KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 13 — Often, there is a clear border between the house and everything else outside. Stepping into Desmond Ho’s home, it’s hard to tell where the verdant garden ends and where his house begins. Everything just flows together.
Originally from Tampoi in Malacca, Ho has made his name as the founder of Terra Garden, a garden design firm that specialises in Neo Nusantara, a Malaysian garden concept.
With more than 25 years of experience in the industry, from terrariums to greenhouse designs, he has won international recognition for his work with awards from Japan, Ireland and New Zealand.
Despite his success, Ho is still at heart a kampung boy, having grown up near a Malay village where Nature was everywhere.
He recalls, “I spent most of my childhood playing outside, enjoying the trees and great outdoors. Houses used to be a place for people to take shelter; you weren’t supposed to be cooped inside them all day.”
These days, Ho notes that the indoor-to-outdoor ratio of homes has changed. “In the past, we used to have a smaller house but a bigger garden or outdoor living space. Nowadays everyone wants a bigger house and smaller garden.”
Gardens are now seen as a hassle by some. Ho observes, “Often you will hear people, when given a plant as a gift, lament, ‘Why are you giving me a plant?
This is extra work for me to do – watering and weeding.’ It’s very sad.”
His desire to share his love of Mother Nature and show how everyone can bring more of the beautiful outdoors into their homes spurred him to write a book about it.
The result, Desmond Ho’s Guide to Beautiful Home Gardens, is more than just a how-to book but a challenge to the public to change their attitude towards outdoor living.
“I believe the mind-set today is that there isn’t enough space for a garden. Folks tell themselves ‘I’ll wait until I made enough money to buy a bungalow before creating a garden.’ The truth is you can even enjoy Nature in your tiny balcony or on your table.”
While he had studied architecture, Ho decided early on that he did not want to work for others.
He turned to designing and building terrariums, and then indoor plants before opening possibly the first garden centre in Malaysia – “a more organised and larger version of a plant nursery where we extend services to even giving advice to customers,” he says.
Ho’s crowning achievement has to be his Neo Nusantara garden concept, where he marries modular design with a truly Malaysian interpretation.
“The modular concept came about due to customers telling me about their space and time constraints. The question they always ask is ‘What can we do with this garden?’ Our unique system allows us to come in the morning, and be done by evening!”
The Neo Nusantara garden also showcases plenty of local culture and craft in in its form, from a lattice with kain pelekat (Malaysian sarong) motif to their signature kuda-kuda, a garden bench inspired by traditional coconut scrapers.
“I wanted to design a truly Malaysian garden style, not something that is derived from English or Japanese gardens. Also we incorporate the five senses to create a beautiful environment for outdoor living. From the sound of water features to the fragrance of certain tropical plants, the purpose of this space is to allow you to harness pleasure from nature.”
The speed with which the Neo Nusantara garden can be set up has won Ho many fans. He shares, “Previously, the idea of a garden was a yard, so that may mean digging for a couple of months with mud everywhere just to produce a koi pond. This disturbs the lifestyle of the homeowners whose time is precious.”
In contrast, Ho’s modular concept solution is almost fuss-free. “In one case, the wife wanted to surprise her husband so we came in after he had left for work, got the garden set up, and when he came back in the evening, it was there waiting for him!”
Ultimately, Ho is a crusader for outdoor home living because he feels this is one way of bringing busy, modern families together. “It’s about balance. I’m not asking people to change their lifestyles entirely but what I’m providing are alternatives. For example, you can still bring your iPads to the garden and be in a healthier environment.”
He notes that for most homes, even if they have gardens, these spaces are decorative only.
“What we need is a functional space where people can and will want to sit there and spend some quality time. Imagine if you had continuity throughout the house – walking barefoot and interacting with Nature. Let the space flow from outside to inside and vice versa.”
It’s the end of the year, and most folks are preparing for their vacations.
Ho finds this ironic, “Why would we rather spend a bomb to go to a resort, supposedly to get back to Mother Nature, when it’s not tranquil since everyone has the same idea and it’s the school holidays?
Why not bring Nature to your homes every day?”
He grins and adds, “When I head back to the kampung, sometimes I see kids who are visiting a village for the first time ask ‘Why is that feather duster running around?’ They’ve never seen a chicken in real life before! Most of us don’t appreciate what we have – we have to lose it before we miss it.”
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on December 12, 2013