growing fruits
Mrs Teh Geok Siew (above, with green apples from her garden). Her "fruit salad trees" were imported from Australia and can bear different fruits of the same family on one tree, such as the apple plant with both red and green fruit 

To fulfil her 11-year-old daughter's wish to pick strawberries, housewife Victoria Ho bought a packet of strawberry seeds for 90 cents from a nursery here and started growing them in paper cups at home. Catching the morning sun from the window of her 24th-floor condominium in Braddell View, the seedlings grew so well that she had to transfer them to 1.5-litre plastic bottles within a few weeks.

To share her experiences, Ms Ho, 47, started a Facebook group called SG Farming in Apartments, where she received tips when she ran into gardening difficulties. For example, during the hot spell in July, users suggested she let the soil cool down at night and to use chilled water to water the plants. Following their advice, she left the air-conditioning on in her room at night. To water the plant, she used crushed ice made from a nutrient-rich mixture of diluted coffee water and water left from rinsing rice and seaweed. Her efforts paid off. She and her daughter, Summer, have made five harvests, with 10 to 12 fruits each time. The jellybean-sized strawberries have "a very intense taste which explodes in your mouth".

growing strawberries
Summer Fong, 11, with the strawberry plant that she and her mother cultivated, which bears jellybean-sized fruit that is full of intense flavour.

She is not the only enterprising gardener in tropical Singapore defying the climate and attempting to grow temperate fruits such as strawberries, apples and grapes. Some people simulate the plant's native environment with cooling measures such as air-conditioned rooms or watering them with ice. Others, through trial and error, have found ways to make their temperate plants fruit.

Take, for example, baker Alex Ng, 43, who has been growing grapes along the corridor of his three-room HDB flat in Yishun. The trick, he says, is to prune the plant. Four years ago, he bought a stem cutting at a nursery here for $6. After six months, the plant grew so much that it threatened to overwhelm his makeshift trellis. He pruned the vines and within a couple of weeks, they began to flower and fruit.

The pruning triggered the fruiting. With that realisation, he continued pruning the vines and now harvests up to 17 bunches of grapes about six times a year. The bachelor gives them to neighbours, friends and family. He says: "They can grow as big as those seeded grapes found in supermarkets and taste just as sweet."

Doing a lot of research helps too. Former streetscape manager Alexius Yeo, 30, spends a lot of time Googling for information on the Mediterranean herbs he grows, such as rosemary and lavender, as well as subtropical fruit such as jujube. The subtropics, which has distinct dry and wet seasons, is found between the tropical and temperate zones.

For instance, he read that rosemary normally grows in well- drained soil. "But this is not something you can buy off the shelf. You have to create it yourself," he says. But six pots of rosemary died on him before he finally hit on the right composition of soil – comprising sand and pumice rock, a type of volcanic rock – to make the herb thrive. 

Mr Yeo, who lives in a terrace house in Serangoon North with his parents and runs a nature-based experiential learning programme for schools, says: "The rosemary we grow is more fragrant and tastes better than those found in supermarkets. We often use it in cooking." Similarly, he read up on the jujube after his plant did not fruit for six months. He found out that in the plant's natural environment, it usually sheds its leaves before fruiting. He proceeded to pluck off most of the leaves of his jujube plant. Within weeks, the fruit, which tastes like green apples and has strong antioxidant properties, formed.

Some Singaporeans are more ambitious, going a step further to order cuttings of temperate plants from abroad. While on holiday in Australia 10 years ago, retiree Teh Geok Siew, 64, visited an orchard with "fruit salad trees" – these are trees which can bear different fruits of the same family on one tree. Intrigued, she ordered six stem cuttings, two each of an apple tree, a peach tree and a citrus tree from the orchard.

The orchard helped her obtain a phyto-sanitary certificate and flew the cuttings in by air. Mrs Teh also received a permit from the Agri- Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore to import the cuttings. In all, she spent between $150 and $200 on each cutting.

She started growing them in the third-floor balcony of her condominium in Upper Serangoon, together with tropical fruits such as starfruit and longan. Over the years, some of the temperate cuttings have fruited while others did not survive. From one successful cutting, she harvests ping pong-sized green and red apples once a year. From another citrus cutting, she picks tangelo, a pomelo-like fruit.

She says she treats the temperature plants the same way she treats her tropical ones. "I add fertilisers every three weeks and water them twice a day. They grow well maybe because I started them not from seeds, but from stem cuttings, which came with roots," she says.


This story first appeared in The Sunday Times. Photos: The Sunday Times