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    ‘Office Farmers’ Grow Fruit Plants for Novelty and Stress Relief

    Mundane desktop plants are slowly being replaced by edible, decorative, and conversation-starting “work pals” like bananas and pineapples.

    White-collar worker Zheng Yishan now calls herself an “office farmer,” harvesting her first desktop bananas earlier this month.

    “To care for and observe the growth of fruit is a fantastic stress reliever for me,” she said, explaining that when a green banana — whose Chinese name is similar to “anxiety” — turns yellow, it symbolizes the passing of nervous worry.

    Zheng, 28, is among a growing number of office workers who are shunning common workplace foliage in favor of fruit-bearing plants, including pineapples, tomatoes, and persimmons. Working at a communications company in the eastern city of Hangzhou, Zheng purchased a branch of green bananas for hydroponic cultivation in February, after getting inspiration from social media posts.

    Such plants require minimal effort to care for because most are delivered with half-ripened fruits already growing on the branches. The “office farmers” need only to change water regularly, give the plant’s container a gentle scrub, and add plant nutrient solutions.

    Young people like Zheng, who want office greenery to be edible as well as decorative, often call their plants “work pals.”

    The trend’s popularity is adding a new category to China’s surging indoor market for decorative plants, which was estimated to be valued at more than 3 billion yuan ($415 million) in 2023.

    The “office farmer” phenomenon is more than evident on lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu, where a simple search for those two words yields thousands of results. By Sixth Tone’s tally, the number of retailers selling decorative banana plants alone totals more than 5,000 on the e-commerce platform Taobao.

    Chang Hong is among the online sellers tapping the trend. The 24-year-old runs an online shop catering to Generation Z, or those born from the mid-’90s to the early 2010s. Her online store offers a range of popular products like stuffed toys, bracelets, and stickers featuring virtual idols.

    In February, Chang started selling banana and pineapple plants in collaboration with farmers. Since then, orders for the plants soared quickly to the top of her best-selling list. At Chang’s store, customers can purchase unripened bananas on plants weighing between 4 and 6 kilograms for 56 yuan. Pineapple plants cost 22 yuan each.

    The fruit is meant for buyers to cultivate in vases. Along with the plant, customers receive a greeting card with the message “No Anxiety” — a reference to the calming effect of cultivation.

    “I’m considering adding hydroponic lemon plants to the product list,” said Chang. “They are the perfect office plant, freshening the air, and can be used to make lemon water. I liked smelling something fresh when I was stressed working in an office.”

    Office farming harks back to China’s rich pastoral heritage and combines it with a modern-day yearning to add a slice of nature to drab concrete buildings.

    In short, urban farming is evolving into a spiritual activity. In the past few years, many city-dwellers turned to growing mini vegetable gardens to relieve their stress. Since last year, farming has become a popular outdoor alternative, similar to camping and frisbee.

    Amy Huang from Shanghai grows watermelons on a small plot of land in her office complex, designated as part of a company “welfare project” for employees. She tends her plants during tea breaks.

    “The moment I sow seeds, I feel filled with hope,” she said. “I see them as a reflection of myself, working away from my hometown in a big city and wanting to prosper.”

    Huang, who works for a fashion company, also cultivates fruit plants in her workspace. So far, management and colleagues have been supportive.

    “The company’s stance on this practice relates to the culture and inclusivity of the workplace environment,” she remarked, noting that some of her friends are more reluctant to embark on office farming for fear of troubles. Still, she is careful to ensure that her fruit plants don’t attract insect pests, and she promptly disposes of any rotting produce.

    Fruit farming has become a unique conversation starter in the office environment, according to Iman Lin, who lives in the southern city of Guangzhou. Lin, who is in her 30s, began cultivating fruits in her office after seeing a post on WeChat about a friend growing desktop pineapples.

    Too busy to tend potted flowers, which need more care, Lin said she decided to try fruit cultivation instead. She started off with pineapple plants and has since expanded to persimmons, oranges, tomatoes, lotus seed pods, hawthorns, and bananas. She spends around 20 yuan a week on her botanical pursuits.

    “My colleagues also find it interesting,” Lin said. “They often drop by to chat. Sometimes, they even ask me to reserve a ripened fruit for them.”

    Zheng confirmed that desk gardens quickly become office attractions. “Since I started growing bananas, I’ve become a center of attention,” she said. “My colleagues often stop by my desk to check on the progress of the fruit.”

    Zheng said the resilience of fruit plants, compared with flowers, has contributed to the popularity of office farming. “Cultivating bananas requires only occasional watering, and the growth cycle is longer,” she said. “Bananas maintain their green appearance for up to three weeks before gradually ripening and turning yellow by the fourth week.”

    Lin, in Guangzhou, said she had had little luck with office flowers, which tended to wither within three or four days. “Temperatures here turn hot in May,” she said. “Even office air conditioning didn’t prolong their life, and I had to think every week about which flower to grow next. Fruits, on the other hand, can last several weeks.”

    For her, eating the fruits of her labor is less important than the healing power she receives from cultivating them.

    Chadwick Wang, a professor at University of Science and Technology of China who focuses on the sociology of science and technology, said the office farming trend is a reaction to the competitive, work-driven culture of office environments.

    According to the National Bureau of Statistics, enterprise employees work an average 48.8 hours a week, exceeding the legal limit of 40 hours.

    “Many young Chinese are using fruit plants to improve their fengshui, or geomancy,” Wang said. “It’s a new way of bringing good luck or unwinding personal or professional pressures.”

    Other office farmers are just seeking playful activities with popular memes or following social media trends, he added.

    In addition to the “No Anxiety” meme linked with bananas, persimmons and berries are also popular for homophonic puns symbolizing fortune or good luck. For example, the phrase “wanshiruyi,” which translates as “may everything go as one hopes,” is adapted to include persimmons, which sounds similar to “things” in Chinese.

    Looking ahead, Zheng said she wants to continue cultivating other plants, such as pineapples, pomegranates, and even cotton.

    “It adds a lot of enjoyment and vibrancy to the office,” she said.

    (Header image: Fruits cultivated at offices. Courtesy of Iman Lin and Zheng Yishan)