Green fingers and green houseshuamn

Updated: 2012-09-19 07:59

By He Na (China Daily)

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A growing number of people have taken to "urban farming" in the wake of a series of food safety scandals. And, as He Na reports from Beijing, it's not just healthy, it's fun.

Green fingers and green houseshuamn

Li Hongwen, 31, has planted more than 20 types of vegetables on his balcony in the Shunyi district of Beijing. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Han Qunhui's home in Changsha, Hunan province, is situated in a large community where most of the buildings look the same. Even friends who've visited several times before have been apt to get lost in the "maze" of houses.

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But that's all changed recently. Now, visitors can find Han's home quickly, even if they still have no idea of her building and room number.

The change is due to Han's balcony: It resembles a green tent hanging outside the fifth floor, with towel gourd vines, rows of beans and agaric vegetables overflowing the open balcony, where large bowls of endive, lettuce and shallots also grow.

"My balcony is the best signpost," said the 28-year-old network designer.

"I haven't been to the market for vegetables for several days because the ones that grow on my balcony are enough for the daily needs of my husband and me," said Han, proudly. "I often share some with my neighbors, and they all like them."

It's hard to connect the fashionable-looking woman with vegetable planting, which is often seen as hard, dirty work. Han said she derives great enjoyment from her vegetables, but that's not the only reason she plants them.

A couple of overriding concerns led her to become an "urban farmer".

"First, I'm tired of the rapid rhythm of work and often dream of getting back to the land. Second - and this is more serious - food safety is a big concern," she said.

Food safety concerns

In recent years, a number of incidents concerning food safety have shaken public confidence: Melamine-contaminated milk; pork containing high amounts of illegally added thin carnosine, a steroid that can make humans sick; fake salty duck eggs, where food colorants have been added to produce red yolks; illegally recycled cooking oils; and vegetables with levels of pesticide residue well above legal limits. The list goes on.

"The cases really made me uneasy, said Han, who is planning to start a family very soon. He stressed that people must be sure that the food they eat is safe.

"The vegetables I grow are genuinely organic and don't contain pesticides. I spend a lot of time removing worms from the pots", she joked.

"The vegetables are really tender and refreshing and taste better than those bought at the market. My baby will be very healthy if she or he grows up eating the vegetables I grow," she said.

Like Han, an increasing number of people living in the cement-and-steel-made cities, young and old, have started urban farming and have become addicted to growing vegetables on their balconies.

According to Peng Kuo, the founder of www.52caiyuan - one of China's largest platforms for balcony vegetable growers - since the website was established in June 2010, the number of registered members has increased from roughly 100 to more than 40,000.

"The idea for the website came from those "vegetable-stealing" games that are popular online. I began to plant vegetables on the balcony in 2009 and often share my experiences and consult with others in our dedicated Internet group. To my surprise, many people have the same hobby as me. I am a website designer and it made sense to establish a larger platform so friends across the country could exchange views, experiences and improve our gardening skills," he said.

"New members register every day and I am fully confident that the site can be developed into a professional platform providing full service, from seeds, tools, seedlings, cultivation tips, making organic fertilizers, worm prevention, and harvesting," he said.

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