By: Jane Ram
How’s your soil?
In most parts of the world you need to check the nature of your soil before you launch into serious gardening. But in Hong Kong you can be almost certain that your soil will be mildly acidic, which is the preference for most of the plants that you might aspire to grow. Even knowing this it’s always fun to experiment and if you have children you could explain to them how to conduct their own soil test. Who knows? This might just be the right spark to start them on a lifelong love affair with growing plants.
Put about two cups of soil in a bucket or similar container. Mix it with water to make it quite muddy, then stir in half a cup of bicarbonate of soda. If the soil is acidic, the mixture should fizz or bubble according to the degree of soil acidity. If, by any chance it fails to react, start again with two fresh cups of soil. This time, don’t add water; simply stir in half a cup of vinegar. Bubbles and fizzing indicate that the soil is alkaline.
This do-it-yourself approach to testing does not tell you the degree of acidity in your soil, which should ideally have a pH level around 7. You might think of buying a soil testing kit online, but the general view is that these are not always accurate. If you are seriously concerned you will need the services of a professional testing lab, which can be very expensive. Your major worry is most likely to be the quality of the soil, which is often little more than builders’ rubble or decomposed granite. Some nurseries sell sacks of topsoil from China. Mix it into whatever soil you have along with plenty of organic compost for best results.
Ponsettias and other potted pleasures
Potted Poinsettias are something of a cliché at Christmas, but they do create a glorious splash of festive colour. They don’t like draughts and they do like humidity. If they are not happy they will drop their colourful bracts very fast. Keep them in a sheltered spot – away from through draughts or fans if you have them indoors. Like most plants they dislike wet feet, but you can create a humid microclimate for them by standing them in saucers of water with pebbles that hold the pot just above the water level. Watch out for mosquito larvae if you try this. Change the water at least once a week. Gloxinias and Begonias of all types enjoy similar treatment.
Gifts for gardeners
Bromeliads come in many exciting colours and forms these days. They add an exotic note indoors and outdoors: best of all they can be safely left to their own devices, provided their central “reservoir” is refilled occasionally. Orchids used to be regarded as the ultimate indulgence for gardeners. But these days some of the showiest varieties cost less than $30 per pot if you look carefully along Flower Market Road. Given minimal care (usually the less the better) some can stay in bloom for months and might even flower again within a year or so. If they are a gift, advise the recipient to be sparing with water and never allow it to touch the blooms.
The internet is like Aladdin’s Cave for fulfilling a gardener’s dreams. Order something special like Kohleria rhizomes. They won’t be ready for dispatch until early spring so you must give the gardening equivalent of an IOU. But it is well worth the trouble taken to seek them out as they can flower for 12 months in the year. Even more challenging to source and to grow (and therefore more rewarding), Globbas are my current passion. They are members of the ginger family, native to Southeast Asia. New hybrids are spectacular, but they die back in the winter and it is not easy to keep them healthy through their resting season. Bangkok is the best source for the dry rhizomes which look rather like dead spiders. You would be forgiven for wondering how anything with such an ugly name and such an ugly start in life can produce flowers of such ethereal beauty.
New gardening guide for Hong Kong
Necessity makes most of us microgardeners even though we might not use that term. But we mostly learn by trial and error, quietly composting our failures and triumphantly displaying and eating our successes. A long-overdue book fresh off the press cuts out all the painful beginner steps and more than lives up to its name: Growing Food in the City – Microgardening: A Practical Guide.
Authors Bing and Dave Sanders have a long hands-in-the-soil record as organic farmers in the UK and Hong Kong. For the past seven years, they’ve been providing microgardening kits and services, and running gardening workshops at local schools, care homes and businesses.
Totally geared to Hong Kong, the book is realistic about our major issue – space. If you don’t have room for a “standard” one-metre x 30cms x 30cms container, you can use a recycled plastic bottle provided you put in some drainage holes. The key point in microgardening is to use a nutritious medium, to ensure a high, year-round yield of vegetables, fruit, herbs or flowers even in compact spaces.
The authors are so encouraging and practical in their advice that even a complete beginner should be successful. From preparation of growing medium to selection of seeds, sowing, transplanting and of course harvesting, every stage is clearly and simply explained. This book is not primarily aimed at children, but anyone from the age of seven or eight upwards could follow the instructions. A picture can be worth 1,000 words in gardening as in many other areas of life. David’s many talents including painting and his generous illustrations show exactly how to approach each task. The detailed chart of suggested crop planting and seed sowing is particularly useful.
Priced at $120 per copy, the book is available from a growing number of local outlets including Mana restaurant, 92 Wellington Street, Central, or Plant-a-Park, 46 Peel Street, Central. Alternatively it can be ordered online: email firstname.lastname@example.org for details. A Chinese translation is already in progress.
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.