If you have a seedling peeking out from a patch of soil in your balcony planter or backyard, you are a kitchen gardener. Green thumbs up!
Kitchen gardens dedicated to homegrown fruits, herbs, and vegetables, are seeing a resurgence in urban areas around the world, as COVID-19 forced people to spend more time in their homes.
With concerns like food allergies and the presence of chemicals or preservatives in some conventionally grown food, the concept of kitchen gardens gives people a safe alternative. And you can create it in any space – in your large backyard or in a small planter in your balcony.
The allure is in the idea of spending some time in the sun while nurturing your plants, with the end result of eating fresh, organic, sustainable produce straight from the source. So, what’s not to love?
We learned about the origins of the kitchen garden phenomenon, spoke with Gulf News readers who enjoy growing their own produce, received great advice from nutritionists, and took a look at gardening trends that have people spending more and more time growing their favourite fruits and vegetables. Read on to learn more.
Kitchen gardens have a rich history
Gardening has existed almost as long as humans have.
According to National Geographic, humans began cultivating food approximately 12,000 years ago, changing over from hunter-gatherer traditions to permanent settlements and farming.
The origin of kitchen gardens lies in ancient Rome and Greece, where people were known for growing and eating their own produce and herbs.
Later, in medieval France, gardeners combined vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers in potagers – small plots in their backyards. The idea was to grow ingredients for a thick vegetable soup – le potage.
The practice then transitioned to the United States in the Middle Ages, as European settlers brought along seeds and farming techniques that they applied to their backyards. The crops they grew depended on how wealthy they were, but herbs played a prominent role in their gardens – they were used medicinally more than as food flavouring.
Now, the desire to have fresh, sustainable organic produce is causing a resurgence of kitchen gardens – whether in people’s villas, apartment balconies, or in schools. No matter where you grow your kitchen garden, you are practising a time-honoured tradition, with roots in mankind’s history.
Meet five UAE expatriates who share why they love their kitchen gardens
Every evening, 39-year-old Abhilas Odattil Vijayraghavan, an Indian expatriate living in Ajman, walks around his small farm at his villa to spend time with his plants, in search of the harvest of the day. From crunchy green chillies to juicy red tomatoes. For the past few years, Vijayraghavan has been growing almost every vegetable he needs for his daily cooking.
Proud of his latest harvest, Vijayraghavan told the Food by Gulf News team: “I grow tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, beetroots, spinach, eggplants, broccoli, chillies, coriander, mint leaves, cauliflower, and even bitter gourd.”
An aircraft technician at an airline, Vijayraghavan said he moved to his villa a year ago and began the small farm with his friend and colleague, Subash Krishnankutty Odatt.
Sure, you can head to the grocery near your house to get your greens anytime. “But the satisfaction of growing your own vegetables is entirely different,” he said.
The garden-fresh spinach leaves in his palak-dal (spinach and lentil) curry and freshly plucked beetroot leaves, stir-fried with grated coconut, make Vijayraghavan happy.
Giving time and care is of utmost importance, according to him. “I work 12-hour shifts in the office and get four working and off days, so I do get time to maintain the garden.
"Due to the climatic condition in this region, it's not feasible to grow everything round the year,” Vijayraghavan said.
“Summer is very tough for vegetables. It is not easy to keep the soil wet at all times. So, we are using chopped green grass at the base of the plants to keep them cool,” he added.
The duo aims to grow food without pesticides and chemicals and use natural and organic methods of removing pests. Moreover, their villa farm is not just for vegetables. “We have country chicken, ducks, turkeys, and tilapia fish. Our farm is an example of integrated farming. You can see I feed chicken and ducks with items grown on the farm, and they give me eggs. I use their manure for vegetation. I use the water from my fish tank for watering plants.”
While Vijayraghavan grows chemical- and pesticide-free food for good health, another UAE-based Indian expatriate, Fatema Nimuchwala finds it therapeutic. “If you have a balcony or a backyard and if you haven't given kitchen gardening a shot, you must try it once,” she urged.
Nimuchwala grew up watching her mum grow vegetables in a backyard garden. “It was a wonderful experience, and I wanted my daughter to experience the same growing up.
"So, when I moved to a big apartment with a decent-sized balcony, around three years back, I started a kitchen garden.”
Today, the 35-year-old event planner has vegetables, herbs, and fruits such as tomatoes, curry leaves, lemon, mint, coriander, fenugreek, green onions, green garlic, rocket leaves, chillies, potato, cucumber, and basil, growing on her balcony. “I use the mint leaves in my tea, and for green chutney with biryani. During winters, I plant green garlic, which I just love to sprinkle all over the egg and minced meat as well," she said.
“Just two days back, I harvested a few potatoes,” she added.
Nimuchwala emphasises that a kitchen garden doesn’t have to cost a lot – it can be maintained using things you have in the kitchen, in a small space like a balcony. She follows tips from gardening experts and said: “I soak kitchen scraps like banana peels, onion peels, orange peels, and potato peels for two days, and then I dilute it with fresh water. Then, I use this water for all my plants.
“Once in two days, I move the soil and water the plants, especially during winters. Annually, it probably costs me Dh60-70. Honestly, it’s only the initial investment like buying pots and soil that you need to spend on. The only store-bought thing I use is neem oil for natural pest control.”
Filipina expatriate Riza Gochuico could not agree more. A large terrace in her Dubai flat gave her enough space to experiment with growing her own food. She said: “Anything that has got leaves in my kitchen, I plant in my garden. I have tomatoes, eggplant, chillies, ginger, onions, cabbage, and even a banana plant."
Her passion for it comes from growing up seeing her dad's vegetable garden in the Philippines. “When my mum cooks, she doesn’t need to go to the grocery store to buy vegetables. She can get them from dad's garden. She also sells some to the neighbours."
Six months ago, when Gochuico was looking to move to a new apartment with her family of five, it was the large terrace space for a garden that became the deciding factor that this was the place they would move to.
Gochuico added: “In this time of the pandemic, we needed to find ways of keeping ourselves sane. And my kitchen garden helped me a lot. Though I always loved gardening, I didn’t know that this could give me super enjoyment and optimism every day. I look forward to it every morning and feel thrilled to see my plants growing,” she added.
According to Gochuico, her dad is the best gardening expert to whom she turns for any gardening doubts. She has a little helper too – her eight-year-old son Jacob.
It is also a cost-effective activity, Gochuico said. “Since most of the seeds and leaves came from my kitchen, I had to spend almost nothing. And our apartment has a built-in watering system connected to the building itself, so the water is free. I am a fan of growing my own food. It is more nutritious and tastier. It helps me to stay active and get my sunshine vitamin. It also saves us money - by spending a few dirhams on the seeds and supplies six months back, I am now producing vegetables that I use for our everyday food.
“I have a lot of tomatoes that I use for my seafood spaghetti, chillies for tinola (chicken soup), onion leaves for bulalo (beef shank soup), and a lot more.”
The 45-year-old is now preparing her garden for summer for the first time. She added: “I’m preparing already, reading up on what kind of vegetbles to plant during summer. I am also thinking of buying a mist blower."
Civil infrastructure engineer and a volunteer with the Dubai Expo 2020, Indian expatriate Rippendeep Kaur had the idea of starting her kitchen garden after visiting the Expo 2020 site. Two videos – one about the Sustainable City and the other about the use of hydroponics – inspired her. The Sustainable City contains 500 villas grouped into five residential clusters connected to an urban farm that runs the length of the city, producing food for its residents.
Kaur decided she would start planting seeds from her kitchen, so she bought potting soil and planters and set up a garden in her balcony.
A month later, she is pleased to see the shoots of a lemon plant, capsicum, and tiny carrot leaves. “I want to try to grow and eat organic and pesticide-free vegetables and fruits. I am also using organic compost as fertiliser. All I do is spend about 10 minutes daily to water the plants twice and check how they are doing."
Kaur’s carrot plants remind her of the carrots that her father had planted on their balcony in India. “It’s very exciting,” she said. “It’s like watching a baby grow.”
The 35-year-old, who came to the UAE in 2009 from the Indian city of Mumbai, said: “It’s easy, anyone can do it. All you have to do is use seeds, leaves, stalk, or stems from the food you eat, and instead of throwing it in the garbage, propagate it in the soil. Put seeds in tissue paper and dry them. Then shallow bury them in some potting soil and spray water to keep the soil moist, till you see shoots appearing.”
It's a return to Nature
Who doesn’t want to see some greenery first thing in the morning? Geetika Khanikar Dutta from the Indian state of Assam found her food garden bringing her closer to nature.
Dutta, who lived in an apartment with her family before COVID-19 hit, found herself feeling depressed. The family finally decided to move to a villa with some outdoor space. She said: “Even before moving, as soon as we got the keys to the villa, in August 2020, I started utilising my time in setting up some garden space."
Since there was no garden in the villa, it cost her close to Dh15,000 to make one, she added.
“Later on, I developed my backyard as my kitchen garden and shifted the saplings of vegetables from pots directly to the ground. I began growing okra, eggplants, tomatoes, mint, coriander, spinach, mustard, arugula, lemon, chillies, roselle (a species of Hibiscus), cucumber, and watermelon.
“Within a month, my garden looked full and green. I got my first harvest of okra and eggplants in November, and during the last three months, we’ve harvested lots of tomatoes... as of now, it’s more than 40kgs of tomatoes. I even distributed my homegrown organic tomatoes to my friends and felt very happy and satisfied with the results of my hard work.”
Dutta added that she turned to Google and gardening groups on Facebook for tips and help whenever doubt arose. She said: “Whenever in doubt, I post a question in the group and the members give their best suggestions.
“I also hired a gardener to water my plants and to clean my garden. Now, I have many varieties of flowers and hundreds of flowering pots, both outdoors and indoors.”
Her garden has become her favourite place. Dutta said: “I spent most of my time in my garden. Nowadays, plenty of birds and butterflies, even honeybees, come to my garden, and I enjoy watching."
Apart from gardening, Dutta’s other hobby is cooking. “It’s perfect as I use all my harvest in my cooking. I cooked fish curries and used the tomatoes in it, I made bhindi fry (okra fried) or masala bhindi (spiced okra with thick gravy), I used the eggplants to make Indian dishes such as baigan ka bharta (a preparation made with smoked eggplants, spiced and mashed), bharwa baigan (eggplants stuffed with spices and cashew paste), and fried eggplant. I used roselle leaves to flavour an authentic traditional Assamese fish curry called tengamora dia maasor jul or maasor tenga. It is a light and tangy fish curry.
"I make a salad with cherry tomatoes and arugula leaves. I use the spinach in my lentil curry, and the mint and coriander are blended to make chutney. While cooking, I know that I am cooking with the best and freshest ingredients from my garden.”
Now, the 42-year-old homemaker is all geared to grow some summer fruits and vegetables like cucumber and melons. “Let’s see how it works out as I am still new to gardening and need to learn a lot. But, at the same time, I love experimenting.”
For aspiring kitchen gardeners, Dutta has one important tip: “Love your plants like your own children, give them time, talk to them and try to find their problems. You will get solutions at your fingertips as you are digitally connected to many plant lovers.”
Tips for summer kitchen gardens
While many people have healthy kitchen gardens in winter months in the UAE, it’s harder to sustain the same plants in the summers. Sharjah-based Indian expatriate Vidya Sagar, who loves gardening, has suggestions for those who want to grow summer kitchen gardens.
Some vegetables and fruits that grow well in summers are okra, pumpkin, brinjal, beans, chillies, spinach, mint, coriander, basil
Highlighting the common mistakes people make, Sagar added: “Some tips to remember during the summer months are – always water the plants late evening and early mornings - not during the day time. Do not overwater. Turn over the root soil occasionally, and add natural fertilisers once a month only. And, always grow more than one plant of same variety for good pollination.”
The 66-year-old who has grown his kitchen garden for two years, successfully grows and harvests tomatoes, brinjal, pumpkin, bottle gourd, ashgourd, okra, moringa, chillies, spinach and much more in his front yard.
He spends about two hours daily, taking care of the plants. He added: “Growing your own produce is definitely costlier than buying from the store, but you can rest assured that you are having hygenic, organic, pesticide-free and healthy food.”
For amateur gardeners, he has tips for what they can use from their kitchen as fertiliser. He said: “Fill a large container or bucket with uncooked vegetable scraps, used tea leaves, coffee waste, and eggshells daily and layer them with dry leaves in between. Once full, keep the bucket covered for three months for some excellent nutritious feritiliser.”
He added: “Cooked food waste also can be decomposed using Bokashi system, a Japanese system in which you can use vegetables, fruits, meat and dairy scraps with a special type of wheat bran, but it is a bit laborious.”
The bokashi bin is a Japanese system that pickles your waste (bokashi means fermentation). It needs two bins and special bran inoculated with good bacteria. In goes all your cooked and uncooked kitchen waste and a sprinkle of the magic bran. Two weeks later, Bokashi waste breaks down rapidly into traditional compost. Dig it into the soil or add to a traditional bin.
Kitchen gardens’ impact on your health
Ask a five-year-old child where his/her food grows, and you could likely hear them say – supermarkets!
The importance of knowing your food source cannot be discounted, so we spoke with health experts who explained why kitchen gardens are becoming important.
Al Ain based nutritionist Twinkle Nihalani told the Food by Gulf News team: “How can growing your own food be bad in any way? How can fresh produce ever be bad? Today, food is procured from different avenues, and we are not sure what kind of fertilisers and pesticides are used to grow them. [The chemicals] can cause many side effects in our bodies.”
Today, food is procured from different avenues, and we are not sure what kind of fertilisers and pesticides are used to grow them. [The chemicals] can cause many side effects in our bodies.
It’s ironic that the same vegetables that we think are good for our health, could in fact be harming our bodies.
Deborah Vitorian, a holistic nutrition expert and wellness consultant, and founder of The Gut Feeling program, explained the phenomenon.
She said: “Most of our vegetables and fruits are laced with pesticides, which have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, and many other health problems, and what not many people know is that eating organic produce does not necessarily mean that you're avoiding these nasty substances”.
Only one avenue of action can help consumers know for sure that their food is free from harmful chemicals.
Vitorian said: “The only guaranteed way to make sure that what you have on your plate is a safe source of nutritious food is to grow your own food.”
The only guaranteed way to make sure that what you have on your plate is a safe source of nutritious food is to grow your own food.
Even if you buy completely safe produce from supermarkets, it may have fewer nutritional benefits compared to what you can find in your own garden.
A holistic health coach in Dubai, Shilpa Mundada explained how this happens. “Green leafy vegetables lose their nutritional value by the time they reach our kitchens as compared to freshly plucked green leafy vegetables that retain essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which can safely be eaten raw, sautéed or cooked”.
An added advantage of kitchen gardens is that it gets you up and outdoors. It requires moderate physical activity, depending on how vast the planted area is.
Mundada said: “Apart from ensuring organic produce, you are coming in contact with sunlight, it is helping you absorb vitamin D which is good for the bones and teeth. Body movements involved in such activities keep the heart healthy, immune system responsive, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and help with developing fine gross motor skills.”
Body movements involved in such activities keep the heart healthy, immune system responsive, reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, and help with developing fine gross motor skills.
3 quick tips on using your kitchen garden well
- Be aware of food expiration. “While buying packaged seeds, check for expiry date of the seeds” – Shilpa Mundada, holistic health coach
- Make your garden simple and efficient. “Despite the limitations of living in an apartment in Dubai, I still manage to grow some plants such as aloe vera, lemongrass and rosemary” – Deborah Vitorian, holistic nutrition expert and wellness consultant
- Use ingredients from your garden in your food and drinks. Nutritionist Twinkle Nihalani shared a drink recipe for weight loss, digestion and immunity. She said: “Boil four to five freshly plucked organic mint leaves from your kitchen garden and leave them soaked in water overnight. Next morning, drink the water and chew the organic leaves.”
The #kitchengarden global trend
If it is your first time gardening and you are flummoxed by words like “peat-free” and “high-potash”, don’t worry – millions of gardeners around the world are ready to help on social media.
The #kitchengarden community is thriving in a world where many are working from home. Hashtags like #growyourown and #seedup on Instagram and Facebook have accumulated over a million contributions from aspiring green thumbs, with pictures and videos of homegrown produce in different stages of life.
Many bloggers host their own instructional videos, hoping to help amateur gardeners with their challenges.
Here, we present five online channels to follow for all your kitchen garden needs:
1. Daisy Creek Farms with Jag Singh
US-based organic farmer Jagmeet Singh hosts a number of do-it-yourself and how-to garden videos on his YouTube channel. He began his kitchen garden journey by buying a 20-acre piece of land and turning it into a fruit and vegetable grove. With short video guides, Singh teaches aspiring gardeners interesting lessons, like what happens when you bury your kitchen scraps or which insects you should welcome in your garden.
2. A Way to Garden
Award-winning author Margaret Roach has been writing about gardening for 30 years, for publications such as Martha Stewart Living and The New York Times. Her website is a treasure trove of gardening resources, with a whole section dedicated to tips on how to tackle every aspect in the garden – from composting to planting seeds to even designing your green nook. She even has a planting calculator so you can take advantage of the weather when planting seeds. Don’t miss her weekly podcast, in which she hosts other well-known gardeners and discusses issues like how conservation starts in your yard, and overcoming the challenges of growing vegetables in small spaces.
3. The Survival Gardener
American author David The Good’s blog is all about how to grow the most food with the least amount of work. Both entertaining and informative, his blog has a number of resources to grow a successful kitchen garden in a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. For instance, he profiles ‘survival crops’: the easiest vegetables to grow in your balcony or backyard. His YouTube channel focuses on gardening hacks and experiments, from germinating seeds to techniques that will save you time in the yard.
4. The Old Farmer’s Almanac
This US based reference book has been teaching millions to grow their own food since 1792. However, it has made the switch to the modern era with a website that has hundreds of step-by-step guides on how to start, develop and grow your own kitchen garden – for free! Watch interesting how-to videos as well, that can help you involve the whole family in your kitchen garden project.
5. Urban Gardening
Gardening afficionado Mohit Rajput put away his engineering degree to dedicate himself to his first love – plants. With 18 years of experience growing his own produce in India, Rajput offers advice on not just harvesting fruits and vegetables, but also brightening up your garden with flowering plants. Some of his tips involve planting vegetables in containers – perfect for developing a kitchen garden in a small space.