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Young Chinese Urbanites Are Coming Up With Novel Ways to Grow Vegetables at Home

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What do you do when your store-bought potatoes begin to sprout? Plant them and grow new ones!

That’s what Wang Qinghuan, a 32-year-old writer based in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui, learned from the internet in early 2018. She managed to get a basket of potatoes out of just one potato that had sprouted and she was able to make salt and pepper-garnished potatoes multiple times that spring.

Since then, Wang’s been planting foods such as blueberries, wheat, lettuce, ginger, watermelon, green figs, bok choy, spinach, and cherry radish. She started on her balcony and later moved her mini-garden to the rooftop.

“To me, growing vegetables at home is like a condiment for my busy urban life. It’s an effective and practical psychological healing process.”

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Some of Wang’s home produce (Image courtesy of Wang Qinghuan)

Many young Chinese people are choosing to live in the city because there are more job opportunities and better living conditions. According to a report in 2020, 20% of recent college graduates choose to work in first-tier cities, like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou, with 68% of them migrating from other parts of the country. China’s urban population has increased about 35% in the past decade from nearly 670 million to 902 million.

But deep down, many young Chinese people still dream of a life in the countryside. As such, they build a vegetable garden in their apartment to balance out the stress of work and their personal lives. The presence of vegetables and plants also works to spark inspiration as many young gardeners share visuals of their gardening process on social media, where small communities of growers have sprouted.

The hashtag “I’m growing vegetables on the balcony” has gotten over 8.6 million views on Chinese social media platform Douban where many are sharing tips on how to take care of their vegetables. Comments on the site include the observation that, “a day of making slides and spreadsheets at work is less productive than growing vegetables at home.”

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Organic Food Just Tastes Different

Jiang Danfeng insisted on finding an apartment with a balcony when she relocated to Guangzhou for her new job as an accountant two years ago.

“How boring my life would be if I couldn’t do this one thing that I love the most?” Jiang says.

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The balcony garden Jiang used to have in her hometown. (Image courtesy of Jiang Danfeng)

However, all of the vegetables and fruits she grew this year died in the southern city’s hot weather. Jiang planted them the same way that she used to when she lived in her hometown Chengdu, but the weather in the two cities is very different. She pulled out all the dead plants and switched to growing flowers as a new experiment.

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Jiang with her flowers on the balcony of her current apartment (courtesy of Jiang Danfeng)

Jiang, 27, says the gardening process has brought her so much joy and makes her even more determined to return to the countryside in the future. Her favorite thing is to get up early and check how much her plants have grown overnight. She calls her balcony garden her “spiritual home.”

“It gives me energy. I feel delighted, rewarded and healed when I see them green and lively. It requires patience, from sowing to growing to harvesting. Life is dull and dead without growing vegetables. This is kind of an obsession of mine.”

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Zhang Luoluo, 31, has the same goal. Growing up in the countryside, she loves visiting the mountains, forests, streams, and rivers, but has to stay in the city to provide her five-year-old son with a better education.

Zhang puts her mind to reviving the natural flavors from the farmland in her urban house. Her building doesn’t have an elevator so she has to carry bags of soil up to her sixth-floor apartment every now and then. To make the best of that effort, she hasn’t stopped planting foods on her balcony since.

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The vegetable garden that Zhang sets up on her balcony (Image courtesy of Zhang Luoluo)

Now, not only does Zhang get to enjoy organic food, so do her friends. Her balcony produces so much that she often shares with others. Zhang says she once made steamed eggplants for her friends who loved the dish, but were unable to recapture the flavor of the original without using fresh eggplants from her balcony. It just tastes different.

“That’s why I like to grow my own vegetables and cook myself. The original intention of growing vegetables is to give me a natural taste.”

Plants, Two Cats, and A Boyfriend

Gillian Hu, 31, started to plant tomatoes because they are “easy to grow and look good in photos.” But then she quickly proceeded to more unusual varieties. In the past seven months, Hu has been growing more than 10 different types of tomatoes, three kinds of chilies, some Japanese white strawberries, and strawberries that taste like peaches.

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The unusual tomatoes and strawberries that Hu grows (Image courtesy of Gillian Hu)

Hu says she got all the seeds from China’s biggest online shopping platform Taobao and learned planting skills from Chinese streaming site Bilibili. She also uploads her own vlogs on the site and makes friends with other gardeners online. At times, they talk more often than Hu does with her own family.

Even though her house gets crowded with plants, two cats, and a boyfriend, Hu is always trying to squeeze more greenery into her first-floor apartment. That means there are window boxes everywhere and there are LED pillar lights in the living room.

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Hu’s apartment can sometimes get crowded. (Image courtesy of Gillian Hu)

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Watering plants in the shower. (Image courtesy of Gillian Hu)

While gardening is exciting for young adults but might be even more fun for little kids. For people who have children, gardening can be a great family activity.

Yuan Qian, a mother of two, recently set up an aquatic planting system at home. She and her two-and-a-half-year-old son grow vegetables and observe their growth together. And for Yuan, this labor successfully makes her son interested in leaf vegetables.

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Yuan and her son take care of the aquatic planting system on their balcony. (Image courtesy of Yuan Qian)

Exploding Watermelons

“I get excited every spring, just like a dormant plant that has woken up,” says Wang, referring to her enthusiasm about gardening. “It’s really a rewarding experience, knowing that you can easily harvest a variety of fruits and vegetables, even in a small space.”

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Wang has moved her vegetable garden to the rooftop. (Image courtesy of Wang Qinghuan)

It is not always successful though. The watermelon Wang planted last year exploded when it grew to the size of a fist. She says a sudden change in temperature triggered the explosion, but actually made the watermelon taste superior.

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Wang and her finger-sized watermelon (Image courtesy of Wang Qinghuan)

Wang says she often gets anxious at work, but she tries to slow down in her personal life, by taking on hobbies such as gardening, which has helped relieve her anxiety.

“I think growing vegetables is like drinking tea. It gradually cleanses you just like water washes pebbles,” Wang says. “When you feel depressed or sad, try growing vegetables. It will definitely bring you happiness.”

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Zhang echoes what Wang says. She likes to sit on her balcony after work, just to look at the plants. Whether they’re old, dead, or dry, she feels a sense of fulfillment:

“It’s quite decompressing. Every day after work I have this place where I can think about nothing but my food. It makes me so happy to look at the greens, sunset, and afterglow.”

Zhang says she plants climbing vegetables every year to make the best of her balcony railings. Some of those plants include hyacinth beans, Chinese yam, and golden-and-silver honeysuckle. She says she doesn’t care much if they bear fruit or bloom. It’s good enough to just have them around.

“As long as they are growing, it is all part of the joy of planting vegetables,” Zhang says.

Cover photo courtesy of Zhang Luoluo, Wang Qinghuan, Jiang Danfeng, from left to right 

Lu Zhao
Lu Zhao is a bilingual and multimedia journalist with a focus on human interest and social issues. Her work has appeared in USA Today, UPI, SupChina, Pandaily, Chicago Reporter, and other publications.