The jungle of palms, plumerias and tree ferns that clings to the Park Royal on Pickering hotel helps to shade and cool the interior. Photograph: Patrick Bingham-Hall
From faux meadows to immaculate vintage tools, horticulture in the UK basks in nostalgia. Cosy as our Victorian model of rustic idyll may be, I can’t help but wonder: is this a good thing for gardening? Is it even very Victorian?
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the planet, there is a place where horticulture is all about cutting-edge innovation. The island state of Singapore is less than half the size of London, but in terms of garden design it punches far above its weight, with some of the most ambitious gardens of the 21st century.
It was the brainchild of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. When he swept to power in 1959, Cambridge-educated Lee rejected calls to patch up the densely packed slums and demanded a fresh start. In his garden city, modelled on the 19th-century ideals of Letchworth Garden City, plants were central. Five decades later, with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and percentages of resident millionaires, the gamble on gardening has paid off.
This Victorian view of landscaping as crucial to draw in the crowds (and their money) is in stark contrast to the UK today, where landscaping is often sidelined as a drain on project resources.
The 21st century brought a shift in vision for Singapore’s town planning: it was no longer to be a garden city, but a city in a garden. Horticulture became part of standard planning laws, with developers of skyscrapers obliged to shroud large sections of their buildings in living walls and to top them with public-access “sky parks”.
Lifted from ideas pioneered by British designers in London and New York nearly three-quarters of a century earlier, including the Kensington Roof Gardens, these are re-envisioned pleasure gardens. Key among them is the iconic Marina Bay Sands resort, three glittering towers set aloft an enormous park on a platform. Mature palms shade deck chairs that overlook an infinity pool, which appears to spill over the building’s edge. An architectural ha-ha, an idea first employed on Britain’s country estates, prevents water cascading on to the traffic below.
Across town at the Park Royal on Pickering hotel, a multistorey rainforest clings to the side of a glass building suspended high above the street. Palms, plumerias and tree ferns shade the interior of the building, keeping it cool, and curtains of jungle climbers drape down to connect the gardens on each floor.
Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. Photograph: Getty Images
The newly reclaimed harbourfront has been turned into a botanic garden. The $1bn Gardens by the Bay contains dozens of themed gardens, many designed by British architects. In true Victorian fashion, the 101-hectare park is centred on two conservatories – albeit with the interiors chilled to mimic Mediterranean and cloud forest habitats. The Flower Dome, the world’s largest columnless greenhouse, houses an olive grove, a recreation of the South African fynbos, Australian outback and an elevated baobab garden. In the Cloud Forest Dome, lifts transport visitors 140ft up the central hollow of a “cloud mountain” to suspended walkways over treetops.
Even Singapore’s Changi airport houses six indoor and outdoor gardens, which are managed using skills picked up from Chelsea Flower show – plants are whipped out the second their blooms fade in the air conditioning and replaced from a nursery sited along the runway.
Singapore’s glossy, thematic approach to horticulture may seem theatrical and gimmicky, but in many ways it is more faithful to the pioneering spirit of the British Victorian gardeners we often try to emulate than our own obsession for rehashing the past.