[Weekender] Gardening blossoms in COVID-hit Korea


In May, people attend a gardening course at Studio Conte in Gyeonggi Province. (Studio-Conte)

For viewers of the popular MBC reality show “I Live Alone”, the new hobby of K-pop boy band SHINee Key hit a nerve in their COVID-era lifestyle.

His passion for growing spring onions and other plants in the corner of his home porch is an example of a trend that is sweeping South Korea: the home garden.

While growing a plant or two at home is nothing new, the pandemic has spurred people to take the hobby to the next level. Koreans are now building their own mini-gardens on the balconies of their apartments or decorating the front gardens of their houses.

“Gardening at home used to be a hobby of the rich,” says Kim Jung-min, CEO of Studio Conte, a garden design company.

“However, after COVID-19, the market saw a whole new level of demand as more and more people sought to incorporate the outdoors into their lifestyles as remote work and home activities increased,” she added.

Those who want to maintain their green fingers also took the opportunity to take part in her gardening courses, which she offers in a private studio in Gyeonggi Province, observed Kim.

E-commerce convenience

As Kim said, until recently, home gardening was only a minority hobby, as most Korean households live in apartment complexes that are not ideal locations for plants.

The number of Korean households living in apartments exceeded 10.01 million in 2018, which is 50.1 percent of all households, according to Statistics Korea.

In May, people attend a gardening course at Studio Conte in Gyeonggi Province.  (Studio-Conte)

In May, people attend a gardening course at Studio Conte in Gyeonggi Province. (Studio-Conte)

The rise of ecommerce platforms like Coupang amid the pandemic had apparently contributed to the popularity of the home gardening trend. While Coupang doesn’t have exact dates on the sales of its home gardening goods, one of its most popular soil products received over 1,700 reviews on Thursday.

Another major e-commerce site, Interpark, saw revenue grow 32 percent year over year from June to August last year.

“Buying garden products, especially those in large amounts, has always been a chore,” said Shin Na-young, a 60-year-old Itaewon woman who took up gardening as an almost retired hobby.

“I had to drive outside of Seoul to get it direct from the vendors, but with the e-commerce site’s delivery services, I don’t have to go to all that trouble.”

Garden product sales at large brick and mortar retailers also grew, despite taking a blow from the rules of social distancing.

According to Lotte Mart, sales of garden products rose 18.7 percent year-over-year last year, while the corresponding E-Mart value increased 1.4 percent year-over-year.

The convenience store chain GS25 also jumped on the bandwagon and installed special departments for home gardens in 500 shops across the country last September – in which seeds, soil, pots and other small tools are on display.

“The home horticulture trend just fits in with anything that has intensified with the pandemic,” said Lee Eun-hee, professor of consumer science at Inha University.

“They are people who are looking for security in nature, coupled with more frequent use of Instagram – a perfect mix that attracts attention,” she explained.

Tightening the purses

Right now, edible plants are the most popular ones to grow at home, as shown in the episode “I Live Alone” with SHINee’s Key. Spring onions are at the heart of the edible plant demand as they are a key ingredient in most Korean dishes, including kimchi.

“Because of the rising prices of agricultural products, people have grown them at home in small quantities, creating a new word like ‘patech,'” said Lee of Inha University.

“Patech”, a term that specifically describes the cultivation of spring onions at home, was coined by Internet users. It is a suitcase word of the Korean word “pa”, which means spring onion, and “zetech”, which means effective investment. The word zetech is derived from the Japanese term “zaitech,” or financial engineering techniques used by companies that make speculative investments to increase their profits.

As the name suggests, its popularity is largely due to soaring spring onion prices, which rose 130 percent year over year in May, according to Statistics Korea.

The key of the boy band SHINee collects spring onions during an episode of the MBC reality show

Boyband SHINee’s key collects spring onions that were grown on his apartment balcony during an episode of the MBC reality show “I Live Alone” on May 28th. (YouTube screencap)

The average cost of spring onions per kilogram sold at retailers across the country more than doubled to 5,215 won ($ 4.69) in May, according to data from Korea Agro-Fisheries & Food Trade Corp. showed. It was relatively tame than the price gains in March and April, when it jumped 300 percent and 270 percent from the previous year.

A temporary disruption in the supply chain was the culprit for the price hike, according to Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki.

The total cost of agricultural, livestock and fishery products rose 12.1 percent year over year in May and became a major catalyst in accelerating consumer inflation in the country to more than a nine-year high.

Garlic, another key ingredient in kimchi-making, was also up 53 percent year-over-year in May.

Meanwhile, companies have their eyes on the growth of the local home gardening market and hope to use the technology to capitalize on the country’s horticultural frenzy.

Kyowon Wells, a water purifier manufacturer here, was one of the first to launch an indoor plant cultivator in 2018. Plant cultivators are devices that use advanced technology to control light, temperature, and water to create optimal conditions for plant growth.

The company announced that a total of 25,000 cultivators had been sold by the end of 2020. The cultivators can also be rented.

SK Magic, a kitchen appliance manufacturer of the SK Group, acquired the plant breeder startup Aiplus last year, while LG Electronics and Samsung Electronics presented their own cultivators at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, the world’s largest annual tech event in Las Vegas.

By Jung Min-kyung (mkjung@heraldcorp.com)