There is a popular farmers’ saying in China that comes to mind this time of year: “Before and after Qingming Festival, it’s time to plant the melons and beans” (清明前后，种瓜种豆 Qīngmíng qiánhòu, zhǒng guā zhǒng dòu).
Sure enough, the temperatures have risen and the newly green trees, blooming flowers and gentle breezes are all signs that we are past the season of threatening frosts.
Farmers throughout China’s vast countryside are planting their crops, but city dwellers increasingly are getting in on the action. In Beijing’s residential areas, especially in summer and autumn, it’s not uncommon to catch a glimpse of green beans, tomatoes and towel gourds in balcony windows.
This became all the clearer to me when I recently set out to ply the depths of Taobao for vegetable seeds and gardening equipment to start my own balcony garden. Based on the amount of balcony-friendly gear available, it’s clear that others, like me, are eager to raise a small vegetable garden in this cloying world of concrete and cement.
“I’m doing it for fun. If the vegetables grow well, they can enrich my wok with more ingredients,” said a father in his early thirties in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, who started his first balcony garden this year. “Besides, in the process I witness their growth, and I’m imbued with hope,” he added. “I hope they grow more leaves and taller every day. It’s like the people in the KMT-governed areas when they were eagerly hoping for the Red Army to come.”
Other urban gardeners have taken to Weibo to share their thoughts and photographs of the joy of harvest.
One microblogger proclaims on her Weibo profile, “It’s better to grow vegetables on the balcony than play vegetable-stealing games on the Internet,” referencing a popular interactive online game.
Television programs like Shēnghuó Miànduìmiàn (生活面对面) on BTV’s Life Channel have even featured lessons on how to grow balcony vegetables.
Curious to better understand why some urbanites are drawn to growing their own food, I spoke to Taobao shop owner Deng Youjuan (邓佑娟), nicknamed Youyou (佑佑), whose gardening hobby inadvertently became a flourishing online business. Her customers are mostly retired seniors, pregnant mothers and some busy office workers, she says.
“Successive food scandals in China have undermined people’s trust in market vegetables and restaurants, drawing people to more organic options,” Youyou said, explaining why balcony gardening is catching on. “Although a small balcony garden cannot provide enough fresh produce for extensive home cooking, it still offers great solace to the growers.”
A small garden also gives apartment dwellers a dose of the greenery they crave, Youyou said, and the simple labor of gardening helps people relax.
“For families with kids, it’s an ideal way to teach them about biology and instill them with a love of nature,” she added.
Sprouts are a hit with indoor gardeners, according to Youyou, with radish, buckwheat, pea, Chinese toon and oil sunflower seeds all proving popular. These usually take seven to 10 days to grow into tender, delectable, nutrient-packed sprouts, and don’t even require being planted in soil.
Those with temperature-controlled balconies can even push the limits of the seasons and grow leafy vegetables such as spring onions, cilantro, chives, water spinach, chrysanthemum greens and Chinese cabbages year round.
Intrigued? Check out Youyou’s Taobao store by searching for 佑佑庄园 (Yòuyòu zhuāngyuán) or do a general search for 阳台种菜 (yángtái zhòng cài) to get started.