When it came time to purchase a home in Singapore, Mauritian-born James Ip, who works a demanding IT job, decided that it must have a space for plants. “[Houseplants] literally keep me sane,” he confessed when I went to pay a visit to his home for Plant One On Me’s inaugural ‘Houseplant Home Tour’ series.
“No matter how bad a day I've had at work,” he shared, “the moment I get home every evening and open the door and see my garden, [as it’s often lit up at night], I leave my troubles behind.”
I think many of us can actually share in James’s sentiments. Though it was a gray, overcast day when we arrived to James’s home, his balcony was no less resplendent! Have a look at the Houseplant Home Tour we shot with James here and take a read of his extended interview below.
Summer Rayne: What were some of your first plant memories as a child growing up in Mauritius?
James: When I was very young, the family garden was a very wild and jungly place—with random tropical fruit trees including clumps of banana, papaya, guava, avocado, and wild vines like morning glory and Syngonium growing all over the hedges.
Summer Rayne: That sounds so dreamy!
James: Yeah, as kids, we didn't really need toys with a place like that to play in! It was the perfect place for me. I was the “weird one”—I actually used to carry my pet chickens around too—I love your Kippee! And I’d play with bugs, catch dragonflies, raise caterpillars and wait for them to turn into butterflies and experiment with my own little vegetable patch. I recall the magic of having beans germinate, potato plants growing from potato eyes…
Summer Rayne: Sounds as if you and I had very similar childhoods except you were on the other side of the world!
James: Yeah, I loved when my brothers and I would hang out by the nearby river to catch fish. The rivers really teemed with colorful swordtails, platys, and guppies—all the kinds you would buy in aquarium shops today. Then each of us would fashion our own makeshift ponds in the garden to raise our own fish.
All these early experiences probably account for my love of jungly gardens and riverine landscapes.
Summer Rayne: Can you recall your first plant?
James: Oh yeah. Later on, in my early teens, a neighbor passed me a maidenhair fern. It was probably an Adiantum capillus-veneris, and this started a craze for ferns and indoor plants. it really helped that our living room and porch had perfect conditions for growing these and I soon amassed quite a collection of ferns and other houseplants, grown mostly indoors. Some were plants I would have collected in my forays in the wild .
So, you see, plants were a big part of my childhood growing up.
Summer Rayne: Did you just continue growing plants throughout your adult life or was there a time where you stopped?
James: Well, there was a long period after I left for further studies in Perth and then my early years of working in Singapore when I didn't grow anything at all.
Summer Rayne: What a drag! So how did you start it back up again?
James: When I got this place I had growing plants in mind. There was a lot of trial and error at the beginning. It took me a while to figure what could grow in my west-facing balcony—having to bear the brunt of the afternoon sun. Indeed, to this day, most of my neighbors use their balconies to hang their laundry to dry [laughing].
One thing for certain was that I would be going mostly for foliage and whatever ferns i could coax into growing there. Plus I wanted to have a little fish pond.
Summer Rayne: At one point I built a little waterfall with a pump in my childhood bedroom, so I feel you on wanting a pond on your balcony! How did you do it?
James: I basically bought one of those rectangular carbon fibre containers and lined it with stone blocks.
I realized that with my balcony doors closed during the day, this would create an almost terrrarium-like environment around the pond . The humidity allowed me to start growing my beloved maidenhair ferns all around. But first I had to create some shade, by way of potted flowering plants along the outer balcony ledge. For those, I picked pollinator-friendly ones like milkweed and porterweed (Stachytarpheta).
Summer Rayne: What are some of your first plants besides ferns?
James: The two plants that were here from Day 1 were my Dracaena and the Cyperus alternifolius. I planted them to create some tall elements on each side of the balcony.
At the same time, I introduced a Syngonium and a heart-leaf philodendron, which quickly climbed up one wall and has now colonized the entire balcony ceiling. You can see its roots snaking down the wall to the pond. Initially, I used those roots to attach potted plants and later on, resorted to fixing planters on the walls to start growing vertically, as the only way to grow more was to go vertical.
I especially like them [Rhipsalis and Huperzia] for the effect that they give when the sunlight streams in—in the afternoons. It’s nothing short of magical! So much so that I've been a bit obsessive about how I position the hanging pots and uncharacteristically restrained myself from adding more to the hanging collection.
Summer Rayne: Ugh, I know the feeling! What was next?
James: Platyceriums soon joined the fray—starting with a P. bifurcatum, then a P. coronarium. When I first joined instagram, I got so into those Japanese accounts growing platyceriums and this led me to expand my collection.
A visit to a fern show in Bangkok in 2014 sparked my interest in Huperzia and I started adding them to my collection. These, together with Rhipsalis, led to my green living curtain. I especially like them for the effect that they give when the sunlight streams in—in the afternoons. It’s nothing short of magical! So much so that I've been a bit obsessive about how I position the hanging pots and uncharacteristically restrained myself from adding more to the hanging collection. I mean, it’s easy to go overboard and start hoarding all types of Huperzias or Rhipsalis!
Summer Rayne: How do you practice that restraint?
James: My guiding principle is that each plant must add visual interest to the set-up and not block incoming light for the indoor plants. This accounts for my preference for plants with interesting textures and slender, wispy shapes. Ahhh, and plants that look good from the back. I'm always facing their behinds when viewed from the living room. Haha. My choice of begonias reflects that!
Summer Rayne: What’s your most precious plant?
James: My Adiantum tenerum cv ‘Farleyense’ maidenhair fern. Mum brought over a tiny offset from one of plants from our family home in Mauritius. These ferns were my pride and joy back in the day! They grew large and magnificent in our living room. Having them in my balcony here is like having a piece of home and a living connection with my past.
Summer Rayne: Most of what you showed me that you grew in the beginning were ferns, but you've started to begin collecting more Aroids. Can you share why you started to grow those?
James: Ah...for sure! I have Instagram to thank (or blame) for that! My previous experience with aroids had been the occasional Syngonium, Caladium, pothos or heart leaf philodendron. I fell hard for the Philodendron verrucosum when I first saw it on Instagram, and then later IRL at the Gardens by the Bay Cloud Forest Dome conservatory. Sadly, my place doesn't have the right conditions for it. It’s way too warm and sunny.
Fortunately, I was able to console myself with others ...haha. I am particularly happy with my variegated Philodendron 'Florida Beauty'…seeing it grow and thrive has been nothing but pure joy. Monstera, Rhaphidophora and Epipremnum have been kind to me too...and I've enjoyed growing them . I find the ontogeny [leaf shape and change] in this group of plants nothing short of fascinating.
I have to say that no matter how tired I am, I always feel better when I'm tending to my plants. The simple act of getting up on that stool to reach up to my tassel ferns is intensely therapeutic and gratifying in ways I can't really describe.
Summer Rayne: Tell me about your daily ritual with plants.
James: In the morning before I head to work, I will normally check on the balcony plants. Many look their best under the low morning light and that's when I will take the opportunity to shoot pics of them for Instagram. In the evening, it's always already dark when I'm home. I'll normally start on the plants after dinner and with Netflix on at the same time.
Depending on how much time I have on my hands, my daily watering routine can take anything from 20 minutes to a couple of unfocused hours . My pond needs refilling everyday, so I'll start with that. Then move on to watering properly. .I water each plant one by one, using a small plastic long-necked watering pot. I will judge how much each plant needs depending on how the weather has been. Some plants, like my staghorns only need watering twice a week .
On Saturdays, I would normally water during the afternoon; that's when I'll fully enjoy checking on each and every plant, fertilizing when needed , removing dead leaves, etc. I'll normally do repotting over the weekends too.
Summer Rayne: That sounds marvelous. Can you elaborate how this (routine/ritual) makes you feel?
James: I have to say that no matter how tired I am, I always feel better when I'm tending to my plants. The simple act of getting up on that stool to reach up to my tassel ferns is intensely therapeutic and gratifying in ways I can't really describe.
Summer Rayne: Thank you for your time and tour James. This is such a pleasure! 🌿