— Ngoc DINH
Walking home one day with a ten-liter bag of soil bought from Brico in Bruxelles, I felt nostalgic. Time travelling to my teenage years in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, to have some soil for my pepper plant, I could just take a shovel straight to the garden and dug out as much as I want.
I realize how fortunate I am to grow up in my home city Hanoi with a garden, with enough soil for plants, and of course, plants. In this 5-million-people city, Hanoians have to make use of every square centimeter of land for living space, and a garden is a luxury.
However, we still come across pots of herbs hanging on a window sill, raised beds of vegetables lining up side by side on a random rooftop, or some greens sticking out of an apartment balcony. From the smallest alleyways or on balconies of a luxury apartment building, people of Hanoi are trying out different designs of farming to grow their own vegetables.
Three kilometers away from the city center, my neighborhood nestles an unexpectedly diverse hub of farming. My neighbors manage to grow a variety of tropical fruits like banana, sapoche, grapefruit, passion fruit, guava and vegetables like kale, morning glory, cabbages, sweet potatoes, squash, etc.
People plant first of all to meet their own needs, until their yield becomes surplus, they start to give to the neighbors. Neighbors would usually exchange with each other what they harvest or sell them. From time to time, a neighbor living a block away will bring my mom some gourds and greens, while another will text us when she starts to harvest her vegetables. My family usually would not need to buy vegetables for the whole week. Some put serious effort into their garden and eventually start a small business.
This practice could be defined as micro-farming or small-scale farming that typically operates on an area of fewer than five acres. This type of urban farming is not rare in Hanoi metropolitan cities around the world. But why all the burdens, while vegetables are both cheap and available in every corner of the city?
Apart from the habit or sheer joy of gardening, food anxiety is possibly the greatest reason for the popularity of this farming practice.
The 2019 study “Consumer concern about food safety in Hanoi, Vietnam” found that food safety was a great concern in the city, with 95% of all respondents showing that they were worried to extremely worried about the matter.
Chemical hazards are the main concerns, among which pesticide residuals seem to be a great headache. Vegetables sold on the streets and local markets are often seen as dirty and containing pesticide residuals.
This study also found nearly 40% of the urban households surveyed tried planting vegetables indoors out of the idea that home-grown produces is safe and trustworthy. Families with small children are especially concerned about safe vegetables; they specifically grow their own (clean) vegetables to be the ingredients for their children’s meals.
In fact, the effort obviously pays off: the vegetables are pesticide-free, organic, local, in tune with seasons, and thus, energy saving. In addition, there is no energy spent on transportation, no energy for refrigeration and storage.
Perfecto, but not totally. The pros and cons of micro-farming, however, differ in each model of the practice.
Given the limited space and population density of a metropolis, a rooftop garden is a common and viable type of urban farming. Interestingly, the idea of planting on top of constructions dates back to ancient times when trees were grown on top of ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia.
This practice is widely available in Hanoi, where many houses are designed to have top terraces. Meanwhile, rooftop gardens implemented on a large scale are believed to help mitigate the absorption of heat of a building, thus saving energy used for air-conditioners.
This garden model seems to be much applied in Hanoi. The article “Rooftop farming takes off in Hanoi” recaps some examples of rooftop gardens in the city, where people plant a wide range of greens (mustard greens, Malabar spinach, kale), herbs (coriander, green onions), and also Vietnamese traditional medicine herbs. This practice can be observed in both suburban and central districts; in some cases, people go the extra mile to rent a nearby rooftop space for planting.
Rooftop garden, however, could be a nuisance when it comes to drainage. Watering rooftop gardens might cause leakage, thus it may require a lot of labor for house owners without a proper drainage system.
Many Vietnamese people with ancient house designs, which often devotes up to one-third of its area to a courtyard, establish their self-sufficient garden in their own yard.
Different from rooftop gardens, which anyhow stand on a concrete plane, backyard gardens allow planting directly into the soil. This allows the introduction of fruit trees and a much richer diversity of plants & vegetables: several tall fruit trees (sapoche, apple tree, grapefruit, guava), small trees (pepper plants, lime), herbs (Thai basil, mint), vines (piper lolot, loofah), ground covers (sweet potatoes). It saves space, it’s self-nourishing, it’s diverse in plant species.
On the flip side, it takes a huge effort to maintain a garden at its full capacity. We also need to brace ourselves in co-habiting with insects, i.e. mosquitos.
From my observation, this way of planting seems to decline in Hanoi along with the rise of concrete construction. My family was not behind the trend: we turned our once mini-forest garden with a pink-bricked courtyard, leaving land lots only for our two fruit plants.
We have reasons for it: our house being invaded by mosquitos every summer (which lasts for half a year), not enough time to take care of the plants, and too limited space in the courtyard. It’s worth mentioning that people living in peri-urban areas are more likely to have space to accommodate this kind of garden. In the central districts, it’s very unlikely to have a large courtyard for planting.
It is very common that urban citizens plant in foam boxes arranged on their concrete yard, their porches, or doorsteps. This design resembles that of most rooftop gardens I observe, yet planting on the courtyards surely saves effort to transport all the water, soil and plants up to the rooftop, and helps to avoid other problems such as leakage.
Since people reuse foam boxes bought from fruit and vegetable vendors, it somehow helps to reduce the consumption of such materials. Using foam boxes can keep the garden neater, as you don’t have to step into the land lot and carry the dirt all around the house. You can also move your plants to avoid harsh weather.
Planting in styrofoam boxes, however, does raise some concern over its safety since styrofoam (polystyrene) can be toxic to users’ health and harmful to the environment.
Planting in public space
In my neighborhood, people also put their boxes of vegetables in front of their houses, on the sidewalk. Although these micro-farmers seem to “invade” the public space for private practice, no residents or local officials oppose, as long as they don’t block the streets or other neighbors’ entrance.
In her study “Urban Gardening and Rural-Urban Supply Chains: Reassessing Images of the Urban and the Rural in Northern Vietnam“, Sandra Kurfurst discusses this practice as a typical example of “mediation space”, or the fluid negotiation between private and public space in Hanoi. I recommend this book chapter for a holistic view of urban farming in Hanoi.
People might plant on public land lots on the street median strips, or in my neighborhood, along the rail tracks. Some gardens are permitted and controlled by the public municipality, while some are just overlooked by the officials.
Nevertheless, it is warned that vegetables grown on median strips might be intoxicated by polluted air and heavy metal from motor engine emissions.
These are examples of tactical gardens, established by temporarily utilizing public space for agriculture. This practice is part of tactical urbanism, that is, quick changes or actions conducted to improve the environment of an urban area. Another instance of this garden is a keyhold garden found in Africa.
Vegetables and herbs can also be cultivated in the courtyards of some communal houses or Buddhist pagodas, usually to supply the need of these religious places. Such gardens probably survive concretization since they are situated within public religious constructions, so it is hard to disrupt these structures and turn the gardens into other use.
To my eyes, home-grown vegetables do not yet cater for the major part of a household’s vegetable need, given the small scales of each “farm”. That being said, being a temporary solution for food safety at the moment, this can eventually become a durable alternative. Considering how it is done in Vietnam, it seems to be completely possible to install a garden even in extremely crowded cities, which eventually can allow these cities to be more autonomous in food supply.
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