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Sensory Garden interview with the landscape designer, John Tan CH

An area of tranquillity and order has been created at the heart of Dover Court International School, thanks to the inspirational talent of Gardener John Tan. After returning from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in London, he completed our wonderful new garden. We asked him to tell us a bit about it.

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Can you tell us about the Garden that was here before?

I was originally asked to design the DCIS garden in 2002. At the time I was asked to construct a very simple space, with lots of trees for shade and a Koi pond. A traditional tropical garden.

The new garden no longer includes the Koi Fish pond, there has been some concern about what happened to them?

Oh don’t worry, the fish are very happy in my garden at home. And there are still plenty of frogs here in the Sensory Garden!

When you were in the first stages of development of the new garden, what was your inspiration?

I wanted to create a garden where the children were free to run about, have fun and learn. That is when I came up with the concept of appealing to all five of our senses, the colours for sight, the water fountain for sound, leaves to be touched, herbs to be smelt and taste from the fruit from the trees. I wanted to create a home-style environment with a tropical feel at the centre of the school.

We understand there are also exciting things happening underground?

We used the pond from the old garden as a water harvesting area. Below ground level we built storm drain containers so that when it rains the water doesn’t accumulate on the surface, but filters down through the gravel. The collected water is then recycled through a biosphere system for the aquatic plants and fountain.

The whole garden is also pre-irrigated and the watering is automated, making it a sustainable space that can be fully enjoyed without high levels of maintenance.

There are some wonderful smells in the garden, can you tell us which plants they come from?

Throughout the garden I have planted numerous fruit trees including papaya, passion fruit, lime and star fruit. There is also a eucalyptus tree as well as an olive tree from Spain. You can also smell the lemony scent of the citronella plant, a fantastic way to ward off mosquitoes.

I also added many tropical plants to remind us of Singapore, a Laksa bush which is used to make the famous Laksa soup, as well as curry leaves, a ginger plant and the special spice that is used to make Tom Yum soup. The Lantana is a local flower that looks a bit like popcorn when it blooms.

Can you tell us a bit about the pencils?

I designed the pencils as a dynamic contrast to the green of the foliage. Initially I was concerned that they be slightly clichéd, but now they are there I believe they really work.

What is your favourite part of the garden?

My favourite part is the wooden structure at the end of the garden with the ‘secret’ doors. The idea behind it was ignite the children’s curiosity as well as give the space an original focal point.

The wood is all recycled and the frame of the doorway is made from railway slips. It was all jet washed to reveal the cracks and ridges and give them an old well-worn look .

The outer frame is made from very old wood that we found in an antique shop and the handles were chose the door handles because of their lotus shapes. The motifs on each side of the door were added to give it a more artistic feel, as well as offset the dark colour of the wood.

Designing this garden has been one of my most fulfilling projects, especially as the school really embraced all my ideas and concepts. I truly hope that everyone can relate and enjoy this wonderful space.

Thank you for your time John. It really is a special place that is well used by the whole school. There is even a ‘micky mouse’ plant, if anyone can find it?