One of the few silver linings of COVID-19 has been a global interest in gardening.
Due to the tiny nature of most Japanese apartments and houses, the majority of gardens in Japan are “micro” indeed, but this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to grow produce at home.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, microgardening is the ”intensive cultivation of a wide range of vegetables, roots and tubers, and herbs in small spaces, such as balconies, patios and rooftops.” In impoverished areas and food deserts, microgardening is a way to get fresh, vitamin-rich food on the table.
For urbanites, small gardens are a way to supplement a supermarket-dependent diet, grow flavors not usually found in local shops (tomatillos, anyone?) and benefit from the relaxing effects of having some greenery to tend. In times of crisis, having both the knowledge of how to grow food and the availability of even a small amount of fresh produce can contribute to personal food security, add variety to dried staples and reduce shopping outings.
Most people living in Japan’s major cities are not blessed with a backyard or a plot to cultivate. Fortunately, with microgardening you can use just about any container you’ve got on hand — everything from store-bought pots to creatively reusing garbage cans, plastic bottles and even dresser drawers — and easily start a tiny garden. On a more philosophical note, gardening also reconnects people to nature, and reminds us of the effort it takes to grow all the fruits and veggies we usually take for granted — they don’t just magically show up on grocery store shelves.
Seeds, soil and sunshine
While most microgardens are not enough to supply all the produce a person needs, with some attention and a bit of planning, it’s surprising how much fresh produce even beginners can get out of a few pots. To avoid getting overwhelmed or discouraged, start with the basics:
1. Take a look at your available growing space, and figure out if it gets lots of sun or shade, as this will affect what you can grow. A quick internet search will show what types of conditions the plants you want to grow prefer.
2. Choosing a deeper container saves effort and money in the long run since it holds more moisture, decreasing the need to water, and gives deep-rooted plants such as carrots and potatoes room to expand. Liberate some fallen branches and dry leaves from a local park and put them in the bottom for better drainage and to fill up the pot so you don’t use as much soil.
3. Get a bag of soil, preferably organic, suitable for growing both vegetables and plants (to keep your options open) and a smaller bag of organic compost or aburakasu (oil cake) fertilizer. Mix a few handfuls compost/fertilizer per kilo of soil as you fill the containers, for a slow release of nutrients. Or, put a layer of veggie and fruit scraps toward the bottom of the container, which will slowly decompose over time.
4. Start with only three or four plants, including at least one flower to promote visits from pollinators if your plants are outdoors. Choosing perennials (rather than annuals) will cut down on costs and time spent on maintenance. If possible, get organic starts/seedlings, as in my experience organically grown plants are sturdier (and, of course, better for the consumer).
5. Once you have chosen your “star” plants, do a little research on how deep to plant them, as well how to trim and water them as they grow. A quick check of an area-specific planting calendar will give an approximate guide for when to plant seeds or transplant starts, although well-sheltered containers give you extra leeway to plant either a bit earlier or later.
6. Resist overwatering your plants. For most summer veggies, wait to water until the first couple centimeters of soil are dry or the leaves curl. A bit of dryness will keep many common pests and diseases at bay, and encourage your veggies to set fruit. During the rainy season, make a little protective roof over your veggies: Even a battered umbrella or a couple of clear garbage bags can make a huge difference.
Plant with the seasons
For those keen on a quick result, a few veggie options — bought as 20- to 30-centimeter tall plants with some flowers — for late June in Kanto include tomatoes, okra, zucchini and eggplant, perhaps planted in the same bed or pot with an herb or flower that is beneficial to your main plant. Interestingly, companion plants often taste good together; tomato and basil are the most famous beneficial combo. Choosing pocket-sized plants, such as cherry tomatoes or microgreens, allows space-poor gardeners to maximize planting capacity.
As the seasons progress, a little planning ahead will help keep you excited about your microgarden project. Once summer veggies are out, you will have space for something new. Cold weather leafy greens such as spinach, komatsuna (mustard spinach) and chingensai (bok choy) are easy and self-regenerating, as long as you pick from the edges and don’t cut off the entire plant. Radishes are quick growers and add a colorful touch to autumn and winter dishes.
As people seek to unplug and focus on more mindful pursuits, a few minutes a day pottering among the plants of your own little garden is a soothing and productive way to unwind. Watering grateful greens after a hot day, enjoying the appearance of a new blossom and checking on the progress of ripening produce are all small ways to reconnect and relax.
Further resources for the aspiring master gardener:
This private Facebook group is a great place to ask for advice or insight from other English-speaking garden enthusiasts in Japan; bit.ly/japangardening-fb
For those who want a bit of handholding from a pro, Tokyo-based Jon Walsh has an excellent crash course; bit.ly/businessgrow-green
For pesticide-free plant starts; bit.ly/cityfarmers-seeds
Occasionally has some starts, along with heirloom seeds; noguchiseed.com
Tane no Mori
Heritage, pesticide-free seeds; bit.ly/tanenomori-catalogue
Japan Agricultural Co-operative
This easy-to-follow planting calendar shows both the time to plant seeds and when to plant starts; bit.ly/ja-plantcalendar