My Arabian Almanakh is the first book of its kind to focus on regenerative living and gardening in the Arabian Peninsula. The work is a collaboration between four UAE friends brought together by a mutual love of gardening: Laura Allais-Maré, founder of Slow Food Dubai and the now-defunct Balcony and Urban Gardening Group on Facebook; Cherida Fernandez, a fine artist; graphic designer Leilani Coughlan; and Prachiti Talathi Gandhi, who took on the responsibility of editing and coordinating the production of the book.
The leading voice of the work is Allais-Maré, who when she began working on her own garden in the UAE, realised that there was very little information documenting the "how to" of gardening in this climate – and absolutely nothing at all, at that time, on growing using chemical-free and regenerative principles.
The seeds of an idea for a book were planted, and came to fruition four years later in the shape of a beautiful, uniquely informative illustrated journal. The book's writers are clear that none of them are "professors of botany or qualified horticulturalists", but that the book is written from the perspective of "leaving the earth better than how we found it".
Gardeners coming to this hot and arid climate will already know that nature has stacked the odds against them when it comes to recreating the horticultural aesthetic of their home countries. What Allas-Maré and her team have done is provide a helping hand in sharing and documenting their experiences, so that those gardening here can hopefully avoid rookie pitfalls and become more productive more quickly, avoiding plant casualties, while also gaining a better understanding of the natural world around them.
In addition, My Arabian Almanakh aims to support people in changing the way they garden and encourage spaces that are chemical-free. "Much is being said about sustainability, yet there is still an unsustainable amount of pesticides and chemical fertilisers [used in growing]," Allais-Maré says.
The book's writer has amassed a personal library of more than 90 books on natural and regenerative gardening, and permaculture practices, from which she has drawn research and information for her own work. "I do re-read some of these books, by people such as Japanese farmer and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka; environmental farmer and activist Wendell Berry; permaculture writer Larry Korn; and Elaine Ingham, the microbiologist and soil biology researcher. These are people who inspire me with their life ethos and they have taught me how to look at the land. Other books that have inspired me more recently are Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard."
While gardening has been a relaxing and rewarding pastime for Allais-Maré, she says it has also been a point of sadness and struggle. "Attempting to educate people to do things differently is not always easy," she admits. "Perfect-looking gardens do not necessarily mean good, healthy gardens, and my goal is to help people see why that is so important," says Allais-Maré. This was a point also made to The National earlier this year by British gardening celebrity Alan Titchmarsh, who reflected that the odd hole in a leaf is preferable to an illusory goal of perfection, when blemish-free plants can only be achieved with the use of harsh chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
A section of My Arabian Almanakh is an introduction on growing food forests, and Allais-Maré, who has been involved in the development of a number of such projects over the years, is always amazed at how unique and different each of these gardens become – even those planted within proximity of one another.
"Robert Hart defined the term 'forest gardening' in the 1980s, and while much of the terminology we use today is based on his definitions, few people know that this way of cultivating is as old as time itself," she says. "People have lived in forests and along their borders for millennia, and then used and modified the features of the natural forest environment to grow crops."
A food forest is basically an untidy, motley orchard, where almost everything in that space has either edible, medicinal or has other practical uses. The relationships between plants are set along a principles of inter-independence. For example, canopy plants such as tall date palms or Indian almond trees provide dappled shade for plants below, as well as producing fruit.
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Planting beneath with smaller tree species, which may include banana, mango or pomegranate, forms a sub-canopy, supporting and protecting a lower growth of herbaceous plants. Beans, passion fruit or other climbing plants and vines can use these taller plants for support when introduced. Then ground cover, at the lowest level, such as Chinese water spinach, helps to protect the soil and also suppress invasive and depleting weed growth. Lastly, deep rooted plants and vegetables, which could include sweet potatoes and large raddish, draw their nutrients from levels of the soil that are not competing with other layers of planting.
There is much to be learnt from this charming tome, although it could be argued that it would benefit from an index of contents and numbered pages to help the reader quickly locate specific topics. But this is possibly by design, because it takes the reader on a meandering journey through the seasons and the land, and encourages mindfulness with the addition of sketches to colour, as well as space to make notes.
And for those who are wondering if they have a green fingers, how should they begin? Now, in October, with the weather cooling, is the time to think about planting seeds and seedlings outdoors again.
For absolute beginners, Allais-Maré advocates starting with a large terracotta pot and getting tomato plants growing with some lettuce at the base, along with a few herbs. By the following season, she believes there will inevitably be a desire to do more. Basil, mint, beans, tomatoes, sweet potato, pumpkin and eggplant are all easy starter plants and will grow well here – but do the research and figure out what you have space for, what you can manage to grow and, most importantly, what you will use. Think about experimenting with fruiting trees, such as citrus, figs and pomegranates, for longer-term food productivity.
Dubai Garden Centre sells organic seeds, as does local online supplier My Green Chapter, while Organic Foods and Cafe stocks a range of microgreen seeds.
The team behind My Arabian Almanakh hope that their work will sow the seeds of change in how people impact on the world around them.
My Arabian Almanakh is on sale now at markets around the UAE for Dh120