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April 22, 2011

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Balcony farmers sprout in city

SCARES about food safety and the high cost of organics are prompting some city residents to grow their own veggies that are clean, safe, cheap and fresh. Yao Minji visits balcony farmers.

Kevin Liu will have stir-fried green onions with scrambled eggs for dinner tonight, since the leeks he planted last spring on his windowsill are ready to be harvested.

Liu started growing vegetables at home last spring and he is only one among thousands of "balcony farmers" sprouting up around Shanghai.

With the increasing concerns about food safety in China, it has become popular among urbanites to grow their own vegetables - they are safer, fresher and cheaper - and the balcony makes an excellent garden.

By 2050, 80 percent of the world's population is expected to live in urban centers, creating a huge challenge for governments to feed them in a way that is sustainable.

The concept of urban farming - including rooftop gardens, community plots, hydroponics, and aeroponics - is not new in cities around the world. An estimated 800 million people are involved in urban farming.

The PlanNYC2030 project, for example, encourages New York City residents to create rooftop gardens; a tax abatement offsets 35 percent of the installation costs.

Japan has successfully grown food in basements, with the necessary light provided by fiber optics, the air filtered and temperatures maintained.

American ecologist Dickson Despommier even proposed the idea of vertical farming, or skyscraper farming, to cultivate plants and feed animals in skyscrapers.

Growing food demand

The concerns about food and demands for more and better food are also rising in China.

In 2009, 46.6 percent of China's population, around 622 million people, will live in urban centers and the number is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2035, according to statisticians and demographers.

"Urban farming helps to reduce impact of global warming, reduce waste, improve air quality, reduce city heat-island effects and promote a healthy ecosystem," says Susan Evens, founder of Kplunk, a company specializing in sustainable strategy decision making and research, and GoodtoChina, a non-profit sustainability group.

"In China we are seeing the beginnings of and interest in green cities, where urban farming is brought to rooftops, balconies and vertical buildings," Evens says.

In 2009, she led a Kplunk study on sustainability perceptions and behaviors for around 400 households in Shanghai. It found that around 95 percent of people surveyed are concerned with food safety, "since they are unsure and concerned about farming practices, levels of pesticide, fertilizer and the process of manufacturing."

Those surveyed also said that certified organic food is too expensive and difficult to find.

In 2010, another Kplunk study of around 120 individuals found 60 percent were interested in growing their own vegetables.

"The potential for change and the ability to pioneer greener healthier cities is huge," says Evens.

"But it is not yet optimized. Systems are not yet in place to make it easy for people who want to start their own urban farms, which need to be compact and super-easy to implement."


Although many citizens have been experimenting with their own balconies and windowsill planters, the projects are difficult to enlarge beyond single apartments to rooftops, community gardens or public spaces, as in New York.

In early 2010, the trend of growing vegetables in residential communities came to an end because property managers were overwhelmed by complaints by many residents about the smell of fertilizer, presence of pests, ownership of land and many other issues. Many people didn't want to see ornamental gardens and relaxation spaces turned into busy garden patches.

Local farming project

02Urban Farming Program, also led by Kplunk and GoodtoChina, is one of the few ongoing nongovernmental urban farming projects in Shanghai. It is developing rooftop and balcony farming and encouraging community farming.

The team also holds workshops to promote urban farming and educate residents about how easy it is to start growing vegetables at home.

Now Kevin Liu, who is cutting green onions for dinner, keeps three pots with different vegetables all the time, depending on the season, and has already tasted his home-planted and grown tomatoes, carrots, green peppers, ginger and bok choy, among nearly 20 kinds of veggies.

"I'm a super lover of green onions and want them on my plate every day, or better, every meal. But I got very scared in late 2008, when I read that onions are among the vegetables sprayed with the most pesticides," he tells Shanghai Daily.

He found a few online forums about balcony farming and was impressed with the pictures and how easy it seemed to get started. All the containers (ceramic or hydroponic), soil, tools and seeds are available at local markets or online. There's a wide variety of vegetables and options due to increasing demand.

Prices vary widely, depending on quality and whether seeds are organic, but people can usually get started with soil, containers and seeds for less than 100 yuan (US$15). Many seeds are sold sterilized.

Seeds come with easy planting instructions. Leafy vegetables are especially easy to grow and often can be eaten in a few weeks. For example, Liu's favorite onions don't need much care - they grow like grass - and after the first year, they can be cut every 30-40 days.

A popular Jiangxi Province-based seed seller on tells Shanghai Daily that on average he sends out 40-70 packets of seeds daily and more than half the customers are in Shanghai or Beijing.

Instructed by gardeners on forums, Liu and his wife easily grew green onions and water spinach.

"The first few days of sprouting were like dreams since it was the first time for both of us to see something growing in our own apartment. It was a miraculous moment when we tasted the first water spinach," recalls Liu.

Now growing vegetables has become part of the couple's life. Their next step is to make their own organic compost and find or make natural pesticides; directions on both easy-to-make compost and pesticides are available online.

Getting started

What you need:

A south-facing balcony or windowsill, healthy seeds, a wide-mouth planter and soil. Planters should have drainage holes; you can place broken ceramic flower pot chips at the bottom.

Common steps:

All seeds come with easy instructions and detailed steps. Here are the basics:

Rinse seeds and clean container with hot water.

Soak seeds in water.

Plant seeds at specified depth; spray with water.


For beginners, it's a good idea to start with easy-to-grow vegetables such as leeks, green onions and ginger, which don't need much pesticide or fertilizer. Bok choy and leafy vegetables are good because they grow fast throughout the year.

Don't over water.

When watering, don't let it leak downstairs to neighbors. It's best to alert and apologize to neighbors in advance if you plan to use fertilizer with a strong smell.


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