At this Penang cafe, lessons about the rainforest... in a bottle

Opalyn Mok
The ecosystem of the rainforest can be demonstrated through a small forest in a bottle terrarium like this one — Picture by Steven Ooi K.E.

GEORGE TOWN, Oct 17 — Our tropical rainforest thrives in a natural ecosystem dependent on the environment around it and a great way to send a message about the need to protect this delicate ecosystem is by getting people to create their own tiny forests in bottles.

And it doesn't hurt that these small gardens or "forests" housed within pretty round and oval glass bottles are so pretty.

These terrariums are the brainchild of landscape architect and arborist Vin Chee who has had a strong passion for nature and plants since young.

The forest moss table is another way to add some greenery to your office or home

“This is my way of getting people closer to nature and to promote conservation of the rainforests,” he said.

Chee, who is a trained arborist, sees his terrariums as a way of learning to live together with nature in a modern world.

The terrariums that he teaches clients to put together do not just contain moss and plants but also hidden lessons on how to protect the rainforest.

“I want to promote this concept that gardens are like the rainforest, with their own biodiversity, even in an urban setting or indoors,” he said.

Chee started Moonshop Gallery four years ago as a laboratory to experiment and develop ideas that combine plants with design.

He tried various methods of putting together terrariums that are low maintenance, suitable for indoors and aesthetically pleasing.

The different types of 'Forest in a Bottle' in a closed system

“A lot of people find plants are hard to maintain so I want to come up with solutions to this and I want to add aesthetics to it so it can attract people and generate interest,” he said.

After experimenting with different methods, Chee discovered a special sponge material in Japan that can be used in terrariums.

He experimented with the sponge-planting medium and when it proved to be a versatile one that produces healthy plants that are easy to maintain, he started introducing terrarium workshops.

The open system 'Forest in A Bottle'

That was two years ago and he has since refined his workshops to include a range of glass bottles; participants can choose their own to create their own “Forest in The Bottle.”

From the forest in bottles, he went on to introduce tree and moss tables where he creates a small forest on specially made containers that can be placed on tables as indoor plants and decor.

Moonshop Gallery shares the same space as Forest Canteen, the cafe component of his business.

According to Chee, he wanted to change the whole trend of people sitting in cafes just to have coffee and take selfies.

This light up terrarium called the 'Moon Forest' serves as ornamental lighting for the cafe

“I have tree tables, light-up terrariums and an interior filled with plants and forest in bottles in the cafe not just for people to take selfies,” he said.

He said the whole purpose of the gallery and cafe is to get people interested in plants so that they want to learn about conservation.

Two years ago, Chee and a group of other arborists held an exhibition to showcase the art of transplanting trees and conservation of trees and plants in memory of another arborist, Hasim Ismail, who had passed away.

The 35-year-old said the arborist profession is little known in Malaysia and is often overlooked as few people pay much attention to the specialised field of arboriculture which deals with the management, cultivation and study of trees and plants.

An example of the 'Forest Frame' (left)

“We have plans to hold a second exhibition at the end of this year and we will be inviting international arborists to give talks too,” he said.

Chee, who studied architecture, started his career as a landscape architect in Singapore where he worked for about eight years before he decided to quit his high-paying job to become a gardener.

“I don’t want to just know how to design, I want to know the basic things about plants before dealing with plants, I want to know how to plant, how to maintain a tree as a gardener rather than just design and landscape,” he said.

He added that a good landscape design must be both aesthetically pleasing and still be practical.

Forest Canteen Cafe is more than a cafe as it is meant to be a place for people to appreciate nature

After his stint as a gardener, he came back to Penang and started Moonshop Gallery as a laboratory to expand on his ideas.

Moonshop Gallery design manager Saw Yee Hui says they sourced the moss they used from local rainforests during their hiking trips.

“We obtain most of the ornamental plants from local nurseries and from these, we cultivate our own in the Moonshop laboratory,” she said.

She said each "Forest In A Bottle" is self-sustaining and requires minimal care.

Saw Yee Hui demonstrating how to put together a forest in a bottle

“There are two systems, one is enclosed and one is open,” she said.

The enclosed system is a covered bottle that requires minimal watering while the open system requires occasional watering.

The workshops are available daily and come either as a set lunch package or a dessert and drink package.

Other than bottles, participants can opt for a "Forest Frame", a special wooden frame fitted with the sponge planting medium in which moss and plants can be planted.

Moonshop Gallery was started as a laboratory for Vin Chee to experiment and bring to life his ideas

“We also offer special group packages for team building or large groups but prior booking is required,” Saw said.

While reservations are not needed for individuals, she said it is best that those interested call ahead to reserve the types of bottles or frames they want to use in the workshop.

Moonshop, located at 38/1, Farquhar Street on the ground floor of Penang Bowl, is open daily from 11am to 7pm. Find out more about their workshops at moonshopgallery.com

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