The Tampoi Belimbing is native to Borneo.
Dr Ng giving hands-on training to a younger gardener on how to dig up some bulbs.
An ornamental banana plant in One Utama’s Secret Garden.
Green Peppercorns like these can be found thriving in The Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden houses a variety of herbs, spices and food plants, writes Elaine Yim

EARLY this month, 1Utama Shopping Centre celebrated World Environmental Day with a series of fun-filled events, including free plant giveaways, eco-bazaar, DIY workshops, and talks on backyard composting and recycling.

A Secret Garden Tour was also conducted by award-winning consultant botanist Dr Francis Ng, who shared with us his journey and experiences in setting up a green rooftop garden. He also gave us some very useful gardening tips.


This Garden in the Sky is located on the upper roof floor of the shopping mall. Occupying an area of about 2,800 square metres, it is reputed to be the largest rooftop garden in Southeast Asia, and probably one of the world’s largest.

When the garden was being set up during the initial years, it was hidden from the public eye and referred to as “the secret garden” among the project team members.

When it was opened to the public on May 25, 2009, it was officially named as the Secret Garden of 1 Utama. The garden is cultivated and managed by Ng and is the brainchild of Datuk CK Teo, director of Bandar Utama City Corporation.

Ng uses a special material called biochar, also known as horticultural carbon, to grow more than 500 species of tropical, sub-tropical, temperate and highland plants, water plants, shade plants, desert plants, native and indigenous plants, also rare and endemic plants. This is an experimental garden with ongoing research on new plants and new techniques — which makes it a mini botanical garden right in the city centre.


Biochar is charcoal chips used as soil conditioner to make it more porous to facilitate better air and water absorption in the roots. It is only half the weight of soil hence, lightens the load on the roof. Carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants and stored as wood. When wood is converted to charcoal, the carbon is locked up securely for a long time.

Using biochar reduces our carbon footprint. Unlike wood, biochar does not decompose easily, so plants grown in this medium are free from soil borne diseases. The planting medium at the secret garden is at least 50 per cent charcoal, and the edibles zone uses between 90 and 100 per cent.


There is an impressive variety of herbs, spices and food plants that are growing healthily and fruiting here. Quite a number of Western chefs are incorporating Asian ingredients such as gingers, turmeric, chilli peppers, peppercorns, cinnamon and nutmeg into their unconventional cooking recipes. I’m sure that even the chefs will be amazed at the wide range of garden fresh herbs, spices and food plants that are grown here.

If celebrity chefs such as Michael Smith and Jamie Oliver visit Malaysia, I would recommend that they pay a visit here, or record a TV episode cooking at the rooftop Secret Garden of 1 Utama!

Many of us who live in cities may or may not have seen a real cinnamon or nutmeg tree. We know that the vanilla flavour is extracted from vanilla bean pods but we may not have seen the real vanilla orchid plant that produces it.

Have you seen all three types of papaya plants that bear the male, female or unisex flowers? Have you seen the lovely pink cosmos flowers of the ulam raja plant?

Do you know that there are giant and dwarf banana plants that produce edible bananas and there are also ornamental banana plants with colourful blooms but tiny, unpalatable banana fruits?

Another tree that catches my attention is the Baccaurea angulata (Tampoi Belimbing or Belimbing Hutan), an indigenous tree native to Borneo. The fruits are purple when young and red when ripe, are borne in clusters on the tree trunk and look like coned-shaped berries on the outside. But the inside is just like a mini mangosteen or rambai. Both the male and female Tampoi belimbing trees are growing in the Secret Garden.

There are many others including herbs, spices and food plants like:

• Three popular coffee species — Cofea Arabica, C. canephora and C. liberica.

• Asian paddy rice (Oryza sativa)

• Date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

• Kwai Fa (Osmanthus fragrans)

• Passionfruit, pepper (Piper nigrum) and grape vines

• Temperate fruit trees like apple, pear, loquat, lychee, persimmon, mulberry

• Tea plants (Camellia sinensis)

• Tropical fruit trees like citron, pomelo, orange, lime, pineapple, longan, banana

• Herbs and spice plants like curry leaf, lemon grass, pandan, chillies

• Vegetables like salam leaf, sorghum, sweet leaf, tapioca, yam

• Miraculous berry (Synsepalum dulcificum)

“Gardening is not an exact science but a very hands-on learning experience. The gardener should always be sensitive to changes and act accordingly,” Ng advised.


The planting medium should always be well-drained and not waterlogged. Pull out the weeds completely with the roots attached. Do this before they flower and set seeds. When you get rid of weeds, you get rid of many problems.

Secret Garden of 1 Utama

Opening hours: 10am-10pm (Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays)

Admission: Free

Photography is allowed but No Smoking.

Wedding photography is allowed with special arrangements.

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