Malaysian plant parents turn balconies into green paradises

Some 300 cacti and succulents currently form the bulk of Affendi's plant collection on his balcony. Photos: Affendi Isa

On a balcony situated almost 20 floors above ground, Affendi Isa has a colourful collection of cacti, succulents and more than a hundred leafy plants on display.

He has lost count of how many succulent species he owns, and is quickly running out of space for them.

“I have made use of all the spaces on the balcony, so if I add new plants in the future, I will have to install small shelves on the walls. But this will only be done after deep consideration because the last thing I want is to overcrowd my plants and destroy my interior design concept, ” he says.

Affendi started adding leafy plants to his balcony garden during the first movement control order last March.

He is mindful of the limited space he has to work with, but his growing collection means that some plants have spilled over indoors.

To prevent overcrowding, he occasionally gives away plants to friends or sells them online. That also allows him to make space for new ones in his garden.

It is hard to imagine that just two or three years ago, Affendi’s balcony looked very different from what it is now.

In 2018, he was inspired to start a small edible garden at home after watching cooking shows on TV where herbs and vegetables were harvested from the backyard just before meal preparation.

But when his greens shrivelled up before his eyes and he was left with little more than what he started out with, he knew he had bitten off more than he could chew.

“They were high maintenance and needed ample sunlight and watering twice a day. They didn’t thrive as I didn’t have the time to maintain them properly, ” he shares.

Affendi makes use of hanging planters, shelves and racks to create ample space on his balcony for his plant collection.

So he switched gears and started looking at cacti and succulents instead, starting with small specimens purchased from neighbourhood supermarkets.

After they flourished under his care, he widened his search for more highly sought-after specimens and curious hybrids. As his interest in these plants grew, so did his collection.

Before he knew it, he had hundreds of succulents under his care and had to buy more racks, shelves and pots to set them up nicely.

“I never planned to end up with so many plants, but I always had the intention to set up a small Scandinavian tropical-like garden when I owned a house. I love interior design, so whenever I buy a plant now, I make sure that it fits my design theme and I have space for them on my shelves, ” says the 44-year-old civil servant based in Putrajaya.

He muses that his late mother loved gardening and she always had a lot of plants around the house.

“I might have just picked up this interest from her during my childhood. I also love pets a lot, especially cats. But the place I live in does not allow pets, so I reckon it is possible that subconsciously, I channelled this longing for cats into gardening!” he says.

Affendi cultivates a love for plants and gardening in his children by involving them in his gardening activities. Seen here is four-year-old Leesya

Green pastures

No doubt, the pandemic has brought out the green thumb in people all over the world as we spend more time at home, seeking new hobbies or rekindling old interests.

For Affendi, the first movement control order last March marked the start of his expansion project, as that was when he started adding leafy plants to his balcony garden.

Some of his current obsessions are the philodendron (paraiso verde, splendid, billietiae) and anthurium (regale, clarinervium).

“My favourite among all is the regale because it has great features like those shiny leaves that start off pale and evolve into a velvety green with silvery vein. It is something you really have to see happening before your eyes to really appreciate its beauty!” he enthuses.

Affendi is always reading up on the plants in his garden – or potential additions – and how to best tend to them.

Before he set up his balcony garden, he read up on ideas and concerns related to creating a garden in not just small spaces, but an area exposed to the elements, like many balconies.

Hanging planters, shelves and racks are used to create more usable space on the balcony.

“To adapt to the small and limited space I have, I chose suitable racks, shelves and hangers for the pots. For safety reasons, I make sure that the pots I use are heavy and I hang them away from the edge of the balcony. After all this time, I am happy to say that my pots have never fallen or gotten damaged by heavy rain and wind, ” he shares.

He points out that one needs to be particularly mindful while watering to avoid making a mess on the floor.

“For me, it is a must to have a saucer under every pot and the right watering can, with a small outlet at the end so you can have good control over the water flow. On the balcony floor, I put wooden decking and artificial grass to make it look clean and tidy.”

Affendi makes use of hanging planters, shelves and racks to create ample space on his balcony for his collection of plants.

Affendi notes that the best thing about a high-rise balcony garden is that you don’t have to worry so much about pests like mosquitoes. Of course, it doesn’t mean that his garden is free from the occasional aphid, spider mite or mealybug infestation – but he has it under control.

The father of four also talks about having young children around the plants, saying that there will naturally be concerns about them injuring themselves with thorny or spiky plants, or accidentally breaking flower pots and hurting themselves.

“They might be curious and want to touch the plants, but the challenge is just during the initial phase. “It is important to let them learn about what they can or shouldn’t do. With my kids, I get them to join me in my gardening activities. As a result, they share my love for plants and help me take care of the garden when I am away on outstation work trips, ” he says.

Affendi derives a sense of pride and joy from having a beautiful garden at home. He describes gardening as therapeutic and says that it helps him destress, especially after a long day at work.

But the best thing about his balcony garden?

“I get to spend more time with my family and kids. That is something I appreciate the most, ” he says.

Small space, big dreams

For Zek Jas, his balcony garden project only started a few months ago, when he had to move his plants from the corridor into his high-rise apartment due to renovation works.

From a bare space to one bursting with greenery, the balcony is where you can often find him now, when he isn’t busy with his cats.

“When I moved my plants indoors, I divided my new ‘garden’ into two areas – the main balcony and the kitchen balcony. From there, I started looking for new plants to add to my collection, ” says the 35-year-old administrative assistant from Labuan.

Because his balconies are small – the bigger space is a modest 1.8sq m – he makes use of vertical racks and hanging poles.

“If you use vertical racks, you might want to consider placing the heavier pots at the lower levels, especially if you have children or pets. I arrange my tall plants at the back and the small ones in front.

Despite living in a high-rise residence, Zek finds ways to inject a whole lot of green into his home. Photos: Zek Jas

“In my case, I don’t really have any issues related to wind, but I have two cats and three kittens. You can imagine how curious they are about my plants. They have destroyed a number of my glass and terracotta pots in the past, ” he shares.
Zek may not have a big balcony, but that has not stopped him from welcoming plants with big leaves into his collection.

Zek offers more suggestions for those working with limited space: Have cascading plants? Put them in a hanging planter. Not only is it a smart use of space but it is an attractive way to show off those trailing plants.

Floating shelves also work well in terms of adding space.

“For people who are just starting out on their garden project, you should first determine what kind of lighting and humidity levels you have before thinking about what plants you want to put in your garden. Do some research on the plants you are interested in and make sure that you are able to provide the right conditions for them to grow effectively, ” he says.

His advice is to never give up if you find a plant struggling to thrive under your care.

“Take risks, be brave and even if you are not successful, take it as a learning opportunity. With the garden, create your own style and be creative. Remember that you don’t need to follow trends. It is your garden and it is for your own satisfaction and relaxation, ” he emphasises.

Zek has moved some of his plants indoors, carefully selecting them based on their light requirements.

Currently, Zek has more than 50 plants, including a dozen varieties of ferns. He buys them from local nurseries and often receives plants as gifts from friends.

He has also done some propagating on his own and derives great joy from observing the behaviours of different plant species.

“I have managed to capture my calathea opening its leaves during the day and closing them at night. It is able to do this because of a ‘joint’ between the leaf and stem that is activated by changing light levels.

One of Zek's leafy plants, the anthurium crystallinum 'dark form', has silver veins that contrast with its dark green, velvety leaves.

“It is quite interesting to me and I really love to monitor all my plants to learn how they survive, how they adapt to a new environment, and how they can live together in one place, ” he says.

He has had his eye on variegated species for some time now, so those might just be his next additions to the garden.

“My father was a gardener and I grew up with lots of plants around me. I guess that is why I have a very strong connection to plants and love being around nature.

“I enjoy being a plant parent and my plants provide me with positive energy, which is healing for the soul, ” he concludes.

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