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Gardening in Hong Kong: What to plant when there’s barely enough room to move

Your outside space a little smaller?
Your outside space a little smaller?

In this second instalment of our column for aspiring green thumbs in Hong Kong, we examine the all-important issue of space – what to plant when there’s barely enough room to move?

Space is so precious that we need to discipline ourselves to be selective in the garden as much as in every other aspect of living in Hong Kong. No matter what I do, some plants look miserable, unable to thrive as I had envisaged, yet not actually dying. I am always inclined to give them another chance, but in the meantime they block the light from more worthy claimants and in my heart of hearts I know that I should get rid of them.

For many years, I lived in the midst of an ever-thickening jungle – or perhaps jumble would be a more accurate description. Early last year, I finally decided to refine my collection as I realised that small plants are generally more interesting (and varied) than large plants. Friends with large, empty spaces and ugly fences were happy to rehouse my collection of struggling passion flower vines, my lilies that were forever bursting out of their containers and the shrubs and heliconias that needed to stretch their cramped roots in more spacious surroundings than I could provide.

And I was not sorry to say goodbye to the world-conquering thunbergias that I had grown from cuttings without much thought as to where they could eventually be accommodated.

Now I’m re-thinking my pergola which supports an enormous pink-and-white bougainvillea and a densely growing Tristellateia australiasiae, sometimes called “shower of gold” on account of its cascades of pretty yellow flowers that bloom for much of the year. When I put it into the ground some 25 years ago, I was warned that it would eventually develop into a monster. Regular clipping keeps it in check, but the time has finally come to replace it with something less aggressive.

Waiting as an understudy, I have a sturdy Podranea ricasoliana(pink trumpet vine) that is eager for a chance to show off. I have grown it in the past and enjoyed the dainty leaves almost as much as the long trusses of pink trumpets that provide a wonderful display for the greater part of the year.

If you have the right place to accommodate it, a trellis of some kind makes a good decorative feature. Even without a trellis it is usually possible to hang some plants on a wall where they will give you a great deal of pleasure. Orchids and hoyas seem to enjoy a place where the air circulates freely around three sides while a wall provides some shelter behind them.

Up, up and away

Vertical gardens are a hot topic in Hong Kong at the moment. In the lobby of the Hotel Icon in Tsim Sha Tsui East, there is a spectacular Patrick Blanc installation. Over 70 different plant species are included in the 230-square-metre masterpiece. As a botanist as well as an artist, Frenchman Patrick knows exactly what will thrive in specific lighting conditions and how to combine plants of varied colours, textures and forms to create an exuberantly swirling abstract design.

Hong Kong’s first Patrick Blanc green wall in the lobby of Hotel Icon
Hong Kong’s first Patrick Blanc green wall in the lobby of Hotel Icon

Reportedly, there will soon be other displays by the acknowledged master of this art form, and no doubt imitations will be sprouting on all sides before long. While few of us could aspire to anything so ambitious, Patrick tells me that there’s no real secret to the success of his green walls. He advises trial and error as you experiment with plants and backing. Use something like rock wool or a similarly indestructible material as the base, he counsels, and be sure that the frame is strong enough to bear the weight of mature plants.

Whether you are gardening in the ground or in big containers, a simple wire netting cylinder or a tepee formed by half a dozen bamboos or canes sloping inwards and tied at the top can be improvised for climbers of all kinds. But bear in mind the likely weight of a mature plant and select good, sturdy supports. And also think about how you are going to weed, harvest or dead-head your pride and joy once it gets truly launched.

Chinese white cucumbers, basella (Ceylon spinach) and white string beans should do well in this season if you aspire to growing edible climbers. For decorative value, look for seeds of unusual ipomea (morning glory), including feathery-leaved quamoclit or the night-blooming calonyction (moonflower). The latter has fragrant white blooms the size of saucers that open at dusk and perfume the night air. Seeds are tough, so they should be soaked overnight in tepid water and lightly filed with sandpaper before planting.

Good growers for ground level

At ground level or in containers, high summer is the time for chillies and sweet peppers – plant the seeds on their sides for best results. Okra is decorative as well as delicious and usually tough enough to withstand our summer heat and humidity. Look for seeds of the spineless type for comfortable handling and pinch out the growing tips to make the plants branch and give you a good yield.

Different types of ground cover, naturalised among tree roots
Different types of ground cover, naturalised among tree roots

If we have a very wet summer, the ubiquitous impatiens (Busy Lizzie) will very likely rot almost overnight. For hardier colour at ground level, try coleus, tagetes (French marigold), balsam and zinnia. All of these can be sown straight into their intended blooming places in pots or in the ground; cover them with a thin layer of vermiculite and keep them moist, providing a little temporary shade from the sun. If you can find torenia seeds, these ground huggers are very obliging and will self-seed themselves with great abandon. The challenge is to persuade them to get going where you would really like to have them!

The range of seeds available in Hong Kong tends to be rather ordinary, so it’s worth making the effort to order unusual colours or special varieties online. Don’t expect much from your herbs in this season as most originate in the Mediterranean and tend to languish in our humid summers. They seem to like hot feet, so they enjoy rooftop living in this season (as do chillies). Try to shelter them from heavy rain and don’t fertilise them until the humidity drops at the end of summer. Let them take their chances and hopefully you will still have enough to get you off to a good start in the autumn.

Happy gardening!