If you thought gardening was a lost cause in the urban jungle, then think again. To help you make the most of your crop-friendly spaces, urban farming expert and co-founder of Rooftop Republic, Michelle Hong, shares her top tips on how to transform even the smallest of spaces into a blooming marvellous garden.
There’s something so satisfying about growing your own herbs, fruit, and veggies – it really adds something special to homemade meals. But surely such a hobby is impossible in the city? Not so. In the absence of grassy expanses and rolling hills, we simply have to get creative with the outdoor space available to us. Whether it’s a window basket of herbs, a couple of pots on your terrace, or an abundance of leaves and veggies on your rooftop, with my six top tips you’ll be the proud owner of a healthy, urban garden. Ready, steady, grow!
1. Research and plan ahead
Planning before you grow will help you maximise the productivity of your balcony garden. Take the direction of your balcony into account, and ensure you have at least six hours of direct sunlight per day, and also consider the amount of time you have to take care of your plants. Mint, rosemary, and chives are herbs that are easy to grow and are fairly low maintenance. Then, research the season for seeding and harvesting the plants you want to grow. As a heads up, April to September is the warm season in Hong Kong and October to March is the cool season.
Little tip: If you’re looking for a comprehensive resource complete with tips for growing your own food in Hong Kong, check out The Edible Roof – A Guide to Productive Rooftop Gardening by Mathew Pryor.
2. Find the right containers and planters
Plants do not like overcrowding, so make sure your containers and planters are large enough to accommodate the plant when it reaches full size. If you have enough space on your balcony, large pots are ideal as they give you greater freedom in the type of plants you can grow. Regardless of size, however, containers that drain water well are a must, otherwise root rot may occur. For safety reasons, ensure that your balcony can bear the weight of the planters and containers, and that you have proper drainage on the balcony so that excess water does not accumulate and become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
3. Maximise your space with companion planting
With Hong Kong’s confined living spaces, every inch counts when planting on your balcony. Companion planting fully utilises the space in your pot by growing multiple types of plants. For instance, salad greens can be grown between rows of carrots. These veggies are the perfect match, as carrots are roots that grow deep into the soil while salad greens grow upwards and have a shallower root system as a result. That means more veggies on your dinner plate as well!
4. Don’t discount shady areas
In a city full of skyscrapers, limited sunlight can be a challenge as many edible plants require at least six hours of sunlight per day in order for the seedlings to mature. However, there are other options – primarily, microgreens. The seeds of this tiny veggie do not cost much, and their nutritional value is much higher than that of mature plants. All they require is a small pot with soil and watering twice a day to grow well in shade. In as little as seven days, they’ll be ready to harvest!
5. Adapt to the seasons
Summertime in Hong Kong comes with rainclouds and typhoons. Low-lying plants, including common herbs such as mint and lemon balm, are your best choices for surviving the strong wind in addition to the heat. Growing taller plants, like eggplant and okra, is also possible with the support of a trellis, providing there is proper shelter from the wind. In winter, however, the cool and dry weather favours the growth of various plant species – cherry radishes, beetroot, and carrots to name a few.
6. Dealing with pests
The warm climate in Hong Kong favours the growth of pests. There are several natural ways to deal with them, other than pesticide. Chopping and mixing chili, garlic, onion, and ginger, with the addition of water, makes a good, natural repellent against common pests like fruit flies and aphids. Simply spray the diluted mixture on the leaves – just remember to wear gloves when preparing the mixture, as it may irritate your skin. Growing herbs as an insect repellent, as well as for their consumption value, is another natural trick in the book. It has been shown that, to a certain extent, basil, lemongrass, and mint repel mosquitoes, while dill and fennel repel aphids, and bay leaves repel flies.
Want to learn more? Find out about Rooftop Republic’s mission, join an urban farming workshop, and keep an eye out for other exciting events on their Facebook page.