A balcony garden
Katherine Xavier dismantled her trampoline and swing to make an arch for her kitchen garden Image Credit: Supplied

She had the will, so she found the way. Dubai-based fashion retail buyer Katherine Xavier was hesitant about pursuing gardening at first, after receiving a curry leaf plant from her father 10 years ago. She had a full-time job to manage, which involved travelling, as well as a family to look after. However, after buying plants on an impulse and doing some research, she decided why not?

Xavier didn’t let herself be hindered by confined spaces, and looked for methods to transform her 3 X 1.2 metre balcony into a garden. She opted for a vertical format, wherein she also grew her plants in self-made arches. She flexed her creative skills and used whatever she could find around her. “I dismantled my trampoline and garden swing, and created arches out of them. For pots, I used recycled milk cans, yoghurt tubs, soda bottles and mason jars,” she says. Xavier followed the 3R rule to pat - recycle, reduce and reuse. “All my pots and planters are recycled and reused. The hooks and hangers are from old curtains to old laundry hangers,” explains Xavier.

Katherine Xavier has over 100 pots in her garden
Katherine Xavier has over 100 pots in her garden Image Credit: Supplied

Gardening is now an integral part of her routine; it’s a stress buster. “It gives me a lot of peace and purpose,” she says. In her balcony today, she has over 100 pots, including seasonal flowering plants like petunias, marigolds, snapdragons, geraniums and calendulas. Apart from these, she has indoor plants that require shade from the sun’s rays. It requires much effort and supervision, but Xavier loves what she does.

It’s fun to green your home in UAE, it might require you to take several factors into consideration, including the weather. Don’t be discouraged; it’s far from impossible.

How to green your home: Weather check

Before you do anything, plan wisely.

Eda Ozturk Davasligil, a holistic health coach and Dubai-based gardening expert, says that one must always plan well in advance when it comes to gardening. “I plan two months in advance,” she says. Research what you want to grow, and see whether it grows well in the summer or winter, she advises.

Most plants can be grown in winter. However, summer in the UAE is a tricky business. For summer she advises, “You can grow melons, watermelons, sweet potato and basil, among others.” Davasligil explains that her family and she use green shade for their garden to protect the plants from the intense sunlight. “From May to October, we use green shades to decrease the plants’ exposure to sunlight. Some plants can still be grown, if not in the shade, including pomegranate and lemons.”

It was quite the challenge for Davasligil at first, as she made several mistakes. “It was hard to understand the weather here. I spent the first couple of years just trying to understand it. So I just started with a few pots, and it increased in time. I began with tomatoes and peppers.” Her garden that seems ideal for a fairytale setting, now has around 90 varieties of plants including cherries, bananas, papayas, onions, lettuce, kale, varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, lemons, passion fruits, radish, strawberries, just to name a few.

Eda Ozturk Davasligil in her garden
Eda Ozturk Davasligil says that she spent the first couple of years in the UAE trying to understand the weather Image Credit: Supplied

Keep in mind….

It’s all about making most of the space available to you.

While space might generally be a problem for many, Davasligil advocates the use of hydroponics, which is a technique of growing plants using a water-based nutrient solution than soil. Moreover, preferably try not to buy new pots, recycle and reuse from whatever you can find in your environment. You’ll be surprised to see what you can find!

An indoor-gardening expert, Anirudh Gupta, a 55-year-old Dubai-based senior manager at a corporate organisation, has transformed his living room into an elegant forest. If you want to green your balcony or indoors, there are a couple of rules. “First you need to check for the natural light availability and which side the balcony is facing. This will determine what plants to place and where,” he says. As the flow and amount of sunlight during the day will be affected by the direction the space is facing.

An indoor garden setting
Anirudh Gupta says if you’re buying plants from a nursery, note the environment and the watering schedule of the place that you are buying from Image Credit: Supplied

Secondly, monitor the air movement for indoor plants, as they prefer a light breeze. “You must also keep a check on the humidity levels for indoors and outdoors,” he says.

Next step, if you’re buying plants from a nursery, note the environment and the watering schedule of the place that you are buying from, adds Gupta. "Keep those going and then gradually move into your schedule. If you’re buying indoor plants, buy 30 per cent of what you think you need. Do not buy flowering plants if the light requirements do not suit your home and balcony,” he says. Gupta also advises to check with the nursery gardener about how much time each plant requires, as that will depend on how much time you can invest in it.

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

• Get yourself a soil humidity meter– this is invaluable to know when to water your plants.

• Make sure you don’t move your plants too often as they will get used to a certain space and may not readjust easily.

• To raise humidity indoors, get a humidifier from any supermarket.

• If you have pets, before you buy a plant, please check if it is toxic to animals and humans. Even if it is moderately toxic, do not get those.

(Courtesy Anirudh Gupta)

Keeping it sustainable

The soil has life too, as Davasligil says. She emphasises the importance of understanding its dynamics. “The soil is a living organism. If you keep it healthy, your plants will be healthy,” she explains.

Davasligil, who lives with her two children Ege and Kuzey aged five and seven respectively, and husband Ozhan, ensures that her family utilises their own ‘kitchen scraps’ for the soil. She elaborates on the different methods of composting, which are Bokashi, traditional and vermicomposting. In the case of Bokashi bin composting, you leave the scraps of waste to ferment in a tightly-sealed bin, away from the sunlight.

Around two weeks later, you mix it with the traditional compost, which is just normal waste from the kitchen. “With Bokashi kind of composting, you can include dairy, meat, fish scraps, not just vegetables. After a month or so, you get soil that is very rich and the plants get all the nutrients,” says Davasligil. The family carries out vermicomposting as well, which uses red worms to quicken the breakdown of organic materials.

How not to make it a pest party

While healthy soil helps in keeping pests at bay, there are other several other steps that need to be taken to prevent your garden from being overrun. One method is companion planting, where you grow certain plants in pairs.

When planted together, such combinations can help pollination and prevent pests from attacking. Davasligil elaborates, “I always add flowers and herbs next to my main crops. If I want to grow tomatoes in my garden, I add basil and marigold. Each plant has a different smell, the pests wouldn’t come. If you make a garden just for tomatoes, the pests will come to party there,” she says. In organic gardening, the use of mesh covers are useful as well, she adds, because in this case chemical pesticides are not used.

There are other natural ways to combat pests too. Hassanair Kizhake Pithayil, a Dubai-based accountant and another gardening expert, finds it a rather tricky business to deal with pests. “It’s very hectic. We put tobacco in water and then spray it. Sometimes we use neem. We boil it and then use it. In an organic way, it is rather difficult, but we are still trying.”

Hassanair Pathiyil
Hassanair Pathiyil says he sprays neem to keep away pests Image Credit: Supplied

A strong sense of community

There’s a joy in sharing your passion with your family.

Hassanair Kizhake Pithayil, who has cultivated a forest-like garden outside his villa, enjoys spending time in his garden after work hours, with his wife Zaneera Kalathiparambil. It’s a hard task, but he loves what he does. His gardening journey began with curry leaves, which he brought from Kerala as it wasn’t easily available in the UAE at that time.

After facing dissatisfactory results with the soil outside his home, he went and bought packets of soil from Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Today, his small garden patch has grown substantially, filled with a variety of vegetables and flowers, including brinjal, capsicum, okra, bitter gourd, potatoes, beetroot and cabbage. His pride resides in the tomatoes. “We have all kinds of tomatoes. We have over 40 varieties of tomatoes here,” he says.

Davasligil describes how her children, Ege and Kuzey aged five and seven, harvest the carrots. She says with a laugh, “I’ve always made sure to give them the freshest and healthiest of food. So, I want them to come with me to the garden and see how food is growing. Some of the crops are really magical for them. So we give them the seeds for carrots, and after harvesting, they’re always so amazed to see how long they are. I always let them harvest the carrots.”

Eda Ozturk Davasligil's son
Eda Ozturk Davasligil's sons enjoy helping her harvest carrots Image Credit: Supplied

The Turkish expatriate is eager to teach others about gardening as well, and prevent them from making the mistakes she had made in the early years. It’s an exchange of learning, as she says. On how she builds her knowledge, she explains, “If you are a curious person, you research. We have a gardening community in our area, so we share our experiences. We meet time to time with people, so I learnt so much about pests and fertilisers from them. Even though you might know gardening, this is a different climate, so they really helped me.”

How to grow a kitchen garden in your balcony:

1. Selecting the container size: It is possible to grow any vegetable in containers if there is large enough space for their roots. Choosing the right container is crucial. We can grow squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons in 20-gallon containers whereas peppers, eggplants can be grown in 10-gallon pots. Any leafy greens or herbs can be grown in smaller containers such as 5 gallon. If we choose the container that’s too small then plants will not reach their potential and fruit heavily.

2. Light requirement: Most of the vegetables especially fruits need full sun to thrive, sometimes more than six hours. It is possible to grow herbs and leafy greens in 3 to 4 hours of sun so we need to choose the location accordingly. During intense summer heat, you can add shaded covers to prevent the sun's rays from directly affecting your plant. 

3. Soil preparation: High quality, healthy soil is very important when growing vegetables. Most of the vegetables like slightly acidic, organically rich, well-draining soil structure. To achieve this we can make a soil mixture of cocopeat, compost and perlite with same measurement from each, mix it well and use it as growing medium rather than buying chemical fertiliser added potting soils. You can try 1/3 peatmoss or cocopeat and 1/3 compost with 1/3 perlite. 

4. Watering: We need to keep an eye on soil moisture level in our climate as the weather is generally hot, so the soil tends to dry quicker. Some vegetables like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers don’t like moisture fluctuations in the soil so they benefit from regular watering whereas herbs, peppers, eggplants need to be dried between watering. You may need to water your plants once a day after checking the soil by sticking your finger down into the soil about an inch. If the soil feels dry, add water; if you're not sure, wait and check later in the day. Too much water may wash out the nutrients in the soil and can cause root rot.

5. Fertilising: If we want to get good yields, we need to fertilise our plants regularly. Most of the vegetable plants are heavy feeders. They need food to form the fruits. Bi-weekly liquid feed with fish fertilizer or seaweed fertilizer, top dressing the soil with compost every month, and using slow release granular organic fertilizers at the beginning of the season will be beneficial.

6. Pests: It is important to be vigilant about pests. We can use companion planting by planting flowers and herbs next to our vegetables to keep the pests away and attract beneficial insect, which eat them. We can also spray neem oil periodically to protect them. Checking the plants every day helps us to realise the problems early and solve them before they spread. For instance, if you are growing tomatoes, you can grow basil and marigold.

This article was first published on March 28, 2023