Rooftop gardening has never been so practical

PUBLISHED : Friday, 06 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 06 November, 2009, 12:00am

The idea of tending a home vegetable or fruit garden in Hong Kong may seem ambitious, but some people are embracing it for practical, economical and environmental reasons.

According to Alfa Poon, the owner of Alfa House Florist, farming in a high-rise environment is not such a far-fetched idea as long as one has sufficient space and a considerable amount of sunlight.

'Modern buildings are now fitted with wider and bigger windows and that means more sunlight, and along with these expansive windows are ledges that are great spaces to grow culinary herbs such as mint, basil, thyme and oregano,' she said.

While flowers are commonly used to add splashes of colour at home, she said that growing fruiting plants, such as sweet coloured peppers, cherry tomatoes, figs and strawberries, would easily serve this purpose. 'These plants, particularly strawberries and cherry tomatoes, are sensitive to strong sunlight so it's best to keep them indoors.'

Expanding a patch of edible garden, however, needs more that just ledges or wide windows. 'One of the things you really need to consider is whether you have enough space to grow different kinds of crops because space limitations will affect their potential growth,' said the 20-year horticulture veteran. 'But if you have a rooftop or balcony, then it's great because you can easily turn it into a fully fledged vegetable or fruit garden if you like.'

For those who have rooftops, Poon advised growing vegetables such as spinach, angular silky gourd, choy sum, kale, green pak choy and eggplants. Generally, the green leafy vegetables can be harvested about 30-45 days after planting.

Salad crops, such as lettuce, arugula and red cabbage, can be grown in a partially-shaded balcony. Carrots and sweet corn can also be planted along with these but make sure they are 'planted in a wooden box, about one foot deep' for the roots to grow properly. Some of the all-year-round fruits to grow include star fruit, mandarin, papaya, lime and lemon.

While some plants can grow in the same planter and share the same soil, there are some that cannot. 'One typical example is the culinary herbs,' she said. 'Never ever mix mint with other herbs as its roots grow very quickly and will easily kill other plants.'

Poon said that the changes to the climate in recent years had made it favourable to grow every kind of edible plant.

'Our winters [are] no longer that cold which means any plant can survive, whether on the balcony or rooftop,' she said. 'All you need are basic techniques on how to protect them especially in the hot and wet summer. For example, small plants can be kept indoors during the rainy season or you can protect them outside by covering them with a big plastic bag held on by four sticks on the sides. At the height of summer, you can keep the plants in partially shaded areas, either indoor or on the balcony.'

It was important to check the soil regularly and add more if necessary and make sure that the plants had adequate water, she advised. Rooftop plants need to be watered every day while indoor and balcony plants need water every two or three days.

Poon, who has been catering to the local community for more than 20 years, said that more people were growing their own vegetables. While most of her customers were expats, she added that more locals now enjoyed the benefits of gardening.

'Some people grow their own gardens simply as a hobby or a way to relax and some do it because they want to make sure they're eating something healthy and fresh. Also, you know, nothing can really match the freshness and quality of home-grown, hand-picked vegetables and fruits.

'Ninety per cent of my customers live in Mid-Levels and they grow quite a number of edible plants themselves. But there have been a few who did not know how to plant so I did it for them. They gave me a list of what they wanted to grow and then I told them to come back after a few weeks to pick them up.

'All you need to consider is whether you have the space to grow your own edible garden. While some people might believe that successful gardening relies solely on [having a] 'green thumb', for me, it's all about passion. Green thumb for me lies in the heart.'

Practicality was what home farming was all about, she pointed out. 'It's about maximising your small space and minimising daily expenses. A bag of organic soil costs around HK$200 and the seeds about HK$30. Once you've harvested the vegetables, you can reuse the soil. Plus, by growing green plants, you're helping to save the environment, too.'