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Grow your own balcony garden

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Just because you live in an apartment doesn’t mean you can’t grow your own herbs, vegetables and flowers. Aspen Aman investigates balcony gardens in the UAE.

For many people living in the UAE, their balcony or patio is either a great gathering place for friends and family or just another place to battle dust and dirt. But there’s another way to view, and use, your balcony or patio that brings beauty, tranquility, relaxation as well as food right into your home – by creating a garden in this often-neglected space. Gardening saves you money, provides organic food, is a meditative practise, and great for involving children.

Start Small, Grow Big

While gardening can seem intimidating to the newcomer, there are plants that are very forgiving to the novice gardener, including cherry tomatoes, mint and other green herbs as well as the hardy aloe vera.  As veteran balcony gardener Smitha Lobo-Mascarenhas put it, “You can’t kill a mint!”  Smitha, who has over 75 small and large plants on her 3.5m x 1.5m balcony in Karama, recommends starting out with kitchen herbs such as the hardy mint, fenugreek, coriander as well as onions, garlic and curry leaf.  Scouring the produce section of local stores like Choithrams and Lulu, Smitha is constantly on the lookout for ginger, lemongrass, garlic, beetroot and the like that are sprouting.  She recommends using the sprouting plants as an easy and inexpensive way to get starter plants  for your balcony garden.  Spices such as coriander and fenugreek – found in the spice aisle of your local supermarket – can also be made to sprout to produce seedlings for your own kitchen herbs.

Laura Allais-Maré, founder of the Balcony and Urban Gardening in the UAE group, advocates keeping your gardening “sustainable” – by which she means reusing existing containers (like yoghurt cups and water bottles for sprouting seeds) and inexpensive potting soil mixtures (see sidebar ‘Laura’s Magic Potting Soil Mix’).  “My garden may not be elegant,” Laura says, “because so many of my plants are growing in re-purposed yoghurt cups, but the plants are beautiful.”  Passionately committed to growing good food and fostering awareness of the connection between the earth, people and food, Laura established the balcony gardening group upon her arrival in the UAE in 2013.  The group now has nearly 300 gardener members, roughly split between experienced and new gardeners.

How and When to Start Your Balcony/Patio Garden  

With temperate winter months and scorching summers, Dubai’s optimal growiing  season starts in October/November, with plants thriving on patios and balconies January-early April.  Karteeka Tayyagi, a balcony gardener for the past eight years, recommends starting with soil preparation in October/November.  She suggests cleaning the pots/containers with a mild cleaning solution and drying them in the sun to kill any molds/funghi or other pathogens left from the previous growing season.  Karteeka mixes her old soil with fresh potting soil, chicken manure pellets, humus and red sand.

Both Karteeka and Smitha encourage beginners to work with seedlings or plants you already know before moving on to more exotic (and usually more expensive) plants.  Karteeka recommends sprouting seeds indoors and repotting seedlings when the plant grows three sets of leaves.  After seedlings are repotted, you can move them to your balcony or patio – paying close attention to wind and sun conditions.  Morning sun, per Smitha’s experience here in Dubai, is best for young plants and most varities, as afternoon sun can be very harsh.  Karteeka cites strong winds – as often come to high-rise balconies in areas like JLT or Old Town – as big challenges for balcony gardeners.

As the plants grow and reach maturity, you can begin to harvest the herbs, vegetables and fruit you’ve planted.  Many herbs thrive on multiple cuttings – especially mint — while some veggies must be harvested at a particular time.  As any devoted gardener will tell you, seeds are essential to maintaining your future stock of plants – so invest in quality, organic and non-GMO seeds to ensure the best possible variety of plants and to maintain biodiversity and heirloom varieties.  As the summer months approach, it is time to  cull the spent plants and move those that won’t survive the outdoor heat.  Collect the soil from your containers and store in sealed plastic containers until the next growing season.  (Microwaving soil is a great way to kill pathogens and return it to a soft texture, recommends Karteeka.)

The keys to successful container gardening – either on your patio or balcony – comes down to a few essentials:  appropriate amount/strength of sunlight, proper watering, pruning and love for your garden. The most common mistakes new gardeners make?  Over-watering their plants and not being patient enough with their plants.  Many varieties need plenty of time for their seeds to sprout and seedlings to grow; give your plants time and you’ll harvest the rewards.

The Balcony and Urban Gardening in the UAE group meets once a month to swap seeds and seedlings, exchange tips and socialise; you can join this group to gain a valuable network of gardening gurus adept at creating bountiful, beautiful gardens in small spaces here in the UAE.

Where to get your gardening stuff

Warsan Nurseries – past Dragon Mart – is a large collection of nurseries staffed by very experienced nursery staff who can help you with seedlings, plants, soil, pots and more.  Blue Planet Green People in JLT is another great source of organic seeds and gardening supplies.  You can also create your own compost for your soil and collect your own seeds from the organic produce available at several organic shops and markets in Dubai.

Plants for your summer balcony or patio

With some good old TLC (tender, loving care), attention and proper watering, some varieties of plants do well – and actually thrive – in the intense UAE summer months on balconies and patios. Give these ones a try: Bougainvillea, Desert Rose (Adenium), Aloe Vera, Ixora, Mint, Jade Plant, Curry Leaf Plant (Murraya koenigii).

Expert Tips

Tip 1:  Black pots will get extremely hot in the summer, so make sure you repot all of your plants into non-black pots.  Plastic pots are better for plants outdoors in the summer as they retain water better than porous clay pots but each type of plant will have its specific requirements.

Tip 2:  Some plants have highly toxic parts.  All parts of the Desert Rose and Oleander, for example, are highly toxic, so keep children and pets away from these plants.  When in doubt, check for potential toxicity before adding new plants to your garden, if you have young children or inquisitive pets at home.

Tip 3:  Don’t water your plants in direct sun!  Especially during the summer months because the wet leaves can actually burn and turn brown if wetted in direct, intense sunlight.

Laura’s Magic Potting Soil Mix

  • • 60-70 per cent red desert sand (from interior desert, not the beach)
  • • 25-35 per cent potting soil
  • • 5-10 per cent  organic material (chicken manure pellets, compost, etc.)

For the sake of sustainability, don’t use peat.  A non-renewable resource, peat is an ancient form of soil found only in limited parts of the world. Peat harvesting has had devastating ecological impact on the local biosphere.  Some local gardeners use ‘coconut peat’ (aka coconut coir) as a mulch or component in your potting soil to help retain moisture.

Great gardening resources

There are literally thousands of gardening websites, videos and social media groups online. Gardeners at all levels will inspiration at www.plantcaretoday.com, which links to balcony/patio gardening projects like growing carrots in a bucket.

To get tips on how to garden in Dubai’s climate, swap seeds and plants and just talk gardening with other balcony and patio gardeners here in the UAE, check out the Balcony and Urban Gardening in the UAE Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/B.G.G.Dubai/) and Expat Woman’s gardening pages (http://www.expatwoman.com/dubai/monthly_gardens_gardening.aspx) as well as Agriculture Box at www.agriculturebox.com.

HOW GARDENING SAVES YOUR LIFE

Most of us know that gardening is somehow good for us but let’s look at exactly how it can improve your life:

Gardening saves your money.   With easy-to-grow vegetables like tomatoes and herbs like basil and mint, you can save a bit on your grocery bill while knowing exactly where those veggies and herbs came from.  As your skills increase, you can graduate to a wider variety of edibles that you can grow right on your own balcony or patio, thereby decreasing your food bill even more.   As one community gardner put it, “growing your own food is like printing money!”

Gardening saves your sanity.  Gardening is both a wonderful solitary, meditative activity and a sociable way to meet new people and have fun with family and friends.  The daily act of taking care of your plants and seedlings allows you to express your nuturing energies, while self-reflecting, problem-solving, and reconnecting to nature.

Gardening saves your health.  The act of planning, planting and caring for your plants can powerfully impact your health through the increased amount of exercise you get (even small gardens), reduction in stress hormones like cortisol, reduction in blood pressure and reduced risk from osteoporosis, diabetes and other modern ills.  Studies conducted in the US revealed that women who gardened had overall lesser risk of osteoporosis than women who exercised through jogging, aerobics or swimming.  Conditions as diverse as diabetes, depression, arthritis, insomnia and obesity have less severe symptoms or impact on individuals who garden regularly.

Gardening saves your brain.   In addition to the protection your brain gets through overall better health you gain from gardening, the brains of long-term gardeners are more resilient and less prone to dementia.  Medical researchers following gardeners in their 60s and 70s for a period of 16 years found that these seniors had a 36 per cent and 47 per cent lower risk of dementia than their non-gardening peers.  Gardening or being in gardens also seems to help individuals suffering from dementia and Alzheimers by providing them restful, natural surroundings in which they can connect and de-stress.

Gardening saves your planet.  When you eat what you grow, you’re eating the freshest food possible.  No trucking or flying in those cherry tomatoes that grew on your patio.  Gardening includes a whole cycle of practices that make us more mindful of the earth and our impact on it.  Planting vegetables, herbs, flowers and trees creates an intimate connection between us and our planet – and makes us more aware of our overall impact upon the earth.  Practices such as organic gardening reduce the amount of pesticides and chemical fertilisers loaded on to our ecosystem; composting our kitchen scraps (fruit/veggie skins, eggshells, coffee grounds and tea bags, to name a few) positively contributes to saving the planet by keeping biomass out of the landfills and returning it to revitalise the soil.

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