Rosalind Tan is putting her green fingers not only in her home but all over Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Seventy-four-year-old Rosalind Tan was an occupational therapist back in the 1960s but today she is more known for tending the greens as the chief gardener at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), than for tending to people. She even earned the Eco-Friend Award in 2007.
She had just come off a 10-day cruise to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tokyo with her husband, Tan Wee Lee, where she brought a book but had no time to read it and was just too busy learning how to fold towels and picking up ballroom and line dancing. The mother of two and grandmother of three chats with Ageless Online as we find out about her amazing green thumbs, her nickname “Madame Butterfly” and why she continues working:
How did you get the nickname “Madame Butterfly”?
I started the first open concept urban butterfly trail back at Alexandra Hospital (AH) in 2002 where butterflies were free to come and go. We managed to attract some 102 species. The nickname just came as a result.
You were an occupational therapist before you started on your green journey.
I was an occupational therapist from 1963 to 2002 and worked in many hospitals including SGH, TTSH, Trafalgar Hospital (an hospital that closed in 1993) and later as chief occupational therapist at AH.
In 2000, AH’s CEO Liak Teng Lit found out that I had an interest in gardening and asked if I could transform the hospital at the time from a debilitating hospital to a “hospital in the garden” concept before I retired. I then took that role as well as the existing role of occupational therapist.
In 2002, I felt it was unfair of me to not be spending enough time doing occupational therapy and was doing mostly landscaping, so I decided to focus on landscaping full-time. I enjoyed landscaping more and found it very challenging to transform the 12 hectares of land. It is also a passion of mine to create new things. I see this as an extension to my occupational therapy work as it creates a healing environment for patients and distracts them from their illnesses. Those who came to the hospital would not be scared and they would enjoy the “healing environment” when they saw the flora and fauna. My role then was to re-landscape the whole hospital, introduce biodiversity, and spread the green concept to staff and the community.
Then Mr Liak wanted theme gardens at AH. We were the first hospital to start a butterfly trail and we brought in host plants to attract the different butterflies including birdwing butterflies. He also wanted me to create a medicinal garden to educate patients on alternative treatments. I was also involved in the renovation of our toilets, and added plants and spruced them up to look like a zoo toilet and we got a lot of awards for the work including the MEWR President’s Award for the Environment. A lot of schoolchildren even came to see our toilets. We placed leaf imprints on the floors. We also created a fishpond to attract the birds, and we started a banana plantation as Mr Liak felt bananas is a good healthy food.
I was asked to continue this work at KTPH. Since I enjoyed doing the work and they appreciated it, I decided to do it. I was doing a lot of things alone, till they recruited a staff member two years ago.
Your husband also gets involved too?
Wee Lee, 80, is a retired senior principal architect at URA who likes photography. Every time I am involved in a landscaping project, he will also be involved – it is like buy one, get one for free!
How did you get your green thumbs?
I started gardening at my house and got a Community in Bloom Award. I have 500 plants, a koi pond with two dozen fish, and other edible fishes and a giant fig bonsai tree where my husband sits beside it to sip tea. I like to make my garden beautiful. I am not a botanist; I learned mostly on the job and being passionate about it. If you have passion, the motivation will be there. Also, the more you do it, the better you get.
If you hadn’t done occupational therapy, what would you have done instead?
I would have been an entrepreneur, run a cake shop or do interior designing as I like creating things.
Do you work for the money?
I don’t need to do this as my children are financially-independent. This formula is good for my health. If I stayed at home, I wouldn’t use much of my computer to improve my skills. But when I work, I get to keep healthy, be connected and have a positive mind. I want to continue doing it for as long as I can still contribute. When my health does start to fail, I would stop working.
Tell me more about the areas you are tending at KTPH.
a) Butterflies garden – It has more than 50 plants that attract butterflies. We have 50 species of butterflies and are aiming to get 100. We had only three species when we started out. AH had different parks nearby so it was easy to get the butterflies to come but here, it is more difficult. You must have the right habitat to attract the biodiversity.
b) Rooftop garden/organic farm – The 720sqm garden is a well-known attraction as we receive many overseas and local VIPs, and ministers. It is closed to the public due to security but open to patients who want to volunteer to manage the gardens. Mostly retirees living nearby run the garden. The produce is given to A-Class wards once a week and the rest is sold to the public and staff on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at Level 1 bridge in front of the pharmacy. Proceeds from the sale go to the Green Fund (used to buy seeds, fertilisers, plants and soil, and whatever we need for the farm). We also sell fish food. Kids love it to feed the fish. The S$1 goes also to the Green Fund.
c) Medicinal garden – This has more than 100 medicinal plants that heal, kill and thrill.
d) Fourteen other gardens – Besides these gardens which total 3,270sqm, there are currently 700 potted plants at KTPH, which need care.
Your role also has expanded now being at KTPH?
My role as a chief gardener is multi-service. We support all the different departments, supervise the gardeners to ensure plants are healthy, provide plant arrangements for events, green the areas around the hospital and host visitors.
Also if a tree falls or there are bees or ants, they will call. No plants are destroyed without my knowledge. My stand is not to kill plants. You can work on the road and kill anything but you have to respect the plants. Don’t step and kill my plants! Mr Liak wants a tropical garden, not a prim and proper garden.
Our plants are all organic; we don’t use chemical fertilisers or fog because of the butterflies. This makes it very challenging as we use chicken dung for fertiliser, as well as organic fertilisers and insecticides.
Do you have any favourite plants?
No favourites, I like all the plants. We make sure that the plants will thrive in the right place. If they like shade, they need to be at a place where there is no afternoon sun, however, they still need four to six hours of light to survive, even in the shade. Mr Liak does not like dead plants. If dead, people will ask how can you look after me if your plants are dead?
Do you do any volunteering?
In 1975, when I was working at Trafalgar, I ran a workshop for 50 inmates producing handicrafts for export and sale locally. To date, I still sit on the executive committee at the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association but I don’t deal with patients any more.
Also I have been a volunteer at Apex Daycare Centre for elderly since 1982 and still sit on the executive committee. I used to provide occupational therapy for the patients but not anymore since they have recruited their own staff.
Furthermore, I was past president, past treasurer and past chairman of the Singapore Occupational Therapy Association.
Any green thumb secrets?
It is about understanding plants and their requirements. It is not so much having a green thumb. Plants need tender loving care. You must care for your plants the same way you would look for your baby.
What keeps you going?
I enjoy my work. I get fulfilment in seeing my plants healthy and growing well, and everyone enjoying them.
Any three pieces of advice to other seniors?
- Keep healthy, active and be positive.
- Keep in touch, network with others and be connected.
- Keep learning.
Anything else that keeps you occupied?
I do taichi every Friday at KTPH with staff and patients. I also do taichi with my husband at the CC every Sunday. Besides that, I coordinate a line dancing group during lunchtime every Mondays and Tuesdays for staff and patients at KTPH.