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September 8, 2009

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It can't get much greener than this

LIN Meiyue pulls some greens, roots and all, out of the soil in a tiny cup-sized planter and washes them in tap water. She bought them directly from a nearby supermarket and was told they were organically grown without pesticide.

"I've never seen this before. It's supposed to be healthy so I'm giving it a try," she says.

They're very fresh, tasty and healthy, but they do cost more than field-grown veggies, about 30 percent more.

Many common greens, jimao cai (young brassica chinensis, a popular vegetable in Shanghai), amaranth and other vegetables are available - none requires complicated fertilizer or special growing conditions.

They are the result of the "cup-grown" vegetable experimental project in suburban Fengxian District. They grow fast, occupy little space and more important need no pesticide or chemical fertilizer.

For two years the Shanghai Xinghui Vegetable Base has worked on developing the greens together with the Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences. So far there are around 100 mu (6.67 hectares) of cup-grown vegetables in the growing area.

Mature veggies are already available in some supermarkets in the outskirts, such as Anyway in Fengxian.

The new planting method has not yet spread to other vegetable bases, according to Zhu Weimin, on the staff of the Gardening School of Shanghai Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Vegetables are grown in tiny containers (6cm by 6cm by 10cm) of soil, one sprout to each container, and placed in large trays. The sanitary soil contains nutrient fluid and non-chemical fertilizers such as decayed leaves.

The trays receive nutrition, phosphorus and potassium as needed. Nets protect the vegetables against insects in spring and summer.

Vegetables grown this way mature much faster than those grown in fields, says Chen Zhigui, office chief of Shanghai Xinghui Vegetable Base.

It only takes about 20 days for jimao cai to mature, while it takes 30-40 days in fields. This method also shortens growing time for common greens to about a month.

"Vegetables can grow steadily this way regardless of weather change," says Chen. "The method was developed to compensate for short vegetable supplies during bad weather, like typhoons."

Most vegetables will die when the weather changes dramatically, says Zhu. Decay during seasonal continuous rain leads to short supply in Shanghai, a major problem in summer.

Thus, growing in a controlled environment provides a continuous supply, either by "cup-growing" in soil or aquaculture.

In addition to fast growth, the method means greater output in the limited space and needs no pesticide. The trays are stacked in four levels, and sun exposure can be controlled. The land use rate is enhanced two and a half times.

About 2,300 trays of 30-70 plants can be grown per mu (0.06 hectare), with an annual output of 15,525 kilograms, about 30 percent higher than that in traditional planting.

Pests are a big problem in traditional agriculture around Shanghai from April to October. Various "green" pesticides are used, but they can't kill all pests. Net tents provide effective physical barriers during hot damp summers. Stacking the trays lets air circulate and reduces humidity that leads to decay.

Transporting and selling the vegetables in the containers reduces water loss.

Customers can easily wash off the soil; special soaking isn't needed because there are no pesticides. If vegetables are to be cooked another day, they can be grown at home, watered and eaten fresh.

"Customers needn't worry much about residue from November to April when there are few pests," says Chen. "But for other months, it's better to choose organic vegetables or at least thoroughly wash and soak."

Though no-pesticide cup-growing has many advantages, the cost is a major obstacle for mass production and sale.

Each vegetable sprout needs to be planted by hand in a cap, seeds can't just be scattered. Transport is more complicated and expensive because vegetables need to be protected in their cups and not crushed. It's much easier and cheaper to transport a pile of vegetables.

The whole planting cost of cup-grown vegetables is at least 30 percent higher than for field-grown vegetables. At the Fengxian growing base, greens sell for 6-8 yuan (US$0.88-1.17) per kilogram. But at supermarkets it may sell more, and the price changes with the weather.

"We can make good sales in really bad weather as we may be the only supplier, but when there's a lot of other vegetables, we quickly lose customers," says Chen.

The Fengxian vegetable-growing base and agricultural academy are trying to reduce costs.

During the coming World Expo Shanghai in 2010, there will be 300-400 mu (20-26.67 hectares) of organic cup-grown vegetables.


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