The gardener with a fierce passion for plants
At this forest-themed condominium in northern Singapore, towering calathea plants circle the surrounding perimeter. Frangipani trees flourish in little islands at the ‘aquatic forest’ within the condo’s swimming pool. Elsewhere, lush bamboo groves offer a moment of respite at a lawn where residents can meditate.
Site supervisor Francis Tan and his team have been toiling tirelessly behind the scenes to spruce up the condo’s greenery.
“We try to make it nice, so people feel comfortable when they look at the plants,” he said in Mandarin.
For the last 18 years, Francis, who is in his fifties, has been a staff at Nature Landscapes, a leading landscaping company in Singapore with a portfolio spanning commercial and residential projects.
The condo didn’t always resemble a tropical oasis.
When Nature Landscapes first took on the condo project site from the previous contractor, the site was dense, unkempt and weeds sprouted in wild abandon.
Possessing the commanding authority of an army general, Francis swung into action. He mobilised his troop of gardeners to get the place up to scratch. First, the “big battles” — requiring brute labour and intensive work to tackle the swathes of overgrown vegetation.
Next, it was all about fine-tuning the small details, he said. Finally, they were able to transform the place into an aesthetically pleasing and well-maintained landscape.
The ups and downs of doing landscaping work
We met Francis for the first time in 2021, joining him on his daily round to survey the estate. He is sprightly, tanned and wiry from years spent under the sun. He walks at breakneck speed around the condo grounds, all the while keeping up a running commentary.
Nothing escapes his eye – a stray leaf out of place, a yellowing or drooping plant which needs watering, damaged leaves, an overgrown tree which needs pruning. It is not just about ensuring the place is neat, but that the plants are happy and healthy as well.
“It’s not an easy job. The plants can’t speak, but they have their own way of talking to us,” he says in Mandarin. “We have to look at their leaves and what they are trying to say. Did they get enough water, are they sick, is it a cough, did they get a cold? We must know.”
Before his current role at Nature Landscapes, Francis had worked in sales, selling baby products and furniture. Chatty and sociable, he thrived in hitting the targets and had no problem bringing home a decent pay.
In 2001, out of curiosity, he decided to join a friend who ran a landscaping company. He discovered that he liked working with his hands, being in nature and its freedom, away from the politicking workplace.
Over the years, Francis steadily amassed experience out in the field, gaining an innate understanding of plants.
In Singapore, gardeners are commonly associated as being low-skilled and menial labour. But as Francis’ example shows, the role doesn’t just involve mindlessly watering, trimming trees and eliminating weeds — it takes a wealth of knowledge, creativity, problem-solving, passion and people management skills as well.
With its abundant tropical greenery and thriving network of green spaces, Singapore wears its City in a Garden title with pride. Despite these ambitions, landscaping has been perceived by some as a sunset industry, and shunned by locals for being physically laborious and lowly paid.
When Francis first started in the industry two decades ago, he drew an initial pay of $1400.
In recent years, the government has been on a push to make the sector more appealing. Landscape companies must meet the Progressive Wage Model wage for landscape maintenance employees for Singapore citizens or permanent residents. It is also advocating for more specialised roles such as landscape architects, designers, horticulturists and arborists.
“These initiatives align with Nature Landscapes’ commitment to delivering quality landscaping services. We welcome and support these measures as they contribute to a vibrant and sustainable landscaping industry,” said a Nature Landscapes spokesperson.
The company says it prioritises ongoing education and skill development, exemplified by its partnership with Institute of Technical Education for the Work-Study Diploma in Arboriculture and Horticulture.
On an annual in-house training, the company rolls out different topical training subjects to enrich, refresh and create awareness on industry changes to upkeep their staff’s skill sets and knowledge.
Passionate about upgrading his skills, Francis has attended various Workforce Skills Qualifications courses to learn about plant identification, plant health management and disease control, assessment of soil conditions to hazards and risk controls.
Along the way, he educates us on how differentiate between a snail-eaten leaf versus a grasshopper-eaten one: snails and slugs apparently make small to medium-sized holes inside leaves and leave slime trails, while grasshoppers create irregular-looking, ragged holes after munching on them. Chemicals and fertilisers must be applied with systematic precision. He also adopts natural methods like composting to let the soil regenerate on its own.
Possessing a strong work ethic, Francis makes it a point to encourage his workers to take pride in their job and not do it “half heartedly.”
“If you look across the condo at one glance, all the plants have to look nice. And if everyone is lazy, everything will be messy, then the company cannot get the contract,” he explains.
Beyond weathering the elements, the heat, rain and fatigue on a daily basis, Francis has also battled through several crisis moments.
For instance, when trees fall down after a heavy thunderstorm, he has to be the first to arrive on the scene and clear the scene. It can get very stressful, he admits.
“My responsiblility is very heavy. When there’s a big thunderstorm and lightning at night, I can’t sleep easily. These acts of nature, we can’t control… We just have to step in when the situation happens.”
During the pandemic, thousands of foreign workers were under lockdown in the dorms. That resulted in Francis having to manage the entire condo site on his own, and the stress caused him to lose 5 kg, he recalls.
Dealing with the plants can be a challenging endevaour in itself, but even more so when it comes to dealing with people, says Francis.
Francis often faces cultural and language barriers in interacting with the foreign workers under his charge. As for the Singaporeans, many of them are elderly folks in their 50s to 60s who have restricted mobility to carry out more physically strenuous activities, he says.
You can’t always abide by a fixed maintenance schedule, as “plants are living things” and what is required for them changes day to day, he adds.
Francis has also encountered his fair share of negative encounters with condo residents.
He says, “There’s a few you say hello to, but most just completely ignore you. They see us as transparent. Sometimes they look at foreign workers like they are not people, shout at them and scold them.”
At times, Francis has seen residents who ask their children to water the plants with chlorinated swimming pool water, while others complain when they spot holes in the plant leaves. He has also been on the receiving end of scoldings from aggrieved residents. This is because some people have differing standards of how much they want the landscape to be trimmed.
“You can’t please everyone,” he says with a shrug.
Thankfully, there are people who show their appreciation for his team’s work. “People see me and say ‘Good morning.’ It builds a sense of community and it makes you happy,” he says.
A simple life
Outside of work, Francis has had to overcome many challenges in his personal life as well, such as a difficult divorce, being a single father and financial struggles through the years.
Being the sole breadwinner, he spent most of his time at work, but tried his best to carve out time for his daughter whenever he could.
Working his plants has also changed his outlook towards life.
“You need to be very serious about what you do… These plants are like our children. When you spend time to maintain them well, you are very happy when you see them thrive.”
These days, with the rising cost of living, he is increasingly feeling the pinch. “We can’t afford to be sick, or injured, because it’s going to be very hard,” he says.
Francis says his Buddhist faith has helped him tide through the tough times.
Recalling how he used to be more of an “ah beng with a bad temper” in the past, his whole mindset and attitude changed after he discovered the religion.
Today he seeks out various means to do good. For instance, he volunteers at the temple regularly to maintain the upkeep of its greenery, and has performed at various events and old folks home, bringing laughter and cheer to the elderly.
Some of the elderly gardeners also approach him for help to read their letters or apply for financial assistance. “There are a lot of poor people in our midst, the cleaner, the gardener, but we just don’t see it,” he explains.
His daughter has just graduated from the National University of Singapore. The pair share a close-knit relationship, and enjoy watching light hearted Korean shows like Running Man on the weekends.
His life aspirations are simple. “We don’t wish for a big house or an expensive car, but a comfortable and peaceful life with less drama. As long as there’s enough to eat, a roof over your head, someone to talk to, we’re happy,” he says.
Francis dreams of one day seeing the landscaping profession elevated – that more young people enter the trade and receive higher wages. “Singapore can’t always rely on a foreign workforce.. We need to promote more locals to like the job, especially passionate young people,” he said.
He looks forward to the day when he can take a back seat, perhaps early retirement or taking on a less physically intensive job (at the urging of his daughter too).
Until then, he’s keeping busy with new landscaping projects, and finding a deep sense of happiness in seeing the plants flourish.