Durban horticulturalist helps build dream garden


Johannesburg - In 2010, Durban Botanical Gardens’ Christopher Dalzell was invited to Singapore to join the executive team on the world’s largest garden project, which cost a billion Singaporean dollars.

Based on a 54-hectare reclaimed site in Marina Bay, Dalzell was tasked with sourcing, transporting and installing plants into the new, world-class botanical garden, known as Gardens by the Bay.

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Singapore's Gardens by the Bay, the biggest garden project in the world. A view from the top of the Cloud Forest mountain down to a ravine planted up with tree ferns.A large water feature in the Cloud Forest ravine beside a vertical mountain garden planted up with ferns and bromeliads.

“Gardens by the Bay is the most ambitious horticultural project ever undertaken by any country,” says Dalzell.

“The project took three years to build, the planting took a further two years and in June 2012, Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay opened to the public.”

The architecture and landscape designs for the Gardens by the Bay project were chosen after an international competition launched in 2005 had attracted 70 entries submitted by firms in 24 countries.

British-based architects and landscape architects were awarded the contracts and construction on the conservatories and giant concrete super trees began in November 2007.

Dalzell joined the project in September 2010 to oversee the planting phase of the project and spent two years flying around the world to source the most spectacular plants for the gardens.

Plants worth R3 million were bought from South African growers and shipped to Singapore for planting up in the Mediterranean climate conservatory.

As the winner of the 2012 World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival Awards, Gardens by the Bay is part of the government’s vision of transforming Singapore into a “City in the Garden”.

Dalzell worked on the Bay South Garden, which covers 101 hectares on Marina Bay in Singapore, andwhich was built on land reclaimed from the sea. The gardens include the spectacular Cooled Conservatory architectural complex (20 000m2) and outdoor gardens dominated by 18 16-storey high, solar-powered concrete super trees.

In the conservatories there are the cool moist (Cloud Forest) and cool dry (Flower Dome) ecosystems, both of which spotlight the two environments most likely to be affected by climate change.

The Flower Dome covers the story of plants and people in the Mediterranean climate zone, which includes the Cape Floral Kingdom. Lavender, baobabs, agave and olives are displayed in rocky terraces and stony outcrops. South African growers supplied ericas, proteas, cycads, lachenalias, pincushions, euryops daisies, strelitzias and indigenous gardenias for this dry section of the conservatory.

The Cloud Forest is dominated by a 35m-high “Mountain” planted up with a vertical wall of bromeliads and orchids. Fitted with multi-storey waterfalls, the mountain overlooks a shady ravine planted up with spectacular tree ferns.

A subtropical plant expert, Dalzell travelled to nurseries in Ecuador to source the bromeliads, orchids and anthuriums for the “mountain”.

“The bromeliads were planted up into panels that clipped on to the mountain and are maintained by a sprinkler system of misters,” says Dalzell. “Visitors can experience the cloud forest at different levels along a cloud walk, a canopy walk, at the forest floor or along a ravine walk,” he adds.

Dalzell also travelled to Mexico, Australia, England, France, Bali, Malaysia, Thailand and the US to find the perfect plants. Thousands of palms were bought from nurseries in Thailand for the outdoor gardens, sculptures from Zimbabwe were donated to the conservatory and wooden benches were sourced from Bali.

“We worked very hard in the gardens,” says Dalzell. “At one point, our installation crew from India worked for an unbroken 24 hours just to get a 32-ton African baobab up a steep terrace and into its final resting place,” he says.

Dalzell joined the Durban Botanical Gardens in 1990, and as curator of the gardens (1996-2010) turned it into a world-class showcase of subtropical flora.

During his time as curator, Dalzell travelled to over 61 countries, collected over 6 000 subtropical plants and raised millions for the garden. He also lectures extensively and has taken three Durban exhibits to the Chelsea Flower Show in London.

After a 27-year career at the Durban Botanical Gardens, Dalzell joined Gardens by the Bay as assistant director.

With a budget that few horticulturists could ever dream of commanding, he spent two years travelling, sourcing plants and planting up one of the greatest gardens in the world, before returning to South Africa in September 2012. - Saturday Star

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