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Backstage at Gardens by the Bay, Singapore: We meet horticulturist Chad Davis

By: Katie Roberts

If Chad Davis wasn’t a horticulturist I suspect he would be a cowboy, or at least play a cowboy in a Western. Completely at home in the desert, he loves the desert plants of Arizona where he worked for over 10 years before moving here.

Adjusting to Singapore’s tropical climate and very different plants has been a huge leap for American Chad, who is assistant director of the Flower Dome at Gardens by The Bay (GB). “When I heard about this project and applied for the role I thought GB was the most exciting horticultural project going on globally, and it probably still is,” he says. “This is a whole different world to Arizona.”

 

Chad will have notched up three years in Singapore next month, and he has spent much of this time in the Flower Dome. That’s the one with the mass floral displays, not the waterfall.

While most of us bring our visitors to see GB’s two enormous “biomes” and marvel at the incredible 93,000 plants, we probably don’t think much beyond the visual spectacle. Yet what goes on behind the scenes at the Flower Dome is worth exploring, if only to understand the sheer magnitude and boldness of the project: replicating the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean and semi-arid regions of the world in tropical Singapore.

“Tropical plants have been grown in conservatories in the cool climates of the northern hemisphere for close to 200 years, so there’s a knowledge base to refer to over there,” Chad says. “GB is doing the reverse, and is without doubt one of the most innovative projects around, since there is nothing you can read to tell you what’s going to happen in here. We have had to learn, experiment and figure things out; it’s quite exciting.”

A sophisticated de-humidification and cooling system is used to maintain the cool, dry climate in the Flower Dome: mechanisms include light sensor-operated shadings and “spectrally selective” glass that allows in only the light spectrum that plants need; chilled water pipes run through the floor to reduce heat.

Chad 

Energy is generated on site, reducing dependency on the power grid. Describing the process is very technical, but it essentially relies on horticultural waste from across the island. The waste is treated off-site before being brought to GB, fed into the generator and converted into energy. Water drawn from Marina Bay Reservoir is filtered using aquatic plants and used to irrigate the outdoor Garden.

Chad’s favourite area of the Dome is the area planted with baobabs, succulents and cacti. “I fell in love with the desert during my time working at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizona. Desert plants have earned my respect for their endurance, interesting forms and ability to survive in tough climates,” he says.

Chad fell into the horticultural world when he was about 21, and started doing an associate diploma before finding a security job at the Botanical Garden. He later scored a horticultural job and went on to complete a degree in horticulture and landscape design.

This year, his experience with arid environments was essential in the planning and construction of GB’s Sun Pavilion, an outdoor cacti garden. “We have a thousand plants of a hundred varieties from arid regions around the world. It’s innovative – something not often seen in the tropics, and not easy to do here because of the climate.” Aside from the towering column cactus, both the brain cactus and Turk’s Cap cactus make it abundantly clear how they got their names.  

When he’s not working, Chad can be found in Singapore’s other green spaces. He rates Sungei Buloh, MacRitchie Reservor, Kent Ridge and East Coast Park as four of his favourite spots for time out. Globally, his highlights are the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Huntington Botanical Gardens in the US, as well as Kew Gardens and Chelsea Physic Garden in London.

What’s next for this nature-loving expat? With the biodiversity of the area improving (a pair of otters has taken up residence and over 90 species of birds have been spotted) he is closely observing the local sunbirds to see if they are attracted to the safety of the thorny column cacti as a home for their nests.

How to transport a cactus
Some of the big cacti came from the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. They were shipped here in refrigerated containers, each individual plant stem carefully surrounded by Styrofoam before being packed. The cacti arrive bare-rooted, but can quickly establish themselves by growing an entire new root system.

Flower Dome in numbers

  • Size of 2.2 football fields
  • More than 32,000 plants from 160 species and varieties
  • The roof has 3,332 glass panels of 42 shapes and sizes, 34mm thick
  • Height to top of glass is 35 metres
  • Nine different climate zones and plants from Africa, Australia, America and the Mediterranean Basin
  • Some herbs harvested from the Mediterranean garden are shared with Pollen restaurant
  • Around 20,000 bulbs are planted for the annual spring tulip display, which runs until 4 May

Psst…! A large fish tank holding three types of enormous freshwater fish is tucked behind the cactus garden. Look out for the numerous eccentric outdoor sculptures dotted around the gardens, including driftwood thrones: enormous tree roots re-purposed as chairs.

 

 

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