Garden Variety

Urban life doesn’t have to mean living without your own green haven

Walk along any residential street and you’re bound to stumble upon a patch of greenery that sticks out like a sore thumb. True plants and flowers line public overpasses and main thoroughfares are dotted with trees, but look up and you’ll often spy a bushy garden on a terrace or rooftop. If you’ve got less than a green thumb, you’ll wonder how that garden grows. You may also wonder how to create your own little carbon sink.

Jane Ram is chair of the Hong Kong Gardening Society and she’s adamant that real gardening can be done amid all the concrete towers. “You can do a lot, but you have to adapt to the environment,” she states, admitting there are, however, some challenges inherent in the prospect. “Unless you’re living in the New Territories or on one of the islands it’s very much improvised. But there are ways you can do things in pots and troughs, and vertical gardening is always a possibility.”

The membership-based HKGS has been putting paid to the idea that gardens are exclusively for houses for over 25 years. It’s for anyone interested in plants and gardens, with and without their own, those looking for information and guidance, and the Society runs nursery tours, garden visits, demonstrations and various other activities all year long. If you need to find a particular flower bulb, the HKGS should be able to tell you where to look — or which member may have a spare.

Arming oneself with knowledge is the first step, but if you’re confident you’re ready, there are still a few things to watch out for. The biggest hurdles? According to Ram, “Well it starts with the potting mix, because Hong Kong’s topsoil is really poor. It’s mostly decomposed granite and builders’ rubble. So that’s the first challenge,” she says. After that it becomes a question of aesthetics that could have an impact on your success. For terraces and rooftops, pots are the single biggest decision behind what you’re going to plant. “Obviously everybody wants clay pots, but in the end plastic may be more practical,” Ram points out. “And then it’s trial and error: what will grow for you, because it’s not just a question of what will grow in this climate but will grow in your particular micro-climate.” Bear in mind how much shade (even on sunny days), wind and rain you are likely to get. Terraces have potential for less rain than rooftops depending on how sheltered they are by surrounding buildings.

When you’re dealing with rooftops in particular, heat-conducting clay can mean trouble. Concrete heats up in full sun and you wind up, “putting these poor plants into an oven,” as Ram puts it. While there are a host of plants that can stand up to Hong Kong’s sub-tropical sun, overheating the roots is a hazard. “There are very simple ways around that. You can rig up some sort of shade or just use a double pot where you’ve got a little bit of insulation.”

Another error is one that cuts across geography, age and every other demographic variable imaginable: the desire for instant gratification. “People tend to go for an instant effect … without stopping to think of how it will look in two years’ time when everything is a bit overgrown or has outgrown its space,” Ram cautions.“And the major fault, yearround, is probably over-watering.” Water isn’t really an issue in humid Hong Kong, so gardeners need to take care on the hydration front.

Though the assumption may be that you need to traipse far from the city centre to get supplies, Ram says that’s not the case. A casual comment about not finding planting soil in Sheung Wan elicits an emphatic denial. “Oh no! You’re in the perfect spot if you’re in Sheung Wan. You go to the shops opposite Shun Tak Centre down on Connaught Road West.” Mongkok’s flower market (garden centres are on the back end) and Sai Kung are easily accessed, and for the more devoted there are raft of garden centres and nurseries in remote parts of the New Territories. Almost all carry a good range of seeds, potting plants, fruit trees and shrubs that rotate through the year.

Finally, gardens often mean vegetables. Can a city gardener find themselves with a healthy supply of tomatoes? “Of course!” enthuses Ram. There are scads of books on the subject at local bookstores, and Hong Kong’s own Arthur van Langenberg (Urban Gardening: A Hong Kong Gardener’s Journal) has just completed his third book, focusing on vegetable gardening. His patch? A dug-out carpark he purchased years ago. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need large swaths of deep dirt to grow cabbage; vertical gardening is making headway in the city too. “You can grow stuff up on posts, you can hang it, you can put a trellis in and really do quite a lot. Arthur has a lot of his stuff growing vertically, just to maximise the space,” Ram points out. If you feel as though you need more guidance, and you’re not an HKGS member, Ram recommends Kadoorie Farm’s demonstrations on what can be accomplished in one square foot. And really, what’s more fun that digging in the dirt on a Sunday afternoon?