Imagine snipping basil straight from the balcony and adding a handful to your pasta for dinner. A homegrown table spread, even as modest as a few herbs and chilli peppers, can feel immensely rewarding, and you don't need a sprawling backyard to do it. Something called urban gardening has taken a hold of green thumbs living in the city. Essentially, it's a garden grown out of any useable space, be it the balcony, window sill or by the kitchen window, in your apartment.
Harly Sabater, an Abu Dhabi expat who's been a plant parent for over 11 years, tells us about his own humble urban garden beginnings. Currently a proud tender of over 350 indoor and outdoor plants, Sabater started off small and advises rookie plant parents to do the same.
"Firstly, narrow your gardening down to what you want to grow. If you want to dabble in a vegetable garden, plant less than five varieties so as to not get overwhelmed. Gardening in small batches helps you learn and increases your confidence, and you can expand from there," said Sabater.
Go for herbs that will actually contribute to the meals you cook. "If you love pasta, you can grow basil, bush tomatoes and chilli varieties - all of which do well indoors and in balcony setups in the UAE," he added. You can also manipulate the 'seasons' indoors, by adjusting the lighting, temperature and watering, to grow out-of-season varieties.
Sabater has grown his fair share of vegetables indoors, using special grow lights. For instance, while tomatoes might be too late to sow early in the year, you could get away with the clever simulation device at home. For seasonal varieties, sunlight streaming through the windows is enough, but Sabater says it's important to monitor how your plants fare in different parts of the house for a few days.
Our planting expert shares a list of gardening tools to help you cultivate your urban green space. Shop these best buys from Amazon with Prime membership to get them today or tomorrow.
1. Make indoor plants happy with grow lights
Effective for all stages of growth, from seeding to fruition, grow lights simulate sunlight behind closed doors. Sabater shops for his own lights from Amazon, but advises plant parents to pick a colour that's not disruptive to their lifestyle: "Some grow lights are purple, and because I work from home, the colour can be distracting. If you don't like these in your living space, you could get a yellow or white light. The best part is that grow lights are lamps that can be moved with the plant. But, make sure the head is height-adjustable, to adapt to the height of your plant as it grows." We've picked the best-reviewed warm lights for your consideration - you'll find both floor lamp and desk light varieties that can be dimmed and turned in different directions.
2. Set up a gardening station
Wherever you plan to garden, indoors or outdoors on the balcony, an organiser shelf is a good place to start. Sabater said: "Your shelf can be your anchor point - it's going to hold all your gardening tools, too. Pick a quiet area at home, preferably where there's no heavy foot traffic". Depending on the size of your planters, there's a variety of shelves to choose from. We've included a rolling cart for portability, a sturdy ladder shelf for heavy pots and a rack unit for lighter plants, with adjustable tiers.
3. Choose the right pots
Based on your lifestyle, assess how much time you'll be able to dedicate to your urban garden. Sabater says if you're a serial over-waterer, natural terracotta pots will help the soil breathe and release excess moisture quickly. In the case of busy plant parents who might forget their watering schedule, he recommends plastic pots, since these hold moisture for longer. Another alternative is self-watering planters, which use "a cotton wick at the bottom of the pot to deliver water to the soil, when it's dry". Sabater points out how cilantro and basil can be easily grown in these.
4. Pick a well-draining potting mix
A high-quality soil is one that doesn't suffocate your plants. Well-draining potting mixes will be less likely to hold on to water and drown seedlings. Sabater says herbs prefer a sandy mix with lots of organic materials, such as peat moss and pine bark. "You can even crush dried fallen leaves and add them to the mix, as long as there are no pests on them. Kitchen scraps, like onion skin, coconut coir, and vegetable peels work well," he advised.
5. Gear up with basic gardening tools
A gardening starter kit isn't complete unless you have these essential tools in your corner - a trowel, gardening scissors and a watering can. When Sabater began caring for plants, a watering can was all he needed. Note the spout. "A gooseneck spout is perfect for smaller pots, while a sprinkler head is suited for bigger plants and gardening areas," he added. With a trowel, you'll have an easier time turning the soil, measuring the depth and repotting seedlings. And, of course, a pair of gardening scissors snip leaves and prune your herbs neatly.
6. Keep your gardening station clean and tidy
Some non-essential but helpful items to add to your gardening station are repotting mats and gloves. Sabater says the former is especially convenient in apartments; these rectangular tarps allow you to repot plants mess-free, catching all the debris and spilled soil for easy cleanup. Gardening gloves are optional, too, since enthusiasts love to get their hands dirty. But, gloves can very well protect freshly manicured nails. Our plant expert suggests washable fabric gloves for durability, over latex and rubber types.
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