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City-centric Mainlanders Beguiled by the Benefits of Bottle Gardening

With space at a premium and access to outdoor green sites limited, a new generation of urban mainlanders is turning to miniature moss gardens as an affordable and sustainable means of bringing the natural environment into city homes.

Photo: Hedge hogging: Child-friendly moss miniatures are increasingly popular with mainlanders.
Hedge hogging: Child-friendly moss miniatures are increasingly popular with mainlanders.
Photo: Hedge hogging: Child-friendly moss miniatures are increasingly popular with mainlanders.
Hedge hogging: Child-friendly moss miniatures are increasingly popular with mainlanders.

With residents of Beijing – as well as of many of the mainland's other major cities – living under the constant threat of environmental pollution, any bright oasis of greenery has come to be especially prized. Of late, miniature moss gardens have become particularly sought out by city dwellers, valued for their appearance, their convenience and their beneficial qualities.

Moss terrariums – think soil-filled, fish-free aquariums – are now rivalling potted plants as the indoor foliage of choice in many mainland homes. These tiny gardens feature an array of moss, plants, partitions, sand, cartoon characters and miniature model animals, with owners free to add their own creative touches.

Explaining the appeal, Ye Chao, the Proprietor of a Beijing shop specialising in the sale of miniature moss gardens, said: "The worse pollution gets, the better the greenery market fares. With air quality particularly poor in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region at present, sales of both air purifiers and green plants have soared as a result.

Photo: A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop.
A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop.
Photo: A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop.
A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop.

"At present, terrarium sales are increasing every year. In 2010, we opened our first shop in The Place, one of Beijing's more upmarket malls. It proved so successful that we have since opened two more, with spider plants, money plants and lucky bamboo among our best-sellers."

According to Ye, Chao, there are five reasons why moss terrariums are currently proving to be so popular:

1.  Moss acts as a barometer of pollution, turning grey when the air quality drops. This gives householders an indication of the overall level of contamination in the local environment.

2.  Moss can store moisture, later releasing it into the atmosphere to the benefit of other nearby plants.

3.  Miniature gardening is relatively cheap, requires little space and adds a touch of colour to domestic premises, three things that exactly match the needs of many contemporary urban residents.

4.  Compared with traditional plants, miniature moss gardens are easy to maintain.

5.  Miniature moss gardens can be custom-built and modified by their owners, a facility very much in line with the typical millennial mainlander's passion for self-expression.

Store-based Sales

Typically such bottle gardens sell for around RMB40-90 (US$5.80-13.10) in Beijing, while costing just RMB10-30 to make. On Taobao, JD.com and other e-commerce platforms, the gardens retail for between RMB30 and RMB200, while costs vary from just a few RMB to about RMB30.

During a visit by HKTDC Research to Ye's shop, Wen Hui and her eight-year-old daughter were observed completing work on their own bespoke bottle garden. According to Wen, with the help of a shop assistant, it had taken about an hour to create the RMB150 garden.

Photo: Wedding weeds: Bespoke betrothal botany.
Wedding weeds: Bespoke betrothal botany.
Photo: Wedding weeds: Bespoke betrothal botany.
Wedding weeds: Bespoke betrothal botany.
Photo: Miniature gardeners in action.
Miniature gardeners in action.
Photo: Miniature gardeners in action.
Miniature gardeners in action.

The garden was themed around Totoro, her daughter's favourite Japanese animated movie. The bottom of the bottle was filled with soil and a colourful collection of different sands and pebbles. This was then topped up with moss, three to four types of coral fern and a silvernet plant, all artfully used to recreate a scene from the movie.

Not only are such finished products a source of delight to residents and their children, but many also choose to share images of them online. Testifying to this, the listing on one Taobao shop reads: "After buying DIY sets and experiencing the fun of making their own bottle gardens, many purchasers proudly show off the completed items to friends and family via social media."

Although, at present, more bottle gardens are purchased online than on the High Street, it is believed that the growing trend towards personalisation may benefit conventional retailers. It is, after all, far easier to create bespoke gardens in store, with professional assistance, than by using a remotely ordered standard, one-size-fits-all model.

Photo: Foliage filled: A garden in a jar.
Foliage filled: A garden in a jar.
Photo: Foliage filled: A garden in a jar.
Foliage filled: A garden in a jar.

Overall, three factors are most likely to boost High Street sales in the sector:

1.  As it is not easy to grow plants and create unique landscapes within these glass containers, the assistance that a knowledgeable, local outlet can provide is almost invaluable. With this in mind, staff in the more reputable stores are trained to offer advice on the volume of soil required, the preferred slope gradient and the optimum height and density of the foliage. Acknowledging the importance of proper aftersales support, Ye said: "It takes a degree of skill to ensure that the plants in any bottle garden look suitably luxuriant and are arranged in a visually-appealing fashion."

2.  Although moss is initially easy to grow, maintenance is more of a challenge. Typically, the strong sunlight to be found in many Chinese cities, as well as the poor water and air quality, is inimical to the long-term health of moss. In order to help counter this, many bottle-garden outlets offer a clinic service, providing a rapid and informed diagnosis of any problems with the fauna's micro-environment.

3.  With many children growing up in a city environment with limited access to green places, browsing and personally choosing the plants for their bottle gardens is seen as a good way of providing these youngsters with a truly hands-on interaction with the natural world. This provides the foundation for the children's subsequent involvement with nurturing and observing their selection of plants.

It is the combination of these three factors that has seen an increasing number of such specialist outlets opening in shopping centres in many of the larger mainland cities. Particularly busy at weekends, among the best-selling items at these stores are bottle gardens with such child-friendly themes as Totoro, The Smurfs or Disney-style princesses.

Although sales of bottle gardens are already significant, the sector is still seen as facing a number of challenges, both off- and online. Most obviously, the cost of purchasing moss, the key element of any bottle garden, continues to drop, drastically reducing retailers' margins. Compared with e-commerce sites, for instance, such plants can now be purchased very cheaply in flower gardens. While a whole box of moss can be bought in Bejing's Yuquanying Flower Market for just RMB25, for instance, online retailers are still charging RMB10 for a much smaller single pot.

Photo: Heritage herbiage: Kokedama.
Heritage herbiage: Kokedama.
Photo: Heritage herbiage: Kokedama.
Heritage herbiage: Kokedama.

The second problem is a little more abstract. At present, bottle gardens are marketed primarily on the basis of their decorative value, rather than on the strength of the experiential process involved in their creation. It is believed that only when the joy and benefits of the creative process are properly communicated will the market for add-ons and refinements truly be opened up, with the sale of such accessories delivering much-needed sustainability to the sector.

Some in the sector are now looking to learn lessons from the continuing success of kokedama, the Japanese miniature gardening style, which has seen the technique's characteristic miniature moss balls proliferate across Europe and the US.

Acknowledging the influence of these classis Japanese gardens, which were first popular some 500 years ago, Peng Nai, a Spokesperson for China's National Wetland Museum, said: "Gardens are special spiritual places, where the mind can relax. Small, but exquisite, kokedama allows us to experience the mystic depths of nature, with bottled gardens having a similar potential."

Lin Qing, Special Correspondent, Beijing

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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