Gardening in Shanghai and Other Indoor Sports

Shanghai’s all about aesthetics. Note the pleasing contrast between demolition site and nursery.

Doug said this morning that he really wouldn’t put it past me if I started raising chickens in the flat.  I wondered if the neighbours would notice or care if I beheaded said chickens out in the shared hallway, between the lifts and the parked bicycle.

That awful 3-legged yappy dork-dog from across the hall would probably hover around me, bouncing on its remaining legs, trying to gnaw on my ankles as I wielded the axe, as usual. Not that I usually wield an axe in our shared hallway.

I’d give the little old lady from the 11th floor the feet and neck, because she actually greets me cordially in the lift instead of staring at the ads, silently.

Given that this is Shanghai, I have a sneaking suspicion that it might just be okay to do this. Not legal or anything, but feasible. Our street, after all, is littered with the carcasses and feathers and splattered body juices of various fish and fowl and occasional crustacean. You can’t walk more than 5 metres down the sidewalk without having to step out onto the road to avoid tubs of flopping, panicked fish or wire cages full of resigned ducks with bound feet.

Oh, casual death.

There’s even a chicken tied to a power pole up near the corner of Yongkang lu, which strolls around quite confident that it will avoid the fate of its featheren.

Is that even a word? It should be.

I’ve decided to postpone my foray into raising poultry until we have more than just a smallish flat in central Shanghai without even an outdoor balcony. I do find the idea of urban farming fascinating though, especially when living in a city (and by extension, country) where you never know whether your orange is really orange or just dyed, or if your greens were grown in contaminated fields using, say, radioactive water and tainted fertilizer, or if your egg is really an egg and not some weird glue/plastic amalgam. You never really know what you’re getting yourself into here.

If we had a rooftop terrace, I’d likely delve into raised beds, composting, egg-laying birds of various sorts (duck? chicken? quails?), possibly some interesting shrubberies. Everyone needs shrubberies in their life.

We have nothing of the sort, however, so I’ve resigned myself to keeping our houseplants alive and to experimenting with small, sproutable things. Currently, I’m playing Frankenstein to a micro crop of sacrificial celery bottoms, old garlic, and a rather dire potato that was trying to sprout itself to death in the cupboard.

I started out a few years ago by successfully keeping a few houseplants alive, in spite of the toxic tap water and appalling potting soil they came in. About four months ago, I started using the filtered water from the shower hose, which has some sort of Canadian water purifying attachment that my parents brought over at Christmas. I still haven’t found any decent commercial soils, nor do I have access to worms for composting. I have, however, been adding used tea leaves to the soil, which they seem to like.

For the record, for the Sri Lankans out there, they really like my Nuwara Eliya BOP black tea.

They also seem to like used coffee grounds, which is pleasing as we have plenty of those in this household.

Any leaves that fall, I let decompose naturally in the pot. This also seems to please them.

This one shivered in my unheated office out at Tongji for 2 years before I brought it home. It has since doubled in height.

This one keeps reaching its sticky-fingered tentacles out to latch onto the sink fixtures and wreak havoc on our plumbing.

More recently, I found myself experimenting with sprouting. Not the proper, nutritionally dense alfalfa sprouts or even bean sprouts of my childhood. I wrote about those a few years ago on one of my long-since-abandoned blogs.

These sprouts are bigger, badder, bolder, weirder.

I’m sprouting the following, just to see what they’ll do: celery (Chinese, from the street vendor), garlic, one potato.

Basically, I’ve become the Frankenstein of the vegetable kingdom.

Below is my first experiment, which you may be aware of if you’ve been following my Great Celery Experiment updates on Twitter and Facebook. I took the last three tired pieces of celery and lopped off their bottoms, about two inches from the root of the stalks. I then planted said bottom stumps in a planter that housed the last remaining stem of a plant that was killed by Doug’s office. I’m trying to revive it. We shall see if it’s possible.

The death of most of that plant allowed for a lot of space to plant my celery bottoms. I gave them new layers of soft pillowy tea leaves every few days and watered them every morning with filtered shower water.  To my surprise, they pretty much immediately started to grow, poking out fresh little leaves from within. Below you can see them at their one week anniversary, which was last night.

Have you met my minions?

In addition to the rather enthusiastic celery, I added 3 cloves of garlic that had started sprouting in the drawer. I poked them down into the soil, green sprout facing up (the pointy end, if your clove hasn’t sprouted yet– I later tried out a fresh clove and it started to happily grow itself a green pointy top after a day in the soil).  From what I can gather, I will end up with two possible results: a new head of garlic or some rather tasty garlic shoots which are, I can attest, delicious when sauteed with Hunan bacon.

The other experiment, which I don’t have so much confidence in, is my potato. It was pretty sad looking, all sprouty and starting to shrivel in the cupboard. I buried it in the empty soil surrounding the tree that died not long after we bought it a few years ago. We’ve been using the stumps as a Christmas tree/general ornament holder.  It likely died because the soil feels like a blend of sand and depleted dirt. It probably is sand and depleted dirt.

I am slowly feeding it tea leaves, coffee grounds, filtered water and biodegrading fallen plant leaves. It seems to have some rather keen unexpected grass-like long, thin leaves growing, which is quite heartening, even though they’re technically weeds. At least this indicates that the soil isn’t 100% dead.

Also in the potato pot, I planted that lone unsprouted clove of garlic. I hope it isn’t too lonely.

Gerald the Bear is technically responsible for the care and maintenance of The Potato

Up next, I intend to attempt to grow spring onions from just their bottom white bits. I’ve heard you can do the same with fresh basil too, as long as the root area is still attached.

We shall see.

EDIT [28 April 2012]: Look what we brought home today!

Have you met our new herbs? The kitchen smells awesome.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.