Growing your own food is an appealing idea. In the face of Hong Kong realities, few of us can aspire to self-sufficiency, but for garden owners and windowsill farmers alike, pots of fresh herbs or a modest bowl of home-grown potatoes represent an immensely satisfying achievement.
Although the European “allotment” tradition dates back to the 18th century, it is unknown in Hong Kong. But there are possibilities for those who would like to do some serious growing. A few residential complexes allocate some of their garden area for tenants to grow their own plants. The Leisure & Cultural Services Department (LCSD) rents out plots that are about one-metre square to those who enrol in “gardening” courses. And, if you are keen to work on a larger scale, a number of sizeable organic farms in the New Territories rent out spare land at low rates for enthusiasts who are committed to organic growing.
The Tai Peng Community Garden on Lamma Island, where I live, is one of several similar co-operative initiatives in different parts of Hong Kong. Two or three generations ago the land was used for intensive growing of rice or vegetables. But these days most island residents want white collar jobs in the city and idle land is available for rent at a nominal charge, if you can track down the rightful owner for negotiations.
The good news is that most Asian herbs including lemongrass, Vietnamese mint (or laksa leaf), Betel pepper leaves, Kaffir lime leaf, curry leaf and bay leaf thrive through the summer with minimal care (although they suffer during our cold weather), so with a little improvisation you can work some culinary magic throughout the year.
In general, however, this has been a poor summer for Mediterranean-type herbs in Hong Kong. By early June I had long since said a sad farewell to my pots of fresh basil, thyme and oregano. A few sad-looking pots of mint and parsley look as though they might perk up with the approach of autumn, but for the most part I must start from scratch. This is a challenge, but also provides the incentive to try some new varieties.
While I was still mourning the loss of my own temperate herbs, a travelling friend sent me tantalising pictures of fresh herbs positively bouncing with life in window boxes at one of Helsinki’s premier restaurants. These vibrant green beauties were evidently revelling in midsummer conditions in the Land of the Midnight Sun, where they formed a decorative as well as delicious addition to the décor. By now, of course, they will probably be approaching the end of their lifespan, unless they are relocated in a suitably warm and sheltered environment complete with grow-lights.
By contrast with the situation in Europe, however, late summer is when we can get a head-start on our own supply of fresh herbs, salad leaves, spinach and leafy Chinese vegetables that will flourish throughout the cooler months ahead. Two generations ago, Hong Kong’s serious vegetable growers started seeds of temperate plants in July, but these days, late August or even September is probably the earliest we can try for a chance of success. Ideally this is the time to prepare containers and seed-raising mix as well as fresh seeds ready for the first drop in temperature and humidity levels.
As most types of herbs transplant easily, it’s best to start them in a pot or trough so that they can be moved out of heavy rain as necessary. If you are short of pots and trays for seed-raising, you can improvise by recycling empty plastic boxes and bottles with the addition of drainage holes in the bottom. Potting mix from a nursery is usually better and more economical than small packages from supermarkets
Most types of basil, mint, Spring onions and chives, thyme, parsley, oregano and marjoram grow readily from seed in Hong Kong. Try some edible flowers – pansies, begonias and nasturtiums should all thrive throughout the winter. You can order online or look for inexpensive seed from China and more pricey imported seed in Flower Market Road, Mongkok, in the Connaught Road West seed shops opposite Shun Tak Centre and at Ma Chun Hing in Sheung Shui (where Hong Kong’s few remaining farmers usually go). Yates seeds from Australia are well packaged for this climate and the germination rate is usually high.
It’s almost impossible to have too many seedlings: you can eat them as you thin out your plants to make more growing space for maturing plants, and they make welcome gifts to friends who lack green fingers. Nevertheless, it’s wise to hold back half or even three quarters of the packet in case you need to make another sowing: leftover seed keeps well in a ziplock bag and air-tight box in the refrigerator. Arthur Van Langenberg, the guru of local gardeners, author of three books based on a lifetime’s experience of local conditions, keeps his garden seeds in a wine fridge as he says this provides the ideal temperature for storage.
Small seeds are hard to sow as they tend to clump together. A farming friend showed me how to space them by mixing them into a handful of dry sand and allowing them to trickle through the fingers as you move your hand over a waiting container of soil. His advice is not to cover small seeds with additional soil, though I usually spread a thin layer of fine vermiculite over the surface. Place the pot of seeds in a shady, well-ventilated place; if the air is still humid, don’t water until you see signs of germination (usually within a few days), when you can spray with a fine mister, gradually increasing light and water as the seedlings mature. Be cautious as it’s all too easy to scorch or swamp seeds and new seedlings as I know to my cost.
If there is no sign of life within about 10 days, your seeds have probably failed to germinate for whatever reason and you should start again. Once they have their second pair of “true” leaves, most seedlings are tough enough to be transplanted into more spacious accommodation in big troughs or pots, or even in the ground. Label everything that you sow: one new seedling can look much like another and it is easy to forget what you put where. Watch the weather bulletins as the typhoon season can last well into October. Be ready to shift pots from precarious positions and move any precious plants to safety indoors if a serious storm heads in our direction.
Jane Ram is a long-time Hong Kong resident, the immediate past chair and long-time committee member of the Hong Kong Gardening Society and a well-known broadcaster and writer on garden-oriented topics.