Monday, 23 September 2013

Balcony Gardening

Typhoon Usagi neatly coincided with the Moon Festival holiday weekend just gone, thwarting many outdoor celebration plans, no doubt, though we did see a few die-hards determined to have their pavement barbecue despite the fierce winds and driving rain. Good for them. Personally, I was content to work on my balcony garden.

A recurring theme of walks around Taipei and northern Taiwan, whether through back streets, neglected patches of ground, or overgrown, disused mountain tracks, is opportunistic vegetable growing. You can be - apparently - far from any human habitation, scrambling up narrow, crumbling forest trails, without sight or sound of another human being for miles, only to find that the single tiny spot of flat earth on the mountain has been turned into a makeshift allotment patch, and is supporting bamboo shoots, bananas and rambling gourds.

In Wanlong the pedestrian shortcut we used to take to the main road, was lined with a market garden growing entirely in polystyrene boxes, until someone must have told the authorities, because one morning it was all swept away. Riding the brown MRT line, it's possible to see several impromptu fruit and vegetable plots growing on the no man's land next to the tracks.

Basically, in Taiwan, if an area of land isn't covered with concrete and is reasonably flat, and no one much cares what happens to it, someone will grow something on it.

Such sights bring back fond memories of my garden in the UK, which was large even by British standards. I was bitten by the gardening bug many years ago and have never managed to shake my addiction. I miss my patch of earth, even though it was a terrible time sink. Living in an apartment has put an end to most of my gardening shenanigans, but we do have one balcony that receives a reasonable amount of sunlight,
An early morning view from our living room balcony
so it was inevitable that I would start to gradually fill it with plants.

Just as the Taiwanese spirit abhors a disused piece of ground that could be put to good use growing something to eat, Taiwanese balconies are frequently brimming with vegetation that cascades down the sides of buildings. In spring and summer bougainvillea decorates the dingiest alleyways in shocking pink, and other tropical flowers I can't name add their exotic touches to the displays.

Gardening on balconies here is challenging, despite the warm climate and frequent rain showers. Balconies tend to be very hot and exposed, or in constant shadow from surrounding apartments. Our balcony is enclosed, so it heats up very quickly during the few hours of direct sunlight it receives, and I've tried to use this information to guide me when buying plants.

Our cats put paid to my first attempt at growing something on the balcony. I thought a small cactus garden in a ceramic tray was a safe bet, and pretty indestructible. But our cats thought it was just another, albeit inexplicably prickly, litter tray.

Since then I've collected a range of plants, known and unknown, and am currently waiting to see what survives. A fig tree seemed a good idea. I thought it could probably take the heat, and it's doing okay so far, having overcome being grown in compacted garden soil that was impenetrable to water. It's now putting out new leaves and I'm hoping for fresh figs next year, although as you rarely see figs for sale, I think the climate may be too humid for them. Other plants include a gardenia (I think), a dancing lady orchid, a begonia, more - larger - cacti, a plant called mother-in-law's tongue in the UK (I think, again) and an attractive shrub that I've never seen before.

Next year I'll start growing tomatoes, peppers, melons and, frankly, who knows what else. My little balcony might be a lot smaller than my old garden, but I've learned that if there's empty space in Taiwan, plants must grow there.

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