Short of fresh produce, Shanghai residents turn to indoor gardening

Vegetables have become prized possessions in Shanghai, and many locals are now determined to grow their own.

Many Shanghai residents have started planting produce in their kitchens or balconies in an effort to achieve some degree of food self-sufficiency. Supply chain disruptions and limited delivery services amid an ongoing lockdown to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 have led the city’s 25 million residents to scramble to secure daily supplies during of the last few weeks.

Han Bale, an accountant in Pudong New Area, has been trapped in her apartment since mid-March as part of the city’s targeted lockdowns ahead of the citywide lockdown. When the 27-year-old saw garlic sprouting in her kitchen, she thought of planting it in a plastic bottle using water and the nutrients she already had to help it grow.

“It felt like magic,” Han told Sixth Tone, referring to the progress.

She has since planted other vegetables – including scallions, bean sprouts and lettuce – in her kitchen from leftovers. Han harvested his first crop of green onions a week later and used his local produce in a meat dish.

“One small ingredient could make a difference in the whole dining experience,” Han said.

Han Bale documents the process of growing his greens, 2022. Courtesy of Han

Sales of vegetable seeds increased on the Taobao e-commerce platform in the first quarter of 2022, while smart planters powered by vertical farming technologies doubled compared to the same period last year, according to to Jemian domestic outlet. Most of the orders came from major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Several online seed merchants and smart planters told Sixth Tone that their businesses were “in good shape” this year. A seed wholesaler said tomato, lettuce and cucumber seeds were among its top-selling products.

The vegetable garden is not a new idea in Shanghai, even if the lack of space and urbanization have limited its scope. To encourage urban agriculture and add greenery to the city landscape, some companies have also initiated rooftop gardens in recent years.

But some residents are only beginning to embrace the idea as daily supplies dwindle amid a prolonged lockdown. A Shanghai resident surnamed Yang told Sixth Tone that he experienced indoor gardening with ups and downs.

“The most fascinating part is seeing these little changes to your plants day after day, as you feel the power of life and hope in this little existence,” said the 31-year-old advertising specialist, adding that watching online tutorials on the subject is also one of his hobbies.

Chadwick Wang, an associate professor at Tsinghua University specializing in the sociology of science and technology, said home farming amid the pandemic is giving people a sense of control amid growing uncertainties, even though it is not their main source of daily supply. He added that although the pandemic is not stimulating the vertical farming industry, it could open up new opportunities as more and more people have now shown interest.

“Growing vegetables on balconies cannot completely fill your stomach,” he told Sixth Tone, adding that it takes time and effort to achieve significant results. “Growing up seems to be more important than eating them.”

Publisher: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Romaine lettuce seedlings flourish in a grow box at a resident’s homeis at home in Shanghai, April 6, 2022. Courtesy of Chen Ying)