Apr 2016

An Earthy Exercise: In Dialogue with Nature via Rooftop Farming

<em>Harvest at the Hui Yeung Shing Building rooftop farm <br>(Source: Office of University General Education)</em>

Green Office Programme (GO!): Progress Update

The first campus-wide submission of the annual ‘GO! Checklist’, since participation in the Green Office Programme (GO!) became mandatory for all CUHK offices in 2014, was completed early this year.

The ‘GO! Checklist’ contains 32 green actions that CUHK offices are required to refer to when planning their daily operations and at least 16 actions, including mandatory ones, that need to be implemented. For 2015, 92% of the 166 participating offices that returned the checklist fulfilled the requirements of the programme. These offices are acknowledged as 'Competent Green Offices' on the ‘GO!’ website

More about 2015 ‘GO! Checklist’


This spring, 40 students of the General Education Foundation Course ‘In Dialogue with Nature’ had the rare opportunity to experience nature’s awakening via toiling with the earthas partial fulfilment of their coursework. Commonly taken by Year 1 and 2 students, this course traditionally features a ‘participation’ scheme that awards students for participating in online discussion forums. This semester, Dr. Kenneth Li, one of the lecturers of the course, offered a new option to his class  to participate in three sessions of hands-on vegetable planting on the rooftop of Hui Yeung Shing Building instead. The new option, offered as a trial, proved so popular that students had to draw lots to get in.

A biology major at university, Dr. Li has always been interested in plants. He said, ‘For the past two years, in spite of busy teaching duties, like-minded colleagues and I have been growing vegetables in boxes on the rooftop of Hui Yeung Shing Building as a hobby. Later, I introduced it to my students and invited anyone who’s interested to help out and grow their own herbs. Several found the experience enjoyable and kept returning. It occurred to me that I can integrate rooftop farming into the course so that more students can experience nature to deepen their reflection on the topics discussed in the course, turning abstract ideas into real experience. Also, students who work with the land will understand that nature, far from being Utopia, can be capricious at times, wreaking havoc on crops without notice.’ 

<em>Students mix planting soil in foam boxes scavenged from waste stations<br> (Source: Office of University General Education)</em>
 <em>(Source: Office of University General Education)</em>

Year 1 student Kaye Liu said the experience helped them connect to the course contents. ‘During one session, we watched a swarm of ants pour out from their nest in a planter box. It was a cold day and their sheer number gave us a shock. During the session, we discussed Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which had sparked widespread debate about the use of pesticides. This experience helped put us in the shoes of farmers facing a similar dilemma, and enabled us to understand where they’re coming from in the controversy concerning pesticides.’ 

The actual work, namely, soil preparation, sowing and harvesting, is simple, but Kaye also learned some planting concepts like planting according to the seasons, the sunlight and water requirements of different crops, and the placement of plants by height.

The project is committed to recycling and reusing unwanted materials like foam boxes, wooden pallets, grass clippings (provided by the Estates Management Office colleagues) and coffee grounds as planter boxes, drainage trays and fertilizers.  

Year 3 student Yvonne Cheuk said: ‘From time to time, I visit waste stations on campus with fellow students to gather foam boxes and other items for the farm. I’ve developed an eye for recognizing the reuse potential of various items.’ She said. ‘Also, I now know several cafés that are happy to give us coffee grounds to be turned into fertilizers. It is interesting how this rooftop project links up different parties on campus.’

Aldo Leopold, renowned conservationist, once lamented the disconnection between education and nature, ‘Is education possibly a process of trading awareness for things of lesser worth?’ Though Hong Kong’s urbanized environment is not an ideal setting for a dialogue with nature, should we start one, it may lead to some meaningful insights and possibilities.

<em>Dr. Li Ming and Yvonne Cheuk</em>




The Sustainable Campus e-newsletter is published by the Information Services Office and the Campus Planning and Sustainability Office, CUHK.