A guide to growing your own vegetables in the UAE

Here are the tips and tricks you need to know to ensure you get a delicious harvest

Person planting lettuce in a wooden box at home, urban garden. Barcelona, Spain. Getty Images
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The grow your own (GYO) movement has been, well, growing in recent years. ­Perhaps it's our awareness of issues ­concerning food miles, ­pesticides and genetic ­modification that is making us turn our backs on bought ­produce. Or perhaps it's the fact that we're ­increasingly realising that wholesome activities, such as gardening, are great for our well-being. Whatever the case, if you're interested in flexing your green fingers, we have all the tips and tricks you need to ensure you get a delicious harvest at the end of it all.

Choosing your crops

The simple answer to the question “what should I grow?” is “whatever you enjoy eating”. If you’re going to be putting in the time and energy needed to cultivate crops, it’s important that the results are worthwhile. But there are also some other considerations you need to take into account.

Firstly, what space are you working in? Do you have extensive lawns or will you be making do with pots on a balcony? This will determine whether you can plant a bed of broccoli, or if you’ll need to limit yourself to tomatoes, beans and herbs.

Herbs can easily be grown in the UAE.

Next, think about whether the space you’re working with is mostly sunny or shady. Some plants, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, love warmth and light so can be grown completely in the sun. On the other hand, leafy greens, such as spinach or lettuce, generally need a bit more shade. You can always create this artificially with netting, for example, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you want to minimise your workload.

Finally, think about when you're starting. Heat-­sensitive, shade-loving plants will yield better results if you plant them right about now, in the cooler winter months, whereas the like of aubergines and bird's-eye chillies will grow quite happily in the heat of summer.

Getting started with GYO

Gardening needs very little in the way of set-up investment, but before you get started with growing your own, there are a few basic tools worth getting. Garden gloves will save your hands from drying out and you’re also best off getting ­dedicated boots so you don’t wreck your shoes. A watering can is essential, as is a trowel and, if you’re working in a larger bed, you’ll need a shovel or spade. You’ll also need some small pots in which to plant seedlings, although there are ways to make your own with some newspaper.

 Warsan near Dragon Mart in Dubai has a wide selection of seasonal bedding plants. Courtesy of Melanie Hunt

The next thing to consider is your soil. If you’re planting in pots or containers, you’ll need to buy compost, but be careful to choose one that’s suitable for your purposes. For example, some types are ideal for seeds and seedlings, but you can also find specialist vegetable compost.

In the garden, you have less control over the type of soil available – in the UAE, it's usually sand-based. But you can supplement it to create a better environment for your plants. Consider adding sweet sand to soil; it is the ideal base for growing vegetables as it's low in salt. Also add in some compost or manure to provide nutrients for your growing plants. The ­latter will need to be replenished every six to eight weeks, as the sand profile of the soil here means nutrients wash away quickly.

Sandy soil is good for drainage, though, which is also ­important. If you're ­growing your veg in a decorative container, ensure that you're giving your crops the same drainage as a proper planter does, so that the roots don't get waterlogged and rot. There should be two to three holes in the base of each pot, and you'll need to put a layer of drainage material at the bottom – ­medium-sized stones or pebbles, broken shards of terracotta pot (crocks) or polystyrene such as "packing peanuts".

Giving yourself the best chance of success

Now you’re ready to start the planting and care process. If you’re growing vegetables from seeds, follow the instructions on the packaging, which will tell you everything from when to sow, to how far apart each seed should be sowed and how deep. You can also buy seedlings from garden centres if you’re impatient and want to see results more quickly.

When it comes to caring for your veg, remember that plants are like pets – they need constant looking after, especially when they’re young. The four ingredients that help them flourish are light, warmth, food and water. If you’ve planted your chosen seeds or seedlings in the right spot (sunny or shady), and have used good-quality soil and compost, then it’s time to talk about the watering.

Plants need to be watered regularly when they’re newly planted or germinating, as well as when they’ve just been repotted. As they mature, plants should be watered less to encourage their roots to grow more ­deeply. Of course, you’ll need to keep your eye on the ­weather forecast and adjust your watering regime ­accordingly. In very hot weather, you might need to water twice a day, but be aware that too much water can kill your young veg.

The best time to water is generally in the morning. Avoid watering in the midday heat, when much of the moisture will evaporate before it reaches your plants’ roots, and also avoid humid evenings, when the plants can get too damp, attracting pests and mould.

Abu Dhabi,  United Arab Emirates ---  April 6, 2011  ---  Bokashi, an all natural compost starter, is used with a Bokashi kitchen composter in Denise's Abu Dhabi kitchen. Denise has used the compost in her garden, which has sprouted some wild tomato plants.   ( DELORES JOHNSON / The National )

Speaking of pests, you’ll need to protect your vegetables from all sorts of potential dangers, including insects, rodents and fungi. There are pest-control products available, but make sure they’re suitable for edible plants. You might prefer to use natural methods, for example sprinkling crushed eggshells around your plants to deter snails. You can also grow “sacrificial” plants in the same location to draw pests away, such as nasturtiums, which are a favourite food of aphids.

You may not get a perfect harvest the first time around, but if you follow this practice and stay attentive to your baby plants, you should be proudly serving home-grown veg with your dinner before long.