Guaranteeing fresh produce for your family means taking over the means of production – or at least the soil in which food is grown. While not every family is able or interested in going back to the land, many kinds of herbs and vegetables can be grown in spaces as small as window boxes. For families with a backyard, the possibilities grow wider with every additional square meter.
Do it yourself (DIY) gardening is a fun and easy way not only to have more control over what is served on the dinner table, but gets kids involved while teaching them about basic concepts in biology, meteorology, along with responsibility. It’s a win-win: families get better, healthier produce and everyone learns something in the process.
Younger children especially will benefit from observing the lifecycle of what is being grown. Plants that mature aboveground usually first produce flowers before perhaps changing color, growing in size, and finally ending up as part of a salad or cooked dish. Seeing how long it takes to grow just one plant or plateful of vegetables may also give children a greater appreciation for the farmers who grow the produce that we eat.
A word about organic gardening: While the intent of many home growers is to provide “organic” produce for the dinner table, some definitions of organic stipulate that the soil must first lie fallow for five years to diminish or remove the impact of any previously-used chemicals such as fertilizers or pesticides. Practically speaking, the fallow bit is probably too impractical for most families, but the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides should certainly be avoided to grow the herbs or vegetables.
‘Tis the Season
There are three important factors to consider when choosing items to grow at home: locality, seasonality, and space. Trying to grow corn in winter in a flowerpot, for instance, may not be the best place to start. Planting – and eating – in this way is most sustainable.
Locality: Look first to common ingredients for local Chinese dishes. These vegetables are readily available, meaning they are suited not only Beijing’s climate but also to its soil.
Seasonality: There is a reason we associate certain foods with specific holidays and occasions, such as mandarin oranges with Chinese New Year. While some veggies thrive in the heat of summer, others prefer the cooler temperatures in spring or autumn.
Space: While the above-mentioned factors will affect growing success and selection, space is the primary factor for the amateur farmer. Some vegetables, like cucumbers, are easy to grow but require a large enough area for the vines to climb and take hold. Others, like carrots, need to be planted in rows with sufficient separation between each plant. That said a corner of a backyard or back garden can be used to grow a significant number of – dare we say? – crops.
Other factors include shade and water. That being said, do not let any of those considerations discourage you from giving gardening a try. Here are a number of suggestions based on different types of spaces.
The Window Box
This is a great gardening project for even young children that can be started almost any time of year in very limited amount of space. It is also inexpensive and will essentially yield produce for as long as it is maintained. Herbs are the best choice for this type of project, as they will grow readily indoors, are easy to maintain, and many have the added benefit of their own pleasant scent, which can be used to deodorize a room or simply make it more fragrant.
Children can be given simple responsibilities such as watering (but not over-watering) the plants and monitoring their growth, either by measuring them or by taking photos on a daily or weekly basis. After the herbs are harvested, they will enjoy seeing them end up flavoring their lunch or dinner.
The best herbs to grow in Beijing, both for their availability and suitability, are basil, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, and thyme. All require direct sunlight, so pick a well-lit window sill or balcony. They also prefer cooler temperatures (mid-20°C). Herbs are best grown from cuttings, not seeds;
one of the best places to look for them is Laitai Flower Market in Liangmaqiao. Laitai is also a good place to find gardening tools and other basic supplies like flower pots and window boxes. Choose ones with drainage to prevent over-watering.
One Square Meter
A single square meter will not feed a family, but it does allow for a larger variety of things to grow. Late spring and early autumn may allow for the inclusion of herbs alongside vegetables, but summer will likely be too hot and the spring and autumn shoulder seasons too cool at night.
So what works best in a square meter? Tomatoes. Just buy the plants and start by replanting them in your space. Tomatoes will do well in Beijing’s hot summer and need direct sunlight.
Also for the small garden, green beans work well if planted from seeds. They will sprout in stalks (yes, beanstalks) which need to be held upright, first with popsicle sticks or tongue depressors and later with taller poles. They also need direct sunlight and grow well alongside tomatoes.
Another good option would be carrots. Carrots are easy to grow, but are not always ideal for children since they are often tempted to pull them up to check their progress. Grown from seeds in non-rocky soil, they require careful and regular watering. Their green tops will poke out of the soil first, but carrots should not be harvested until the top bit of orange actually breaks the surface.
A garden plot this size will require just enough maintenance for children to have regular responsibilities, such as weeding, watering, aerating the soil, and – when the time comes – harvesting.
With more space, the biggest concern will be planting according to available conditions. A corner of a yard may offer both space and shade, allowing for the planting of an even more diverse selection of plants. Any space near a wall or fence can easily accommodate cucumbers or zucchini, both of which are essentially plug-and-play vegetables. Buy some vines, plant them, and watch them climb. Just remember that future occupants of the house will inherit your garden. Pumpkins are popular but harder to maintain, requiring more cover during the growing period, and rarely turning out as bright and orange as American pumpkins.
Gardening in Beijing is easy and fun, both for apartment dwellers and suburban residents. Use the tips above to craft a growing space that suits what is available for you, and enjoy the fruits – er, vegetables – of your labor.
How Do I Say…?
Black soil 黑土 hēitǔ
Flower pot 花盆 huā pén
Seed packet 种子包 zhǒngzi bāo
Shovel 铲子 chănzi
Trowel 小铲子 xiăo chănzi
Watering can 喷壶 pēn hú
Window box 窗盒 chuāng hé
Basil 罗勒 luó lè
Carrot 胡萝卜 hú luóbo
Cucumber 黄瓜 huáng guā
Green beans 四季豆 sìjì dòu
Mint 薄荷 bo he
Pumpkin 南瓜 nán guā
Thyme 麝香草 shèxiāng cǎo
Tomato 番茄 fānqié or 西红柿 xī hóngshì
Zucchini 西葫芦 xī húlu
Beidong Floriculture Garden
Daily 8.30am-6.30pm (summer); 9am-5.30pm (winter). 150m south of Sundahe Qiao, Jingshun Lu, Shunyi District. (8459 3093) 孙和大北东花艺苑, 顺义区京顺路孙大河桥南150米
Laitai Flower Market
Mon-Thu 9am-6pm, Fri-Sun 9am-6.30 pm. 9 Maizidian Xilu, Chaoyang District. (6463 6145)
Liangma Flower Market
Daily 8.30am-6.30pm. South bank of Liangma River, 758 Dongsanhuan Beilu, Chaoyang District. (6504 2446) 亮马花卉市场, 朝阳区东三环北路758号, 燕莎商城南, 亮马河南岸
Photo by Mishka Family Photography
This article originally appeared on p52-55 of the beijingkids March 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com