“We can eat these towel gourds from the garden tonight,” says my dad, holding the vegetables in his hand. Three years ago, he frowned at my shift to a vegetarian diet and labeled me as ‘primitive’. But now, rooftop vegetable gardens like his are becoming increasingly popular in his city Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province in the southeast of China near the coast. From his rooftop you can see twenty or so similar gardens dotted throughout his residential neighborhood.
My dad started his rooftop garden two years ago. He got two crates from a nearby fruit store; soil from the agricultural university nearby; and seeds (he originally just planted hot peppers and towel gourds) from a nearby market. According to my dad, the cost is almost zero: “I only had to buy the seeds once, and I’ll be able to save the seeds from this year’s crop. What I contribute most is labor.” He collects rainwater also on the rooftop to water the plants. If it hasn’t rained in a while, he’ll water from the taps instead. “I don’t use chemicals or fertilizers at all,” he tells me, collecting instead the leftovers of soymilk (which we make at home from soybeans for breakfast), watermelon peels, bean peels, and pigeon waste from our neighbor, to use as fertilizer.
Today, he grows hot peppers, towel gourds, tomatoes, bottle gourds, scallions, green Chinese cabbage, and eggplants. Almost 20 percent of the vegetables we eat come from the garden, and our garden supplies all the scallions, peppers, cabbage, and gourds that we consume. “If I had a larger space, I would be able to grow all of our veggies,” says my dad, smiling. He dreams of having a piece of land after he retires.
The rooftop garden has become one of his greatest sources of joy and pride, and has also inspired him to change his diet. When I turned vegetarian, I tried to persuade him to eat less meat out of health, food safety, and environmental concerns. He wouldn’t listen at the time and stuck to his meat-centered diet. “After I started growing the vegetables myself, I began to love them’they look fresher and taste better than those available in the market,” he tells me adding'”And, I’m able to oversee their growth. Everything is visible. I know where I get the seeds, the soil, the fertilizers, water. It’s 100% safe.”
Photo courtesy of Stella Zhou