By: Jane Ram
This is the time of year to find plants at bargain prices as local nurseries try to clear unsold stock that didn’t sell in the lead up to Chinese New Year. Another good opportunity is provided by the annual Hong Kong Flower Show at Victoria Park (7-16 March); on the final day, most of the plants are trashed or sold at giveaway prices as it’s not worth transporting them back to the nursery. But even before that there will be many good buys. On day two of last year’s show, I bought three superb Dendrobium orchids for $10 per pot at a time when cut stems were selling for $30 per stem. They lasted for almost three months and I’m hopeful they will bloom again this year.
Kalanchoe is this year’s theme flower. I’m not a big fan of these plants, mainly because I never grow them successfully. But they can look very attractive en masse and it seems that many people can keep them going almost indefinitely.
In between the enormous displays by the Leisure & Cultural Services Department, the instant bulb fields created by the Netherlands and vast creations combining driftwood and dried material by flower arranging groups, there are always some good buys in the way of tools and garden accessories, fertiliser and other essentials as well as pots. I found big plastic baskets to hold water lilies in place, seemingly unobtainable elsewhere in Hong Kong. So far they’ve not shown signs of blooming, but they look healthy and I live in hope!
If your ideal roof garden consists of a barbecue, a shady umbrella and some loungers, you might want to skip this section. If, however, you’d like to maximise your roof (or balcony/patio) space to grow herbs, vegetables and even fruit, then you might be encouraged by knowing what others are doing.
Before Christmas I lunched at IPC Food Lab in Fanling’s industrial estate. It was an unlikely place to find high-quality ingredients prepared with such a light and skilful hand. Louis-Antoine Giroud, General Manager and IPC’s corporate executive chef, is rightly proud of the food and he explained that this is very much a farm-to-table operation.
He invited me to see the 700-square-metre roof garden. Larger than many of Hong Kong’s organic farms (464 of them at last count in mid-2013), the roof was virtually overflowing with green. Cherry tomato plants were seedlings only two months ago; now they’ve climbed to the top of six-foot trellises. Intensely aromatic herbs and edible flowers of all kinds would delight any cook. Fruit is already ripening on strawberry plants lined up in neat wall racks and a blueberry bush is being trialled in Hong Kong conditions. On a practical level it was also interesting to see how well everything flourishes in what look like Dutch crates lined with fine netting to hold the soil in place.
There’s no netting but the plants showed no sign of damage by insects or birds so I asked what IPC uses for pest control. The answer sounded like science fiction: “proton alignment”. When I asked for further explanation, Chef Louis picked up a small gadget about the same size as a disposable cigarette lighter. Ten of these are placed around the rooftop and that is seemingly sufficient to boost the growth of the plants and make them so strong and healthy that insects and birds simply look elsewhere for easier prey. These gadgets also speed up growth to a phenomenal degree. The technology has been developed by IPC’s founders and it has many applications including growing better plants. “We don’t use chemicals,” said Chef Louis, “only physics.”
The Firecracker vine (Pyrostegia venusta), a native of Brazil but long since naturalised in Hong Kong, looks at its best around Chinese New Year. Once it loses all its colourful flowers, the show is over until next winter. Despite its attractions at flowering time, it’s an invasive grower and it can become a nuisance unless you take preventive action. If you’re reluctant to trim the long strands, bear in mind that it blooms on new growth, so tough work with the secateurs now can encourage better flowers for next year. To propagate it, push a few old-wood cuttings into a pot of well draining soil mix and leave in a shady place for a few months. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded with fresh leaves and plenty of roots underground. You could also try pegging a layer of the vine into a pot of soil where it should grow roots. Once it looks ready to go it alone, just cut the parent vine to give a new, independent plant.
Another prolific winter flowerer is on my list for serious pruning very soon. Less familiar than the Firecracker, Holmskoldia is a very ugly grower, but at flowering time its showy bracts justify inclusion in any garden, and sunbirds are drawn by the nectar. The tiny birds hover around the blooms, their vivid colours flashing in the sun, making this one of the most rewarding sights in the winter garden. Holmskoldia will bloom for about four months in an average year, but towards the end of the flowering season it starts to look untidy. It will bloom in a pot, although it does better in the ground. The orange-red version, sanguine, is usually one of the easiest shrubs to propagate – just push a few cut stems direct into the ground or into a pot of soil.
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.