"Marketplace" is a regular column in which we explore Beijing's sundry marketplaces. Ta da! Here's to a little chaotic consumerism...
I hated my neighbor a year before I’d ever met him, before he even moved here. For 18 months, he renovated in absentia, and in the hazy rage that comes on four hours into a circle saw chorus, I swore I’d make him unwelcome, steal his mail, hang pictures at midnight, throw some raucous orgies with the windows open. And then he showed up, a kind and placid southern Chinese aesthete, and with him came his garden. Now, the view from my bedroom window is a tumble of frilly climbing vines and moss-covered mini karst fountains.
My neighbor prunes and he mists and he putters around, raising the hills of Sichuan in my Beijing back yard, and all is, of course, forgiven.
Life, dear fucking God. Things that grow. Things that counterbalance the endless influx of sad scene stories and ethical bankruptcy, soul-healthy deposits that count against the sucking sea of withdrawals. Happy little lettuce seedlings and basil plants, spearmint for making juleps. Don’t you want that for yourself? Sprout tomatoes from seed, smell some potting soil?
I hadn’t been to the Liangmaqiao Flower Market in years, but it was still right where I left it, just north of Lady’s Street, on the first floor Caitai Huahui building -- the one with the staircase flanked by elephant statues.
Inside, the primordial jungles of Noah’s time, a seedling bounty to terraform your post-flood Eden and the animals with which to populate it. There are full-grown fruit trees, already sprouting lemons. There are gourd stacks and lucky bamboo, potted grape vines, fungal arrangements and orchid displays, hanging ivy and cultured bonsai. There are porcelain garden fountains and fishbowls, bird cages and cockatoos, rose bushes and daffodils, bowls of tortoises and salamanders, nasturtiums and chili peppers. And tarantulas, they have those too. The whole place smells like Florida, a little moist, a little like strolling around in an atrium.
I don’t know if you noticed, but succulent (duorou 多肉) gardening is hugely popular right now. The idea is to buy a bunch of different weensie plants and assemble them into living panoramas in glass terrariums, add some porcelain Totoro figurines, maybe some fish tank pebbles. Hey, don’t knock it, man. Don’t tell me you don’t get the appeal of tiny cacti. Something about the human brain loves miniature things, loves seeing the world through the scope of a shrink ray. Maybe it’s the intricacy that charms, maybe the smallness just gives us something to hold on to in this topsy-turvy world. Whatever.
If you pick up the parts in your average DIY boutique, individual plants can go for as much at 50rmb, but they top out at 20rmb here. You can also trawl the aquarium aisle for colored sand and unique glass enclosures.
I’ve been cultivating my rooftop for half a year now, and the whole trick in Beijing is getting plants settled in good soil. Little starter plants, which usually go for 10-20rmb, are typically potted and sold in fallow nuclear earth, a solid rock of clay, and they need transplanting to better rootspace as soon as possible. Starter plants will often look a little wilted around the gills two days after you bring them home, so drop by the equipment stalls and get a pot that drains and a bag or two of nice loamy dirt to house them in. And get a hose too, while you’re at it.
Buy a trowel, because you can.
I look at all this and I hate to think about how many times I shrugged and told my friends I was married to the cement, or laughed and said that Beijing would kill anything I tried to grow -- it’s not true. I could have had a pomegranate tree by now. I could have been home-growing Brussel sprouts for ages.
Starting now, then?
Liangmaqiao Flower Market is on the south side of Liangma river, south of the Lufthansa Center at 8B Dongsanhuan Beilu. Open daily, until 6pm.