PHUKET: The chances are you probably have a roof garden of sorts. As Phuket is increasingly dominated by blocks of concrete pretentiously known as condominiums, which necessitate the annihilation of all existing vegetation in the area, the chances are that your balcony or roof is the only repository of greenery you are likely to possess.
So why not make the most of it? After all, it is a pleasure to look out on something verdant, colorful and, above all, living. When I designed my house, I included two low-walled areas outside the bay windows where potted plants could be placed.
Though the less hardy ones have long since gone, the broad-leafed dracaenas, colorful euphorbias and bougainvilleas are still alive and well. Plants that need little maintenance, they have tolerated my neglect.
Container plants are of course the obvious solution for concrete balconies, but choose glazed containers, place saucers under each pot and try not to over-water. Otherwise, you will stain the sand-wash or tiles beneath.
And don’t stop at flowers or potted palms. If you start off with a fertile potting mix, your containers will support herbs such as basil, chives, ginger, chilies and coriander. In fact, growing your own vegetables is becoming increasingly fashionable in urban centers, especially where people are lucky enough to own a roof terrace. Apart from anything else, it means being able to avoid the unhealthy levels of chemical pesticide used in commercial farming.
Just for the record, Thailand has 27,126 agricultural chemical brands registered for use, more than any other Southeast Asian country.
Apart from the fresh food benefits, plants reduce the overall heat absorption of a building, help control rain run-off, and offer natural and aesthetic benefits. When surveyed, 80 per cent of Singaporeans voted for more roof gardens to be implemented in the city’s plans.
Though Bangkok has relatively few such gardens, chef Jess Barnes shows what can be done. Though his apartment block has a mere 4.6 square meters of viable roof space, it now boasts more than 300 different fruit and vegetable plants, including tomatoes, aubergines, basil, lemongrass and even pomegranates. He reckons it takes 20 minutes daily watering, and 2-3 hours weeding and tidying every week. The aim is to cultivate shrubs with enough foliage to create shade and help retain moisture for the smaller plants, most of which find a use in his restaurant.
Of course most roof gardens have aesthetics in mind rather than any utilitarian purpose. A while ago I was asked for any suggestions for making the most of an apartment roof space at a property in Ao Makham Bay.
The problem was not the residents’ roof, but rather a huge flat rooftop immediately in front of their own condo. Topped with bitumen, it was such an eyesore that spoiled their view of the mangroves and the blue sea beyond. A quick and simple solution would have been lorry loads of pot plants, but in the long term, what was needed was a properly laid, soil enriched surface with all the additional drainage and roof reinforcement. A very costly business.
On a much smaller scale, my daughter decided to cover a flat bitumen roof – an extension to her London house – with a creeping sedum or stonecrop, a variety of succulent increasingly being used instead of grass to create oases of greenery. Sedums have narrow fleshy leaves which hold lots of water: that means they can survive dry spells and, in some cases, even a touch of frost. Moreover, sedums need little in the way of soil in which to anchor their roots.
My personal favorite rooftop garden in Phuket is atop a Royal Phuket Marina penthouse. All around the swimming pool are masses of flowering shrubs, vines, succulents and plants chosen for their sculptural appeal. All are housed in barely visible, heavy gauge, stainless steel containers. The ambiance is so lush and vibrant that even those shy sun birds have taken up residence.
If you have a question, or a garden that you would like featured, you can email the author here.
— Patrick Campbell
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