Balcony botany is a fruitful exercise for organic enthusiasts

With dedication and creativity, a family in Dubai is slowly transforming their apartment balcony into a productive garden full of vegetables and herbs.

Dubai resident Shabu Lonappan and his wife Ashimol grow about 40 varieties of vegetables and herbs on their 5.5 square metre balcony. Satish Kumar / The National
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DUBAI // Shabu Lonappan lives in a typical two-bedroom apartment in Al Qusais with his wife Ashimol and twin daughters.

What sets the Lonappan home apart from other dwellings is what grows on their 5.5 square metre balcony – about 40 varieties of vegetables and herbs.

Inspired by a Dubai Municipality urban farming campaign called Grow Your Food, which offered prizes for the best gardens, the family used pots, water bottles, milk containers and cardboard boxes and nurtured more than 90 plants.

The result is a healthy eating harvest for the family.

“We have collected tomatoes, bitter gourd, clove beans, lettuce, spring onion, chillies and capsicum,” said the apartment category winner.

To cope with demand for space, he said the family are continually experimenting to improve efficiency, including grafting techniques where they have tried to join aubergine, tomato and potato plants.

The garden requires 30 minutes of watering a day and because they are trying to grow organically, without pesticides, they sometimes have to spray “leaf by leaf” with chilli-infused water to kill pests.

Mr Lonappan’s family gardening project began after the Grow Your Food campaign started last October.

To promote healthy living, the campaign included a contest where participants set up gardens on their balconies, rooftops, villa courtyards, labour camps, car parks and schools, after being given a variety of seeds and a little guidance.

Throughout the campaign, participants posted pictures of their gardens on the Grow Your Food Facebook page.

A jury then assessed the posts and chose the best 100 images from 30 contestants, and followed up with site visits.

Last month, winners were selected and awarded a grocery voucher worth Dh10,000, in addition to other prizes.

“Kitchen farming is being identified the world over as a way to overcome several health issues of families,” said Hussain Nasser Lootah, director general at Dubai Municipality.

“Civic bodies in the developed world are keen to make urban spaces greener.”

Although most of the crop is still not ready for harvest, Mr Lonappan said his family are enjoying some fruits of their labours, including glasses of homegrown wheat grass juice, which they sweeten with coconut.

“If there is a will there is a way,” he said. “This is giving us much pleasure and we are away from our pressure and stress even in our busy life.

“Our children are also growing by seeing these activities and they are also much aware of the cultivation and its requirements.”

With the contest over, the Lonappan family are not the only winners continuing to tend to their gardens.

Susamma Varghese, a hospital worker who has been living in Dubai for 26 years, was one of five winners in the villa category, awarded for her garden set up on the terrace of her family home.

“It is easy. I like gardening. It’s lots of time but I enjoy it,” said the married mother of two children.

“We grow all kind of vegetables, beans, tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, lady fingers, chillies, all kinds of things,” she said. “More and more people are asking me how I grow all my vegetables.”

Sam Abraham George, 41, who originally hails from Kerala, India, and has been living in the UAE for nine years, said growing food from his ground floor apartment is nothing new.

“For the last four years, I’ve been doing the same thing,” said Mr George, a married father of two daughters who was also a winner.

On his balcony, he said he is able to grow lady fingers, beans, tomatoes, capsicum and chillies.

“It’s easy to grow, all the vegetable are growing in pots, and we are only using a little bit of water,” he said.