Graze the roof

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 April, 2009, 12:00am

There's a green revolution taking hold in Hong Kong households, and it has nothing to do with energy saving or recycling. Where once a neglected dracaena or the yellowing saw-toothed leaves of a sword fern might have sat forgotten in the corner of a balcony, you're now more likely to find the plump purple fruit of an aubergine, or the crisp fresh aroma of a small mint bush.

If you think vegetable and herb gardening is the privilege of those blessed with a garden, think again. There is a small but growing band of gardeners for whom the concrete urban environment we live in presents an interesting challenge, yet one that is easy to overcome.

Many urban gardeners have found that turning over their plant pots to greens affords a level of satisfaction difficult to obtain from the tending of a flowering shrub.

Having spent many years studying and working in Britain, Michael Soong had seen first hand how growing one's own food was second nature in some households. Last year, when he took up his position as food and beverage manager at the Ladies' Recreation Club on Old Peak Road, he was surprised to find that, although it had a team of gardeners for its extensive collection of flowers and ferns, in 125 years the club had not grown herbs or vegetables.

With a bit of coaxing, a packet of seeds and a couple of near disasters during the typhoon season the head gardener now manages a small and sustainable supply of fresh basil, rosemary and oregano.

'It's not so much about saving money,' says Soong as he breathes in the sweet smell from a handful of leaves he's just plucked. 'It's just nice to be able to pick our own herbs and serve them to our members.'

Restrictions mean that tilling soil and growing plants on government land, especially on slopes, is not allowed. Even though the club has a fair-sized space for a garden, Soong's herbs are grown in the old polystyrene tubs in which it receives its regular supply of fresh vegetables from the wholesaler.

Making use of whatever container comes to hand, from old clay cooking pots to margarine tubs, and adapting them to your surroundings makes growing herbs and vegetables easy and affordable, even in Hong Kong's smallest flats, says gardening expert Arthur van Langenberg.

One input that's free, yet which can be hard to find in some homes, is light. Van Langenberg, a surgeon, a member of the Hong Kong Gardening Society and the author of Urban Gardening; A Hong Kong Gardener's Journal, says most plants need at least three hours of sunshine a day. In some households, that could mean growing them on a roof or balcony; for others, a window sill or even the top of a window-mounted air conditioner.

For the absolute beginner, he recommends a trip to a local wet market for a bunch of spring onions. After enjoying the greens in a salad, plant the bulbs with the roots in 10cm of soil, place the pot somewhere that catches the sun, water regularly, and in two days they'll begin to sprout. After four weeks, he says, you'll be impressing dinner party guests with your own homegrown organic spring onions. 'There's no reluctance locally to grow things in little spaces. I get in taxis and see things growing in pots next to the meter. That's urban gardening par excellence,' he says.

The reasons people take the time to grow their own vegetables are varied: it's educational for children, you have control over what chemicals the plants are exposed to, it can save money and you can grow things not available at most supermarkets.

For example, Badariah Ismail, a retired securities regulator, is considering growing pandan leaves in a corner of her roof because the herb, used in Malaysian cuisine, is difficult to find locally. In the car park of his block of flats, Soong is nurturing small pots of what's known as 'stinky grass' for use in a Chinese dessert. Van Langenberg sells some of the chicory he produces to the Italian nuns at a local church.

For landscape consultant Janet Blount, the decision to cultivate her own salad vegetables was driven by a desire for produce free of chemicals and pesticides, and because she likes varieties of lettuce that specialist supermarkets carry but charge a premium for. But while most people's vegetables are growing in small pots scattered around their homes, Blount has a hydroponic system that she was given by a friend.

Hydroponics involves growing plants using nutrient solutions. Units range in size and price from a couple of thousand dollars for a two-plant unit, to several hundred thousand dollars for a set-up enabling you to become self sufficient. The intensive nature of the growing means you can get more produce from a smaller space.

Blount's unit, the size of a single bed, occupies a corner of the small terrace surrounding her ground-floor flat in the New Territories. She has grown baby beets, shallots, tomatoes, chives and oak leaf lettuce, and her family has a constant supply of salad vegetables during the growing season.

'It's low maintenance. The most labour intensive part is plucking caterpillars off the rocket,' she says.

A perceived lack of space is perhaps what puts most people off taking the first steps towards becoming self sufficient. Yet David Sanders, owner of The Green Patch, has been installing MicroGardens in Hong Kong schools, churches and nursing homes, and on balconies, terraces and rooftops, for years.

With his standard PVC garden box measuring less than a metre in length and whole kits starting from around HK$450, he paints a picture of a veritable market garden perched high above the city streets.

'Because you are growing so high up, there's rarely a problem with pests,' he says.

Ma Fook Kee Seed Co occupies a cramped shop in Sheung Wan that has the look and smell of a disorganised potting shed. The owner seems to have a knack for telling a competent gardener from an amateur and waves a HK$10 pack of basil seeds under my nose when I visit. Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow and an excellent starter plant. The rows of seeds for everything from asparagus to zucchini suggests that even in the city, each of us could be living just a few metres from a vegetable patch.

When asked why someone would opt for a cauliflower over a chrysanthemum on their living room table, Van Langenberg says: 'The thing about vegetables is that something new happens to the plant every day, which you don't get with flowers. And at the end of the day you can eat the damn thing.'