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Garden in a Bottle

A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop
A cultivation class at a bottle garden shop

With residents of Beijing and other cities in the Chinese mainland living under the constant threat of environmental pollution, any oasis of greenery has come to be especially prized. Recently, miniature moss gardens have become particularly sought out by city dwellers, valued for their appearance, convenience and benefits.

Moss terrariums – think soil-filled, fish-free aquariums – are now rivaling 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 adding their own creative touches.

"The worse pollution gets, the better the greenery market fares,” said Ye Chao, proprietor of a Beijing shop specialising in selling miniature moss gardens. With air quality particularly poor in the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region, sales of both air purifiers and green plants have soared.

"Terrarium sales are increasing every year,” Mr Ye said. “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.

Store-based Sales

Wedding weeds: bespoke betrothal botany
Wedding weeds: bespoke betrothal botany
Miniature gardeners in action
Miniature gardeners in action

Typically bottle gardens sell for about 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 renminbi to about Rmb30.

While more bottle gardens are currently purchased online than on the high street, it’s expected that the growing trend towards personalisation may benefit conventional retailers, which can offer professional assistance compared to the one-size-fits-all products offered online.

Overall, three factors are most likely to boost high-street sales in the sector:

Foliage filled: a garden in a jar
Garden in a jar

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 invaluable. 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.

2.  While 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 not beneficial 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 an urban environment with limited access to green places, browsing and personally choosing the plants for their bottle gardens is considered a good way to provide youngsters with hands-on interaction with the natural world.

The combination of these three factors has led to a growing number of such specialist outlets opening in shopping centres in many large mainland cities. 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 still faces 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 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.

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 open up, with the sale of such accessories delivering much-needed sustainability to the sector.

Marketing the Product

Heritage herbiage: Kokedama
Heritage herbiage: Kokedama

Some in the sector are 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 United States.

Acknowledging the influence of classic Japanese gardens that first became 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."

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Content provided by Hong Kong Trade Development Council
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