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No room to grow your own veggies? Think again!
By Fei Lai

CITY life usually sacrifices the pleasure and health benefits of growing one's own produce, but some Minhang residents are finding ways of combining urbanization and gardening.

They are turning the front yards of villas or the balconies of apartments into small vegetable patches. It's surprising how much can be grown in a small space!

Jin Mingdi, director of the vegetable center at the Minhang Commission of Agriculture, is aiding that cause by providing gardening tips to "city farmers."

First, there's the problem of choosing suitable containers for balcony gardens.

"Since balconies are rather small spaces, it's best to choose flowerpots, plastic tubs, wooden cases or aluminum boxes," Jin said. "The containers must have drainage holes that should be a half-to-one centimeter wide and be distributed evenly on the bottom of the containers."

Drainage, she said, is critical. Plants with poor drainage will suffer root rot and wither. At the same time, the growing container needs to hold some moisture so that the plants don't dry out.

Stones or wire mesh placed in the bottom of the vessels can help protect against loss of soil through drainage holes while allowing excess water to escape.

Jin said it's possible to grow vegetables without ordinary potting soils. That practice uses cermacite sand, perlite or rock wool as the growing medium. These methods provide the means for plants to absorb water and nutrients, but they require careful fertilization.

Fertilizers are important in "city gardening," Jin said.

Organic compost is a cheap and easy way to provide plant nutrients. Kitchen waste such as fruit peels, lettuce leaves and even milk can be used. Jin advises that green matter be submerged in water for at least one week before use.

Compost is easy to make. First, block up the bottom of a container, then fill it with about two centimeters of soil. Put the food waste in and cover with another thin layer of soil. Build up the layers to the top of the pot, keep the pot wet and place it in a warm sport. Then just wait. The green material eventually breaks down into soil-like richness.

Fertilization should be applied sparingly. Too much is bad for plants. Jin suggests intervals of five to 10 days. A plant will tell you what it needs if you examine its leaves.

Using tap water for plants isn't always the best procedure. Jin said rainwater or the water used to wash rice is better for plants because both sources contain trace elements that plants need.

Gardens everywhere are prey to inspect pests, and the patio garden is no exception. Jin said there are homemade remedies that can solve the problem without the use of undesirable chemicals.

One solution is to collect insects that appear, such as the cabbage worm, army worm, cotton bollworm or cutworm, and mulch their bodies in a mixture of water and a little washing detergent. The solution can be sprayed on plants.

Another remedy is a solution of minced garlic and onion, which repels beetles, aphids and red spiders.

To prevent birds eating fruit from trees in villa gardens, bird netting can be used. Even plastic sheeting hung from bamboo poles can confuse birds.

What to grow in these small gardens?

"People should choose plants according to their growing environment," Jin said. "Don't be afraid to try different crops. One can plant tomatoes, amaranth, cucumbers, squash, beans and chillies."

Many vegetable varieties come in miniature hybrids ideal for patio planting.

On balconies, faster-growing crops such as radishes, lettuce, spinach and leafy Chinese vegetables are good choices, she said. Some can be harvested in as few as five weeks, and some will grow the year-around, if you have winter sun.

The best time to harvest is based on the color and texture of crops. Cucumbers and beans should be picked when they are young and tender. Tomatoes and chilli peppers need ripen to deep colors and hardness to get the best flavor.

For further information, people can call a hotline at 12316 for advice from specialists at the district's Commission of Agriculture.

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