Don’t be stressed about empty supermarket shelves. Growing your own veggies is easier than you think and Rooftop Republic has given us a cheat sheet to help turn your rooftop, balcony or even your windowsill into an urban garden.
Living in Asia’s metropolitan cities, we don’t know much about gardening. But since being stuck indoors, we wish we did. There has never been a better time to learn, so we turned to Rooftop Republic for a lesson. Rooftop Republic‘s team has been pioneering the urban farming movement in Hong Kong for the last five years. Its vision is to revolutionise the food system and transform the relationship people have with their food. Together with a fleet of architects, engineers, organic farmers, chefs and nutritionists, they have developed and delivered urban farming solutions into city-dwellers’ lifestyles, making it commonplace.
By definition, urban farming means growing or producing food in a city or heavily populated town or municipality. To do this, Rooftop Republic looks above Hong Kong’s towering skyline to its rooftops and transforms them into grow spaces. You can do it too, even if you don’t have access to your rooftop. Rooftop Republic has just embarked on a partnership with co-working space, theDesk to offering an exciting Community Urban Farming membership which gives people access to all the tools (and the lessons) needed for all city dwellers to start their growing journey. Find all the details below.
And since we’re all spending a lot more time at home, there is no better time than now to determine what colour your thumbs are. Read on to see what kinds of vegetables are perfect for new urban gardeners who are low on space, and if you need supplies, check in with Rooftop Republic first.
1. LETTUCE be happy
Contrary to popular belief, you do make friends with salad. In our previous life (a few weeks ago before the COVID-19 outbreak), we were just too busy to make fresh and healthy salads from home. Now that we’re blessed with 24 hours a day at home, we’re getting weird in the kitchen. And if you’re not blessed with green fingers, you’ll be relieved to know that lettuce is easy to grow because it has a short growing period — you can harvest it in just one and a half months. It gets better: “You can also get multiple harvests out of each lettuce planting. You can harvest just a few leaves at a time and continue letting the other leaves grow, or chop off a whole head and the lettuce will grow again. You don’t need a lot of space since lettuce doesn’t have deep roots, so it’s great for people who only have one planter box.”
If taking up gardening has been a thing on your bucket list, now is a great time to start. Lettuce is also a great gateway into the wild world of horticulture, and there are so many varieties that can be easily grown at home that you’ll be well on your way to mixing and matching different types to make a beautiful seasonal salad. Martha Stewart, move over.
2. So RADISHING
Bright and beautiful, cherry radishes go from seed to magic practically overnight. They also have just one calorie, no fat and virtually no carbs, and cook up beautifully. Cherry radish is one of the fastest-growing crops and can be ready in just one month. And yes, you can do this from home, on your balcony even. “Cherry radishes take very little space so you can pack them pretty tightly together, which means you can plant a lot in a single planter.”
If you’re the kind of person than needs quick results to feel satisfied, then cherry radishes FTW. They are also super satisfying to grow (and eat). “Radishes are a great vegetable to plant for beginners since you can harvest it pretty quickly and see the end product just a few weeks after planting. It’s also so rewarding to pluck a fully ripe vegetable out of the soil, and seeing the fruits of your labour (or vegetable of your labour, in this case!) of all the time and care you put into your garden.”
3. CHOY to the world
Bak choy is a super versatile Chinese vegetable that is incredibly easy to grow. It’s also one of the most common vegetables you’ll find in Hong Kong and Singapore markets. As it’s local to Asia, it thrives in the climate. “Like other leafy greens, it’s easy to grow since you don’t have to rely on the plant to mature and flower. This means you overall have a shorter growing period.”
Impatient? You can even harvest bak choy before they are fully mature for a tender and delicious baby bak choy, which is quick and easy to fry up for a nice, clean vegetable dish. It’s worth noting that bak choy is known for being prone to pests (we don’t blame them), so industrial farmers will spray a particularly large amount of pesticides on these vegetables. “If you’re health-conscious and worried about eating pesticides, growing your own is a great way to ensure that you are eating healthy and organic greens.”
4. CHOY SUM for all
Not so far off from its cousin bak choy, choy sum is a local vegetable so also does great in the Hong Kong climate. Choy sum also has a short growing time. “Once you see the flowers growing out from the choy sum plant, you should harvest it immediately for tender and delicious vegetables.” This vegetable is also a frontrunner for growing at home since when farmed, pests can’t stay away, which means that all of the choy sum we get in the typical Hong Kong markets are sprayed with pesticides. “Growing your own choy sum can ensure that you are only eating healthy and organic choy sum.”
5. Keep calm and eat SPINACH
If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you’ve probably picked up a raging obsession with water spinach stir-fried with garlic and chilli. It’s one dish we could easily survive on during isolation. For that, we would need an endless supply of water spinach, and we can ensure that happens by easily growing it at home. As the name suggests, water spinach thrives with lots of water, which makes it perfect for the summer in Asia where there is a lot of rain and high humidity. “While water spinach is low maintenance, you do need a lot of stems for a sizable harvest. So we recommend devoting an entire planter to just growing water spinach if you have space. The good news is water spinach can have multiple harvests. So once you cut the stem, a new one will grow in its place.”
Another thing to comes in mind when considering what to grow in your newfound life as a stay-at-home gardener is the availability of natural resources. It’s a good idea to start with vegetables that thrive in the summer, like water spinach, so we can ensure that we are taking advantage of our natural resources (in this case, rain) in our crop rotations.
6. Don’t underestimate the power of a MICROGREEN
Microgreens may be small, but they pack a punch in nutrients and flavour. They’re also one of the easiest things to grow from a small place because you can make use of spaces like your windowsill. “Microgreens are one of the easiest things to grow, so we recommend everyone to give it a try. We even run microgreen workshops with children because we know that it requires zero gardening experience to have a successful microgreens harvest.” They also come in endless varieties since you are only focusing on germinating the seeds of a vegetable, rather than waiting for it to grow fully. Varieties include broccoli microgreens, radish microgreens, cucumber microgreens, etc. This also means that they grow in just 7-10 days.
Microgreens also elevate your plating game, and you can recreate that fine dining experience at home. “Microgreens are used in a lot of high-end restaurants, so growing your own is an easy way to spruce up your dishes and impress your friends and family. They make an excellent garnish to any meal, with a beautiful green pop and fresh taste. In addition, they are packed with highly concentrated amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.”
7. Eat your AMARANTH
Chinese amaranth, otherwise known as the leaves of Chinese spinach, is so good that it doesn’t need any more embellishment than just salt and garlic. The vegetable grows very well local since its ethnic to the region, especially in the summer since it grows quickly and holds up well to the hotter climate. The clover-like flowers are small, so you can pack them together quite a bit, meaning you can grow a lot of amaranth in a single planter.
Growing and eating Chinese amaranth is an example of adapting your dishes to eat seasonally. “In Chinese cuisine, amaranth is usually used in soups and steamed dishes. However, we also love eating this raw and dressing them like salads. Since lettuce doesn’t grow well in the Hong Kong summer, we simply replace the lettuce with Chinese amaranth for a delicious salad.”
8. Good things come in small HERBAL packages
How many times have you been cooking, realised you were missing a herb and vowed to start growing your own so you would never have to pop to the store to buy a bundle of herbs so big that you’d never finish. Imagine just popping to your windowsill and plucking what you need? Easily done while isolating. Perennial herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano are versatile and good to start with; plant them once and continue harvesting it year-round. They are also resilient, low maintenance, and grow in small places. “These herbs are Mediterranean type plants, so they do well during drier climates and soils. This means we just need to monitor their moisture levels and ensure that we are not watering them too much, and shielding them from the rain during the wet months.”
Herbs are also an excellent example of how farming or gardening as a hobby can give you benefits year-round. Rather than just leaving it and forgetting it, you can continue growing your plants week after week, caring for them, and enjoying harvesting and eating them.
9. An ode to BASIL
Basil is a delicious, versatile and easy herb to grow. And growing it indoors is easy — a bit of sun and warm temperatures, and you can expect huge harvests. It also grows very quickly. If you’ve already attempted to grow basil and failed, don’t give up. “We often get queries from beginners saying that their basil plants die. This is usually because beginners are letting their basil plants flower. When this happens, the plant will focus all its energy on growing the flowers, rather than the leaves. But we only eat and care about the leaves! So we always recommend people to simply cut off the flower buds when you see your basil start to flower. This will trick the plant into continuing focusing its energy and nutrients into growing big, beautiful leaves.”
The options stemming from this herb are endless: from pesto to pasta to salads. If you’re lacking space and have to choose any one herb to grow, pick basil. “We love recommending growing herbs since you just need small amounts, so it’s perfect for people with limited space. Just one small pot means you’ll always have a few leaves to add a punch of flavour into your meals. Limited space should not be a limiting factor to growing your own food!”
10. MINT is not just a colour
Normally we’re not a fan of anything growing like weeds. Unless it’s mint (because who doesn’t love a bit of mint muddled into cocktails). And because it grows so ferociously, it means it’s very easy and hands off to grow. You actually need to give mint more space because it will take over the whole pot. If you’re using this home time to get creative in the kitchen, mint has many strains so you can adapt your recipes to taste. We had no idea, but varieties include apple mint, spearmint, peppermint, Moroccan mint…we could go on. “You can experiment with all the different varieties, and each of them will add different and interesting flavours and notes to your dishes and cocktails.”
Mint is just one of many examples of how the things you grow doesn’t just have to be for salads, but it can be a great addition to any cocktails or mixed drinks you’re making. “Especially now that bars are closed in Hong Kong and people are avoiding going out for a drink, you can create a fancy cocktail bar in the comfort of your own home by dressing up your usual drink with some muddled mint or a sprig of fresh rosemary.”
Want to learn more?
Rooftop Republic and co-working space, theDesk, are offering an exciting Community Urban Farming membership which gives you the chance to have access to your own planter, farming tools and supplies, and one on one sessions with the Rooftop Republic experts for ongoing guidance. Conveniently located in Sheung Wan, a membership at theDesk’s Community Urban Farming Programme is a perfect way for all city dwellers to start their growing journey. Start your membership here.