Barbara Adam looks at how green thumbs survive in Saigon.
In the urban chaos of Ho Chi Minh City, it seems there are very few pockets of peace, especially if you live in a noisy hem or apartment complex.
More and more people are creating their own little havens of tranquillity, on their balconies or on their rooftops, sometimes even on a windowsill, introducing some greenery to the grey grittiness of Ho Chi Minh City.
Walk down any street in Ho Chi Minh City and you’ll see the how Vietnamese households use pots and baskets to create urban gardens on their balconies or on the footpath in front of their houses.
Numerous studies have shown that garden can have a profound impact on people’s wellbeing, reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer depression, anxiety and stress.
A Dutch study found that 30 minutes of gardening decreased levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases stress levels, in the brain.
A think-tank, the King’s Fund, has even recommended Britain’s government-funded health system, the NHS, prescribe gardening for people showing early signs of dementia and heart disease.
Not all expats in Ho Chi Minh City have land, but some people are making the most of what they do have — balconies and rooftops — to create their own little green space. Many balcony gardeners are even enjoying the fruits of their labour in the kitchen, havesting vegetables and herbs grown in containers and planter-boxes.
The burning question for expats in Ho Chi Minh City is … how do you get a garden started here?
Plant shops line most busy roads throughout the city, with colourful displays of potted flowers and ornamental plants. If you don’t speak Vietnamese, it can be difficult to do more than just buy what’s on display and then spend time working out through trial and error how to care for your purchases.
Caecilia Graham, who grew up in the countryside in Indonesia, knew she wanted to garden when she was looking for a new home in Thao Dien two years ago, and she specifically selected a place that had a big balcony, with areas of full sun and part sun.
“I got my first plant from the landlady, a welcome orchid, which I still have,” Caecilia said.
Caecilia expanded her garden with purchases from local nurseries, gifts, and some plants grown from seeds. Because she couldn’t get advice from the local nurseries due to the language barrier, Caecilia turned to Google and gardening books to research growing a productive container garden.
At the moment, Caecilia is growing spinach and Chinese kale, and she’s previously had success with cherry tomatoes and chillies.
Call In The Pros
Marta Del Pino Rojas from Spain sought professional help when setting up her balcony kitchen garden.
A Ho Chi Minh City-based container gardening company called Gagaco supplied the planters, soil and plants, and now Marta has a flourishing kitchen garden with cucumbers, onions, several types of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, capsicum, basil and flat parsley.
Marta’s garden has attracted the attention of a creature, possibly a mouse, that is eating her seedlings, and aphids are also attacking her cucumbers. With the help of the internet and Gagco she is working out how to deal with the pests.
Gagaco staff visit every two weeks to check the garden and stay in regular contact to make sure things are going well.
Alexander Schlee from Gagaco, who studied agriculture in Germany, said a container garden consultation usually begins with a site visit, so the Gagaco staff can work out what plants will grow well in the space, depending on the angle of the sun and other conditions.
“Then it’s usually the customer who tells us what he or she would like to grow and we check if it’s possible,” Alex said. “Or sometimes it’s the other way around and we give suggestions as to what’s possible and let them decide from the given options.”
Alex said some plants, such as carrots, didn’t really suit container gardening. And some European herbs, such as European basil, sage and lavender, didn’t grow well in Saigon’s humidity.
Gagaco’s small tiered planter systems start from about VND5 million, including materials, assembly, soil and plants. A follow-up service is also available, so that all the “gardener” really has to do is the watering.
Mai Hue grew an extensive rooftop garden on top of her apartment complex in Phu My Hung in District 7.
Hue had about 150 square metres under cultivation, set up with the assistance of District 12-based gardening firm Rau Sach Thuy Sinh Eco.
“I grew most tropical green vegetables and fruits, including mustard greens, radish, salad, string beans, onion, cucumber, bitter gourd, and tomatoes,” she said.
For many apartment dwellers, a green balcony means the space is used more often.
Plants can be used to hide eyesores, act as a windbreak or create shade.
Best of all, a lush container garden can be your own private sanctuary, a green getaway where you can forget about the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.