Ryan Carter runs a Shanghai-based urban garden design firm which has created roof terraces, patio gardens and terrariums for XINLELU.COM’s showroom and the Jinjiang Hotel’s Grosvenor House among others. Here he gives a step-by-step guide to creating your own urban garden
Arrangement Think of sun. South- or west-facing windows or balconies are best; luckily, Chinese houses are usually already oriented toward the south. Arrange plants so that the taller ones don’t shade the shorter ones, but so that you also still enjoy a view of shorter ones in front. Arranging plants in lines perpendicular to exposure may be the best way to do this.
Pots and soil Most plants come in tiny plastic pots and are quite root-bound when picked up from the nursery. Plastic doesn’t breathe, and soil aeration is key to healthy plants, particularly in Shanghai’s humidity. Ceramic pots work best for repotting, particularly unglazed ones. For growing plants in containers, a mixture formulated for containers is best; this usually involves peat moss or an inorganic soil substitute mixed with perlite or another material that enhances drainage.
Planting Choose a pot around the size of the plant itself, if possible. Place a piece of broken crockery over the drainage hole to keep soil in but allow drainage. Then pour enough planting medium into the pot that the crown of the plant – the place where the stem meets the roots – sits a centimetre or two below the lip of the pot when the root ball is placed on the soil in the bottom. Rough up the edges of the roots a little with a trowel, particularly if they have grown into a solid block, but be careful to keep the root ball from falling apart. After placing the root ball on the layer of soil in the bottom of the pot, angling the plant toward the center, fill in around the edges with planting medium. Tamp it down as you go and fill to the top of the root ball. Tamp soil down firmly and water. I like to place a piece of stone on top of the soil and when watering pour water on top of it to minimise erosion. Water the plant well and let it recover.
Watering and maintenance The frequency with which you should water depends on the plant, but a good rule of thumb is to water when a finger pushed a couple of centimeters into the soil comes out dry. This may mean once a week in the winter and daily in the hottest part of the summer. If you choose to fertilize your plants, again, different kinds need different types, but in general you can follow the “weakly, weekly” rule, using a half-strength mixture of a general purpose fertilizer (Miracle-Gro 30-30-30 works well) each week as part of your watering regimen. Removing spent flowers at the base of the flower stem will help many plants continue flowering, as this removes a developing fruit and prompts the need to make a new one.
Good, commonly available plant selections for Shanghai:
•Tangerine/satsuma: a small, elegant tree that doesn’t mind a bit of neglect, has deep green, oblong leaves all year round and fragrant white flowers in mid-spring. It also bears fruit. Likes full sun.
• Rosemary: Another drought-resistant choice for sunny, exposed locations. Has a charming, expressive bushy habit and in addition to its culinary uses bears small lavender flowers intermittently throughout
• Pomegranate: A small shrub to large bush that likes full sun and doesn’t mind a bit of damp. It rewards a modicum of care with bright vermilion flowers throughout the year, especially in spring and summer, and then small fruits, though these are rarely edible.
• Agapanthus: In a sunny location, and with ample pot space – its roots are rather intense – strappy leaves give way to tall stalks crowned with dramatic sprays of lavender-blue flowers. These occur with greatest frequency in midsummer but can extend into autumn.
• Lantana: A tender annual that may suffer in the coldest winter nights; you should not expect it to live through the winter. During even the hottest summer months, though, it spreads and spills over edges and covers itself in pincushions of tiny, fragrant flowers that start pink or red and fade to yellow.
• Tradescantia: Another tender annual. It’s grown primarily for its deep purple foliage and trailing habit, but also bears small, lovely pink flowers. A cutting will grow roots in water or damp soil within days, and can be planted to sprout a whole new plant.
Caojiadu Flower Market 33 Wanhangduhou Lu, near Wanhangdu Lu, Jingan district. Open 9am-6pm daily. Metro: Longde Lu. 静安区万航渡后路33号, 近万航渡路. A good basic starting point and the largest flower market in the city centre.
Hongqiao Bird and Flower Market 718 Hongjing Lu, near Jinhui Lu, Minhang district. Open 8am-6pm daily. Metro: Shanghai Zoo. 闵行区虹井路718号, 近金汇路. Some stalls, particularly those toward the front, specialise in interesting garden plants.
Sunqiao Agricultural Zone 185 Mianbei Lu, near Junmingong Lu, Pudong. Open 8.30am-4pm daily.
Metro: Luoshan Lu. 浦东沔北路185号, 近军民公路. The Expo of garden supply areas. Acres of stalls selling trees, bonsai, orchids, houseplants, cacti and gardening supplies at the cheapest prices you’ll find.
Selena Schleh, Jake Newby, Henrietta Xie
See our round-up of top gardening classes around town