We all know land is scarce and expensive in Hong Kong. While rural farmlands may be too far away from our daily lives, we can use our creativity and discover bits of underused spaces here and there in the city where we can set up an urban community edible garden.. It could be a roof space or podium that your office owns, it could be a small garden space at a community centre. At HKU, we have experimented setting up urban edible spaces on a rooftop, and at a podium garden outside our library, and both projects have greatly benefitted our community. To encourage more of such projects to be set up, we have compiled some information to help you figure out whether your sites are suitable for setting up urban community edible gardens. Click on the following items or scroll down to find out more.
of setting up an urban
community edible garden
On the physical setting...
Sunlight is essential for growing food. Most crops require a light intensity of 10,000 - 60,000 lux, the growing area should have at least four hours of sunlight with the light intensity of 10,000 lux or more per day. While leafy plants and gourds require more sunlight, herbs and small fruit trees can tolerate a relatively shadier environment. In an urban setting, having an unshadowed open space on the ground is probably the best, alternatively, rooftops are also more likely to receive plenty of sunlight, but there may be concerns on loading and safety. Access to sunlight may be affected by factors such as orientation, nearby structures (such as buildings and walls which may block sunlight). To check whether you have sufficient direct sunlight, you can make use of mobile apps (Android, iPhone) to measure the lux of the sunlight and check the orientation.
Freshwater supply is needed for all edible gardens. If the water-tap can be directly connected with a pipe, it will be much more convenient for watering plants. If there is no water point nearby, having a water tank to store water , either hand carried or rain collected, can help. Apart from access to water, ensure your site has a well functioning drainage system, especially for rooftops and podiums. Poor drainage can lead to safety, maintenance and hygiene issues. Using a heavy-duty groundsheet between the roof surface and planting containers also helps with waterproofing.
3. Safety and Legality
Work with your building management team and seek advice from professionals or authorities on building matters such as structural loading, waterproofing, and building facilities such as fire services facilities, air conditioning units, maintenance accesses etc. To conduct organic farming activities, make sure no chemical pesticides or other chemical substances were used in the area you are growing food. Check whether it is legal (e.g. land ownership, regulations) before you start your project. These are especially important if you want your project to be sustainable and scalable.
On project management...
When we set up an urban edible garden, it is likely that the materials such as soil, planters, tools and equipments have to be delivered to the site, unlike in a farmland where soil is naturally on the ground. Roads near your site can allow materials to be delivered and dropped off close by. If you are growing above ground level, ideally there are lifts that reaches the floor of the garden as manually carrying the material through the stairs can be strenuous work.
Apart from delivering materials, accessibility for your community is also important. If your site can only be accessed by stairs, it may be difficult for elderly or people with disabilities to visit. Some sites also have security measures that prevents guests to enter freely. Be sure that there is a way which your community can visit the garden when needed.
It is important to define your objectives of setting up an urban edible garden before you start. Some people aim to grow as much food as possible, some people want to make a profit, while others just want to have a space for recreational activities. At HKU, we discovered that the greatest value of the edible spaces is that it is a platform for us to learn how to grow food as a community, and through growing food, we learn about nature and sustainability and we get a chance to bond with other community members, from all walks of life and all age groups. Click here to refer to the previous section about the benefits of urban edible spaces. Clearly defined goal or objectives can help you better plan the project and design the space - such as in terms of what to grow and how to grow. You can also read more about case studies at HKU here.
Especially for amateur growing communities, the amount of manpower available to a great extent decides the scale of your project. At the least, daily watering, checking and maintenance is needed for each site, and this typically requires one to two hours per day. Actual manpower you need depends on the size of your site, scale of your project, knowledge and experience of your team etc. For instance, HKU Rooftop Farm is managed by one to two staff and a group of 10-20 students and staff volunteers. For beginners, growing herbs is a good choice as they are relatively easier to grow and maintain. If you have an experienced team, go for vegetables and even small fruit trees. Engage your community, invite them to join and chip in any useful resources. There are a lot of waste material in the city such as coffee grounds and food scraps that are very useful for composting in your garden or farm! Read the START TO GROW section to find out more.
In Hong Kong even if you have access to a space, it may only be for a limited period of time. Ideally you will have at least one year for implementing the edible spaces project, including setting up, growing and harvesting. For Hong Kong's climate, there are mainly two sowing periods, spring sowing (春播) around March and autumn sowing (秋播) around September. You may try to meet the sowing seasons by finishing setting up and preparation beforehand. For crops like lettuce and tomatoes, you can harvest within the season. For fruit trees, it can take up to 5 to 10 years before you can yield any harvest (if you grow from seeds), make sure you consider this before growing.
Last but not least, while funding is essential to the project, the budget of setting up edible spaces varies greatly across the city. In other words, you don't have to have a lot of financial support to start an edible spaces project. A lot of equipment like planters can be up-cycled from plastic water gallons, or plastic fruit boxes which can be found street markets and refuse collection points. But if you wish your project to be more standardised and lasting, you can consider buying more durable planters and equipments like auto-irrigation systems that can help reduce manual labour. However, funding is very much needed for safety and legal issues, such as feasibility tests and structural assessments, if you are using a rooftop space.
Congratulations if you have found a site that is suitable for starting an urban community edible garden! If you haven't found the ideal site yet, no worries, you can start some small food-growing project at home or you can join other community edible gardens. There are more than 60 rooftop farms in Hong Kong and all of them are individual projects or started from scratch with very little money and almost no expertise! Success is down to the people not the site, materials or equipment, making things work is half the fun! In the next section,
we will tell you what to grow and how to grow!