoon actually, coming to discuss some serious matter. I saw the seriousness on their faces," he added.

APPROACHED OUT OF THE BLUE

In its original state, however, the roof garden consisted of common cow grass, some palm trees, a few lime trees, a bunch of pandan shrubs, “and there was no shelter – it was just that”.

“A lot of residents said they came up here, looked at it and then went off. There was nothing to interact with,” said Mr Ee, who estimated that there are now over 80 species of plants, spices and medicinal herbs.

He may have never got involved in the garden, however, if not for another resident approaching him out of the blue.

It was December 2010, and he was having breakfast with his family at the coffee shop, with a potted plant they had bought on their table, when an elderly lady spotted him.

She had been looking for people interested in gardening, and she decided to ask him whether he would be willing to start a proper garden for the residents. After he gave it some thought, it made perfect sense.

Their estate was new, one that had just replaced several blocks at Dover Road that were chosen for the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme.

Some residents would be feeling displaced, so it would be good to start something to bring them together, he reasoned. And the name given to their estate could scarcely have been lost on him.

“When I first moved here, I saw the sign. It said we’re called Dover Gardens. But a garden needs to be something exciting,” he said, adding that “it was about time”, too, for him to give back to the community.

By the next month, he had rounded up a committee of seven, and they held their first meeting in his 40th-storey flat over coffee, biscuits and cake to start planning and preparing budgets.

Having approached the town council, via the Dover Crescent Residents’ Committee, he was then given the go-ahead in April 2011.

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The roof garden at Block 28 Dover Crescent before Mr Benjamin Ee's team took over.

They broke ground a month later on the new garden: Three plots totalling more than 200 square metres. “To me, it was like, ‘Wow. This is more than I could've expected,’” he said.

NO PROPER FUNDING

While the garden may have come a long way since then, the journey has had its share of ups and downs, some unexpected.

At the outset, for example, Mr Ee’s team had to get the garden going without any funds given to them.

So one thing he did was to source for materials that could be recycled or upcycled, such as paving stones, which he secured from his contacts in the construction industry.

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A photo of the early days of the garden.

These were surplus stones that contractors would have had to pay to dispose of, so he paid their workers instead to bring them to the garden, where his team laid every slab.

“Even this bench I’m sitting on is recycled by taking a number of broken benches and putting them together, and you get one that’s still useable,” he told CNA Insider.

An initial investment was still needed, however, so his team pooled S$700. “Then as the garden developed, other neighbours heard about it and started putting in money,” he said.

“When we were growing vegetables, they’d come, take their vegetables and say, ‘Okay, I'd like to give you a contribution of S$100.' I’d say S$2 is good enough, but they’d give S$100 or S$10.”

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Mr Ee's team called their community garden interest group "Petals, Greens and Friends".

There were also those who gave in kind, including plants, seeds and fertiliser. One resident, for example, gave him some Indian lemon seeds to plant.

“She said that she’d tried for over a year but couldn’t grow any. Then I took the seeds and grew them. She said, “Woah, you’re blessed, your hands are blessed.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s nature,’” he recounted.

He estimated his own contribution over the years at S$1,000 at most.

MANPOWER WOES

Money, in the end, was not the biggest challenge. Manpower was, including managing the small team he had.

When Mr Ee was focusing on developing a flowering garden at one of the three plots, problems emerged among the committee members to whom he had handed over the vegetable garden.

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“There were some relationship strains that caused some major challenges. That affected the garden, and I was often called to be the middleman, which wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said.

The once-thriving vegetable plot, which produced almost 175 kilogrammes of harvest monthly, fell into disrepair. So in 2013, he turned it into a pallet garden for flowers, which meant less maintenance.

Despite such struggles, the roof garden won an Environmental and Biodiversity Award from the National Parks Board the next year, and with it a cash award of S$1,000. That was when Mr Ee suffered one of the biggest blows.

To use the money, his committee had to join the Dover Crescent RC. But the other members objected, as the RC had not given them funding in the first place.

They quit, leaving him to join the RC alone in the hope that he could engage more residents.

“It was very disheartening at times. There were times I was thinking, ‘Yeah, maybe I should give up,’” admitted Mr Ee, who was still working full-time then.

I was beginning to put in more and more time, and my wife would say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? You don’t have the manpower, and you’re taking so much time out of the family.’

But the plants were not in good health, and some residents even texted him to ask what was going on with the garden. “I was like, ‘Okay, this is a heavy weight on my shoulder,’” he recalled.

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For a period, he would water the garden at 6.30am because of the manpower shortage and have one of his few volunteers do it on another day. Yet, he did not blame people for not volunteering.

“Most Singaporeans generally find it quite tough working under the sun. And then sometimes you get insects buzzing around. It can be quite uncomfortable,” he said.

“I think that’s the reason they’re not so keen on gardening. But they generally like the garden.”

AT THE WIFE'S SUGGESTION

Mr Ee still had people encouraging him – people like Tai Chi Ah Ma and Bus Ah Ma, who was one of his original volunteers and who would brew herbs from the garden for him.

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Mdm Lim Kiat Kee, or Bus Ah Ma as she is dotingly called.

And then others joined to pick up the slack, like Mr Rahman Latiff, who loved the garden and volunteered to do the watering and cleaning while learning about Chinese herbs and doing some planting. Pushing 80, he is at the garden at least four times a week.

The turning point came early last year when Mr Ee’s wife suggested that he open up half the garden for people to take whatever is grown, and also suggested some of the possible plants.

They have not looked back since, and neither have the residents. There is Siti the domestic helper, who comes thrice a week for pandan leaves, to make a barley drink for her employer’s family.

There is Amy the 56-year-old, who discovered that the garden was a great place to practise tai chi, and picks one or two lime leaves too.

And there is a lot more they can take, but only if needed: Sweet potato leaves, lemongrass, Kaffir lime, brinjal, ladies' fingers, chilli, Thai basil, garlic, ginger, and so on.

Throughout its several transformations, the garden has gone from strength to strength, picking up eight awards, including the Gardeners’ Cup 2018 this past week at the ongoing Singapore Garden Festival.

Its open concept even came to the attention of Temasek, which decided "in the spirit of sustainability" to donate edible herbs and plants exhibited at last month’s Temasek Ecosperity Conference to the garden.

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The edible herbs and plants donated to the Dover Crescent community garden made up the exhibition centrepiece at the Temasek Ecosperity Conference. (Photo credit: Temasek)

There are now over 1,000 community gardens under NParks’ Community In Bloom initiative. A minority of them are roof gardens. But Mr Ee hopes that what he and his team are doing is extra special.

And he wants to do more, like the activities held in the garden previously when he had more manpower – for example, barbecue nights and Christmas under the stars – “so that we can build that community”.

As he noted emphatically, “The garden is all about relationships. It’s not just about plants.”

Source: CNA/dp

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