Organic farming takes root in HK

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 March, 2010, 12:00am

Michelle Obama dug up part of the White House lawn to grow vegetables, and Queen Elizabeth II did something similar at Buckingham Palace. Jacqueline Hampshire, a member of the Hong Kong Gardening Society, also grows her own vegetables in her flower-filled South Lantau garden.

'I harvested my first radishes of the season for lunch today,' she says. 'They tasted so good. It's a question of quality, of knowing they are chemical-free and the pride in achievement.'

Hampshire is one of a growing number of Hongkongers who love the idea of growing some of their own food. The incentives vary but, with soaring food prices, it's satisfying to know that your gourmet arugula salad or your baby spinach will cost less than supermarket prices. For example, arugula sells for HK$21 per 100 grams in supermarkets, while it will cost HK$12 per pack of seeds for a skilled gardener to produce enough arugula to feed a family of six throughout the winter.

Equally, as concern rises about chemical fertilisers and noxious pesticides, it is reassuring to know that luscious strawberries and papayas have been grown organically.

If you don't have a garden, you can still find space to grow vegetables, herbs and even fruit to feed a small family for much of the year. In Britain, the average waiting time for allotments, also known as community gardens, can be up to 30 years. But Hongkongers are more fortunate as they can find somewhere to start growing their own food with little waiting time. If you're prepared to travel, you can probably find a plot now.

Substantial areas in the New Territories lie fallow, but it requires hard work even before you start clearing the unwanted plants.

First you must find the owner, check there are no rival claims on the land and negotiate terms. In some cases this works well. Three years ago, a dozen enthusiastic gardeners started clearing some disused farm land near Taipeng village on Lamma Island. They each contribute HK$500 annually to rent the land and the place is flourishing.

'It's very informal. We talked about forming an officially incorporated co-operative, but it never happened,' says Geoff Smith, a semi-retired academic. 'We're not exactly living off the land. Basically, I garden for fun. The social aspect is important. It's a great way to meet people.'

Similar community gardens are doing well in other parts of Lamma, Lantau and also in the New Territories. Know-how is easily acquired from fellow gardeners and occasional workshops if you join an organisation, such as the Hong Kong Gardening Society, or sign up for one of Kadoorie Farm's short horticultural courses. Or just buy a copy of the local gardening bible, Arthur van Langenberg's book, Urban Gardening for Hong Kong.

If you rent a Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) community garden plot, you are automatically enrolled in an educational programme.

As part of the Greening Hong Kong Campaign, the LCSD has set up 20 community gardens in different districts. You can apply to rent a 1.5-square-metre plot in one of the gardens, which range from 30-50 plots. It will cost HK$400 for hands-on tuition and four months use of the plot. Demand now exceeds supply, but more gardens are coming on line this year and next, says Sung Chung-man, assistant leisure services manager. Check the website as each garden has its own timetable for applications and the start of each new session.

Private options probably offer less hassle and better value. The Produce Green Foundation has been running for more than 20 years and it is Hong Kong's largest plot-rental organisation. There's an informative website, but you will understand more about them if you visit the farm at Hok Tau, near Fanling, to see how it works. Expect to pay HK$10.80 per sqft for three months for a plot ranging from 60 to 100 sqft. Plots are available, unlike at Produce Green's organic community garden for the elderly near Tsuen Wan Park where demand exceeds supply. The latter charges HK$300 for a plot of about 20-30 sqft for three months.

At both gardens, the rent includes free organic farming training, technical support, tools, seeds, seedlings, fertilisers and environmentally-friendly pest control chemicals. The farm has a semi-automated watering system, so you don't need to worry about your plants dying if you cannot visit the farm for a few days. You must be prepared to follow a few basic rules - no genetically modified plants or seeds. All seeds and plants that you bring in must be approved and registered by farm staff.

Another option is the Organic Farm and its offshoot Sustainable Ecological Ethical Development Foundation (Seed). Everything must be organic on Seed's 100 sqft plots, says its chairwoman, Chu Pui-kwan, but there are few other restrictions. 'Demand rises at the beginning of autumn and winter. Summer is only for very experienced farmers. We are looking for more land to expand, but we rarely turn anyone away.'