Confessions of a landscape designer
“Hibiscus, ixora, dalbergia.” These are some plant names Mr Eliam Eng would rattle off while travelling on the roads, identifying each as he goes by.
"My friends ask me if I am ever lonely, since I travel on my own from home to home to meet clients.
"I always tell them I am not, as the plants keep me company," says the landscape designer, who prefers to introduce himself as a "gardener".
Many of his clients are well-heeled and do not bat an eyelid spending up to $500,000 on their gardens, in homes about 150,00 sq ft.
They are often located in posh and exclusive enclaves such as Sentosa Cove.
The 61-year-old says Japanese bonsai is one of the most expensive plants he works with. Each can cost up to $70,000.
Sometimes, he travels with clients to countries such as Japan and Thailand on buying trips.
First-time owners of landed properties who want magnificent gardens can sometimes get on his nerves, he confesses.
"They can be inexperienced and naive, often depending on a range of opinions, including from horticulturists and other experts.
"Sometimes, they don't know exactly what they want and get upset when you deliver something which doesn't fit the picture in their mind," he says.
This is in contrast to owners who have owned and worked on gardens previously.
"When it is their third or fourth home, they can be demanding in terms of what they want, but they are always specific," he says.
Occasionally, he returns to the homes after a year or two to find surprises. And they aren't always good ones.
"Sometimes, the owner adds his own plants, without consulting me, and it may not be in line with my initial plan. The best way to describe it is 'rojak'," he says with a hearty chuckle.
One of the most challenging projects he has handled involved transforming a hotel ballroom into a garden for a two-day wedding.
"The team and I didn't sleep. We worked from 11pm till 5am the next day, and used about 25 lorries' worth of plants and decorations," he says.
The executive director of 103-year-old Nyee Phoe Flower Garden has been in this industry for 35 years.
The business began as a modest flower nursery started by Mr Eng's grandfather. Today, it employs 80 staff.
The genial man, whose eyes light up when he talks about plants, says he fell in love with them at the age of 11.
"As a child, watering the plants used to be a chore I tried to get over with as quickly as possible. Others use watering cans, I use buckets.
"But during one watering session, it hit me that the plants I was watering were 'thirsty'. I saw life in them. And that was when I got hooked," he says with a smile.
Since then, he has amassed 800 plant and horticulture-related books, which are worth about $22,000 in total.
Apart from on-the-job experience, Mr Eng has also attended a variety of horticulture, agriculture and interior design courses to equip himself with the changing landscape of the industry.
Today, his nephews and brother are helping him to run the business.
But finding talented individuals can be difficult, he admits.
"The thing about this industry... it is hands-on and requires you to get dirty sometimes. It is also always under the sun. These are factors which put people off," he says with a chuckle.
Still, there are moments of immense satisfaction.
He recalls a woman he met at a flower show in 2012, who asked for his contact.
But it was only a year later that she became his client.
"She told me that she had been saving my number until her house had been built. I felt touched that she wanted me to design her garden," he says.
Secrets of the trade
1 Always order 10 per cent more of the plants you are using. They may get damaged during the transportation or handling process, or need replacing one or two years after the project is completed.
2 Take a camera and sketchbook along whenever you visit beautiful gardens. They are a source of inspiration.
3 If you are afraid of creepy crawlies, this job isn't for you. He has dealt with caterpillars which are 7.5cm long.