May 2023 | Volume 24 No. 2
A Garden Grows at HKU
Jane Zhang Qinya, a fourth-year BA(Linguistics) student, spent much of her first three years at HKU doing online learning due to pandemic restrictions. It could get lonely, so she sought company through online events to connect with others. One of her most fruitful experiences has been with the HKU Rooftop Farm and Herb Garden operated by the Centre of Development and Resources for Students (CEDARS), which has enabled her to connect not only with other people but also nature. This year she has been able to participate in real life, helping water and care for the plants on a regular basis.
“I learned that looking after plants helps me feel a connection to the land. And watching seeds become a plant reminds me of the need to take time, make an effort and have patience. This has helped me calm down and see that maybe everything has its own speed,” she said.
The gardening initiative was started in 2013 and, outside of pandemic restrictions, hosts nearly 1,000 students each academic year at two sites, a small farm on Meng Wah rooftop and a herb garden next to the Main Library. Workshops at Meng Wah are led by an expert from Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden who trains and educates students on gardening, while one-off meet-ups are hosted monthly at the Herb Garden where students are given small kits to grow their own herbs. Harvests have also been shared in the past with Bijas restaurant and student cooking sessions on campus.
The social values of farming
Recently, the programme branched into the community, working with the Caritas Mok Cheung Sui Kun Community Centre in Kennedy Town to organise farming workshops for families and the elderly, with HKU student ambassadors assisting.
“Our philosophy is to plant new seeds – if you don’t start and experiment, you will never grow anything,” said Dr Elvin Wong Chi-chung, Head of General Education (GE) under CEDARS, providing a metaphor for the gardening programme.
In fact, the programme has had an experimental bent from the start. It was inspired by Mr Mathew Pryor in the Division of Landscape Architecture, who was doing research on how to make productive use of under-utilised space in Hong Kong. “We found the amount of produce from rooftops was quite limited compared to farmland, but this activity has had other social values, including education and social engagement, which are also important,” said Celeste Shai, Senior Programme Officer in the GE team.
Students joining workshops are taught how to prepare fertiliser, understand the growing seasons of different crops, transplant crops, water and weed them properly, and manage plants through pruning and pest control. They are also educated in how to live more sustainable lives, such as through upcycling, material recovery and composting. Students who complete the workshops are allowed to join the team that tends to the plants on the Rooftop Farm and in the Herb Garden.
The gardens are not only a space for learning about nature, but offer a chance for building greater social engagement and understanding.
A break from plastic
Research students have been as keen as undergraduates to take part. Aaron Xing Nu, who is in his third year of a PhD in economics, is on the duty roster. “This programme gives us a physical and mental break from studies, and from looking at digital screens and touching things made of plastic by firms we know little about. If we can get closer to the soil and plants, it feels relaxing,” he said.
Siyu Chen, a second-year MPhil student in epidemiology, also welcomes the break from studies. She enjoys cooking and has used the produce she has helped grow in her recipes. “This experience makes me think of how to live a healthy life and protect the environment by eating the food that is closest to us.”
For Wendy Wan Yung-yee, a second-year BSocSc majoring in geography and psychology, the closeness is not just to the land but to her heritage. She grew up in the New Territories and started learning about farming from her family. “It’s intuitive to me to seek out green spaces – it’s a way for me to relax and connect with nature,” she said.
The Caritas programme has been made possible through the UGC’s special COVID-19 fund to strengthen student services in the wake of the pandemic. It was also used to fund workshops for the elderly in 2021 that were facilitated by students, and to teach families in need this spring about basic organic farming and food processing skills. “I hope in future we can show them how to grow herbs for use in cookery or even how to dry them and sell them at weekend markets to help them earn income,” Ms Shai said.
Giving away free herbs on Earth Day 2023.
Learn more about HKU Holistic Urban Farming.
Our philosophy is to plant new seeds – if you don’t start and experiment, you will never grow anything.
DR ELVIN WONG CHI-CHUNG