Growing your own fruit and vegetables on the edge of the desert might seem like a daunting prospect, but it can also be a deeply satisfying one. A growing number of UAE gardeners are doing just that – cultivating a wide variety of fresh organic produce in back gardens, and on terraces and balconies.
I’m at The Farmers’ Market on the Terrace at Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai to meet the farmers who are at the vanguard of local, organic fruit and vegetable production, to gain some valuable expert insight into the particular challenges facing UAE growers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, without exception, they all cite the sun as their toughest horticultural challenge.
“The more you are clever, the more will survive,” Abdalla Al Owais from Modern Organic Farm tells me. With wit, technique and some know-how, the farmers and agricultural engineers of the UAE have done much to extend their growing seasons and repertoire. They use cool houses and polytunnels to protect their plants from the worst of the summer heat; and soil is prepared from late July, with a view to planting in August where possible – but nothing goes outside until they’re sure that temperatures won’t exceed 40°C.
If you’re thinking of growing your own vegetables, October to May is a more manageable and realistic growing season, but one should always be guided by the weather. If the summer has been long and hot, it may be prudent to wait to make sure that temperatures have cooled sufficiently before planting out. The “farmers’ shadow” is said to be the best fertiliser for the land, and intimately knowing your environment and your soil is key if your crops are to thrive.
All the farmers and gardeners that I meet at the market are dedicated to the organic cause and to growing along sustainable principles. Saif Al Shamsi of the Bufjair Trading Company (BTC) has been farming organically since 2007 and summed up his motivation as such: “From the beginning, I have been thinking of producing something good for the people, for their health and happiness, which is more important than profit.
“Chemical fertilisers are not good for health, and some diseases can be caused by this, which is why we decided to grow organically. Originally we thought it would be very difficult.”
Slowly but surely, the hard work and dedication of Al Shamsi and his team has borne fruit (and vegetables) – now, more than 50 types of crops are grown and harvested according to organic principles each year at BTC’s four-hectare farm. The growing at BTC is overseen by the agricultural engineer Abdel Moniem, and currently includes kale, celery, fennel, sweet potatoes, capsicums, beans, chillies, carrots, potatoes, leeks, chard, melons, squashes, rocket, okra, turnips, cabbages, beetroots, radishes, sweetcorn, broccoli, cauliflowers, lettuces, several tomato varieties, aubergines and pumpkins, as well as a wide variety of herbs and dates.
Depending on the cultivar, crops take anything from 25 to 60 days from planting to first harvest. Some plants, such as broccoli, continue to produce for the duration of the season; others, such as carrots, are phased in planting to ensure a continuous supply.
The soil at the farm is prepared with fish meal and chicken manure at the start of the season, and is irrigated twice daily at 5am and 5pm with water tapped from the farm’s two wells. To keep pests, worms and fungi at bay, Moniem uses a ratio mix of approximately 200 grams of chilli powder, 200 grams of cloves, 100 grams of bread yeast, a clove of garlic (it’s important “to use ‘live’ organic garlic – not the Chinese-produced ones which are chemical-based,” he says) and some organic honey, mixed with about one litre of water, which Moniem puts in a blender and pours out to ferment overnight. The mixture is then applied to the soil and plants during irrigation – the farm has a large tank for this purpose, where scaled-up quantities of the blend are mixed.
Laura Allais-Maré, the founder of the Dubai chapter of Slow Food, grows a variety of fruit and vegetables at home. She tells me that she uses neem oil and interplants crops with marigolds for pest control. She also points out that “if you are quick enough”, when the municipal gardeners pull up marigolds to change seasonal-planting schemes, you can collect the discarded plants to make a "tea", which should be left to ferment for a week or so. Strain this mixture and add it directly to your plants for the same pest control in liquid form.
Allais-Maré prefers to plant out established seedlings from October, rather than start with seeds outside, to maximise her growing season. Slow Food Dubai (www.facebook.com/SlowFoodDubaiUAE) is a good source for organic seed and seedling swaps or you can try germinating your own seeds with a small cloche at home to grow a variety of seedlings for phased planting. Also try Warsan Plant Nurseries in Dubai for seeds and seedlings (turn right at the traffic island past Dragon Mart heading towards Hatta, then take the first left). It should be noted that seeds collected from genetically modified plants can be harder to cultivate on a continuing basis, so ideally they should be avoided. Check the seed packets for details and ideally source organic seeds whenever you can.
After the sun, the soil is the next steepest obstacle for local gardeners to overcome. In the UAE, the richest soil for growing is farther inland; near the coast, it predominantly consists of sand. For container gardening, Allais-Maré recommends a mix that is 50 to 60 per cent sweet sand (about Dh5 a bag) to which you should add 40 per cent potting soil and 5 per cent perlite (a volcanic-ash product that helps to aerate the soil). The sand helps to control the soil temperature and keep the roots of the plant systems cool.
Crops continually remove nutrients from the soil, so organic matter needs to be constantly replenished. Allais-Maré also adds vermicompost, which can be purchased from Géant supermarkets.
Sally Prosser, a food blogger at My Custard Pie, makes her own compost with a bokashi box to aid her vegetables’ growth. She adds various types of kitchen waste and food scraps to the box, which is sealed and airtight (so it doesn’t smell from the outside). It takes about two weeks to process waste to compost. Neat and tidy, the system could potentially also be adopted by a balcony gardener.
As a general rule of thumb, where space and planting plans permit, crops should be rotated from bed to bed, or container to container, where possible. Rotation helps to keep soil in optimum condition and replenish itself. It also helps to prevent pests, which are attracted by particular plant types, from proliferating year on year at the same site.
A suggested rotation schedule could be:
Year 1: Legumes and pod crops (okra, beans, peas).
Year 2: Alliums (bulb onions, shallots, spring onions, leeks and garlic).
Year 3: Solanaceous, root and tuberous crops (sweet peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, beetroots, carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, celeriac).
Year 4: Brassicas (kale, cauliflowers, cabbages, broccoli, radishes).
Where space is limited, you could also look into companion planting, combining cultivars that, when grown together, help to support soil condition.
Most importantly, use local markets and local farms, where experts have spent years honing their growing techniques and adapting their methods to the UAE’s very specific environment, to get inspiration, see what’s in season and understand what’s possible.