Miniature watermelons. Rainbow-coloured corn. Sunflowers – not yellow – but black and white. Passiflora, the flowers of passionfruit that look like you are peering into a kaleidoscope. And grevillea flowers that look like post-nuclear spiders with two dozen legs.
Stepping into John Lim’s garden is like crossing into a strange horticultural wonderland that has been dreamt up by a mad botanist.There is, however, nothing fundamentally mad about Mr Lim, the founder of botanical design studio This Humid House.
Since 2017, he’s combined his longtime passion for peculiar plants with a bravura business concept that has many high-end clients, from top fashion houses to luxury watch brands, calling on him to design far-out floral arrangements comprising these kooky creations of nature, for their stores and events.
But Mr Lim says the demand for peculiar plants has been rising not just among corporate clients but individual customers too. Because of it, This Humid House will start selling a selection of rare and unusual seeds on its online store “very soon”, along with its striking and strange bouquets and maquettes.
Mr Lim’s garden, which is both his personal playground and his company’s botanical lab, has become even more ambitious during the Covid-19 crisis: “The pandemic has caused a significant disruption to our supply chain and sourcing practices… And so, for reasons of sustainability and the desire for more interesting material, we grow at least 20 percent of the material we use in our arrangements, which are often not commercially available.”
Mr Lim and his team raise a variety of passiflora, corn, cosmos, marigold, xanthostemon, okra, grevillea, cycads, musa, ixora and citrus.Most of what is grown is suited for Singapore’s tropical humid weather. They include ornamental heirloom varieties of corn, such as Glass Gem and Oaxacan Green.
And then there are “annuals”, plants that bloom only once a year in cooler, drier climates. For certain seeds, he refrigerates them for a period of time to simulate the conditions of winter before sowing to trigger seed embryo growth and encourage germination.
“We try not to assume what will and will not survive, testing broadly for a chance of survival in our climate,” he says. “We give them a lot more TLC, putting them under a shade cloth to reduce the intensity of the sun on them, or staking them individually to withstand our torrential downpours.”
Mr Lim has no formal training in horticulture. Instead, he started his career as an architect, working for Steven Holl in New York and Ole Scheeren in Beijing. When he was studying at The Cooper Union in New York, he met Wee Teng Wen, the co-founder of The Lo & Behold Group. And when the group opened the private members club Straits Clan in 2018, Mr Wee invited This Humid House to run the floral concierge there.
Although his training helps him visualise floral arrangements as architectural edifices and sculptural constructs – rather than household decorations – his phytophilia took root many years ago, when as a child he helped his paternal grandfather raise mango, papaya, rambutan and chiku trees in their family garden.
But Singapore has come a long way from its kampong days. The green thumbs of today demand unusual cultivars with bold shapes and complex temperaments: “Not suited for the tropics? No problem! Requires extensive care? I’ll take it!” Garden shops and nurseries now receive frequent calls and emails asking for seedlings seldom spotted in these parts.
Mr Lim says: “We have a burgeoning following of people who are as thrilled as we are about some of the products we are growing. Our Instagram account has drawn 16,500 followers in under two years.Our miniature watermelons have proven irresistible!”
A version of this article was originally published in The Business Times.