Bency Baibe's terrace garden
Vengaserry's terrace garden Image Credit: Supplied

Bency Baby Vengassery, a sales manager, wanted to bring the greenery from his hometown Mannuthy in Thrissur, Kerala, India to his home in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Passionate about cultivation - a hobby that has been passed down generations in his family - he found a way to fulfil his wish. As you walk through his colourful terrace garden in Abu Dhabi, you are treated to the several vegetable plants and fruits - gourd, eggplants, rows of oregano pots, strawberries, tomatoes, along with more than two hundred varieties of leaves - ranging from medicinal herbs to tea.

Vengaserry has it all methodically listed out: There are over 30 varieties of vegetable plants, 14 flowering plants, 18 medicinal herbs, and 14 fruit plants, along with bonsais, and purifier plants. In the corner, you can hear the clucks from a chicken and the clatter of parakeets, while a white cat sits demurely on the swing. There are old bathtubs filled with water for fish. Vengaserry points to a corner where tortoises reside and proudly calls his home a ‘miniature zoo’. A small, cosy forest would perhaps be more accurate.

We just want to grow our own food. My wife wanted just a small garden - but it has become a family hobby. So all of us just enjoy this.

- Bency Baby Vengaserry
Bency Baibe with his family at home
Vengaserry says everyone in the family spends time in the garden.

Vengassery has lived in Abu Dhabi since 2005, later joined by his wife Bincy V Devassy, and three children, 13-year-old Angelina, seven-and-a-half year old Genelia, and five-year-old Isabella.

While it’s no mean feat to maintain a garden with such diverse flora, Vengaserry loves what he does. Talking about how he got into cultivation in the first place, he explained, “I was staying a few buildings away from this villa - and I was looking for a space to cultivate. I have kids, and I wanted them to understand what it is all about - I didn’t want them to miss Kerala. In our previous home - a few buildings away - we had a small area for gardening, and my wife insisted that I begin with curry leaves and green chillies. That’s how our journey began.”

He was guided by a friend who told him to relocate to the current apartment that has a sprawling balcony and he did so. “It was totally dusty and dirty earlier,” he says, looking at his garden with pride. On why he decided to grow vegetables as well, Vengaserry answers, “We just want to grow our own food. My wife wanted just a small garden - but it has become a family hobby. So all of us enjoy this.”

How does one go about greening their home on a budget?

It may sound easy, but it requires a lot of patience and vigilance. It’s a task for many to grow a flourishing garden in the UAE. However, there are a lot of ways to make your vegetation look designed, along with the levelling of plants and arrangements of colours, says Myca Yutuc a senior interior designer at the Albal Design Studio, based in Dubai. She explains how you can save more space, "We are living in the UAE and having a garden is a luxury that not many of us can afford it. So, we tend to use our balconies, terraces to have gardens, with hydroponics especially, it will save you a lot of space and it also doesn’t require too much attention.”

Hydroponics is a type of horticulture that involves growing plants without soil, by using water-based mineral nutrient solutions.

Plan ahead

Bency Baibe with his family....
Vengaserry with his family in the terrace garden.

For Vengaserry, cultivation is in his roots - so he didn’t really rely on a methodical step-by-step process. “I did research - or I checked with my grandparents. However, there in India it is different - the cultivation is in the land, and here it is in the pots. The climate is different and we need to get the right amount of storage of water in the sand,” he says. “We start the plant seeding from September - or end of August, that’s when we assess the climate. The mixing of soil is done in the second week of August with Al Ain sand, coco peat and our old soil with compost in it and Neem cake powder. Then we keep the mixture for solarizing (expose to sunlight) for at least two weeks to avoid unnecessary weed growth.”

As Vengaserry’s years of experience show, one needs to plan carefully and far ahead, which will lead to a successful, cost-saving result. Understand and learn about what you want to do, seek advice from gardening experts, first.

Buying seeds and the right kind of soil is the cheapest way to start, so that your plant is well-nourished and won’t wither way easily. However, you must know and plan ahead what kind of vegetables you are eating, says Yutuc. You don’t need to always purchase new plants, you can grow them from seeds. Seek an expert’s advice on what plant is sustainable for your area, keeping in mind the weather, sun and shade distribution so that you do not have to keep changing the plantation all over again, which will just double your cost, advises landscape architect Shalini Bhatnagar, CEO of Fiona Environs, based in Dubai.

The 3R Rule

Recycle, reuse and reduce - that’s the key to designing and cultivating your own garden at home.

Apart from becoming a fun family activity, this also gives you a chance to flex some creative muscles.

What you at first deem useless - might actually come quite in handy, and perhaps a dash of paint can spruce it up. Look for items that you can turn into something new like a pot or basin, and it will unleash the creativity in you, says Bhatnagar. Using materials of renewable purpose like old ladders that can be used as plant shelves, and vases can be used as lights, which just adds beauty to your garden as well. “By doing these creative things, you are helping the community and environment reduce the amount of trash we generate," she explains.

You can also create your own compost, with eggshells, which provide high calcium, potassium and phosphorus or vegetable scraps. Crush it and spread it on your soil and this will be absorbed by the roots - creating an instant fertilizer. Propagating your own vegetable can be very cost effective and reduce the need to buy new plants. Attend plant or seed swaps as well so that you can share what you have and you can get a new one without burning your pocket, says Yutuc.

Vengaserry shares that the composting process is done in his garden itself.

“We have vegetable waste and we do composting here itself,” adding that everything is recycled in the garden, including the fish water for the plants. He explains the many factors that contribute to the manure he uses for his plants - including wastage from the chicken coop, cow dung and urine, the groundnut cake wastage from mills, which are mixed with water and cultured for the plants.

He maintains a zero-wastage policy as he says and his garden is filled with recycled items from garbage, not even the wooden chairs and the bench that is placed to look like a comfortable living room. The tubs that are filled with fish water, were picked up from the trash too. “We haven’t spent any from our pockets,” he says. “This is all recycled - people keep throwing stuff, I don’t know why. The tubs I re-used for the fish tanks and water lilies. I have used lots of tubs for cultivation purposes and drilled holes into them. Most of the pots that you see are from outside.”

Advice for beginners?

Keep in mind the space and budget for designing your garden - don’t splurge unnecessarily, invest valuable time without knowing the basics and repent later. Look at growing vegetables that are easy and quick to grow, first. “The quickest way to save money by using your garden is by looking at what you spend the money on. Look at the vegetables that you buy regularly from a supermarket, grocery or farm shop,” says Yutuc. She emphasises, you don’t have to start with five plants at the same time - you can start with just two types of vegetables, and once you understand it better, you can add more vegetables till you get used to the process. Also, opt for sustainable plants and materials that are locally available to conserve water, so you can reduce your time and energy maintaining them. “Keep everything basic, it will never go out of style,” says Bhatnagar.

Dealing with climate

Growing tomatoes
Growing tomatoes Image Credit: Supplied

The biggest hurdles come from unpredictable and fluctuating temperatures, which can throw a spanner in the works. Nevertheless, there are ways to work around it - and it all comes back to careful planning and vigilance. Vengaserry has found a painstakingly difficult solution and a bit of a ‘headache’, but it’s a small price to pay, he says rather optimistically. “After June, it will be so difficult for vegetables. Initially, in the past few years, we were spraying water thrice a day - you need to pay constant attention to it. So now what I have done, is that I have installed this drip irrigation system and a mist - the mist system is connected everywhere, and that is co-ordinated with timers and it is a very big headache, and I need to keep checking on it morning and evening. The mist helps us to maintain the temperature in the hot climate.”

What can you grow in your garden in the UAE?

Tortoises in a corner
Tortoises in a corner Image Credit: Supplied

Predicting weather is a messy business and this is where you need to plan ahead meticulously so that you don’t suffer any disappointments. “During summer, it is best to grow cucumber, eggplant, bell peppers, carrots, spinach, salad greens and summer fruits like watermelon, berries, cherries and figs. Winter is more enjoyable in growing produce like tangerine, lemon, mandarin, rhubarb, kiwi, avocado and herbs like mint, sage, rosemary, thyme, coriander, etc grow quickly during this season,” advises Bhatnagar.

Keeping pests away

While there are chemical pesticides available for this job, it is far more efficient and organic to rely on the environment itself. It is instructive to utilise the natural properties of plant-friendly species such as citronella, lemongrass, eucalyptus, mint, lavender, marigold, basil, neem, Millingtonia or tree jasmine, Bhatnagar explains.

Vengaserry has an interesting method. He collects the neem nuts or Indian lilac from outdoor, which is crushed and immersed in water for a few days. After being mixed with water, it is sprayed as pesticides, and he assures that this method avoids pests and enhances growth and yield.

There’s another method too, called ‘companion planting’, where two plants are planted beside each other. Some plants are natural insect repellent, which keeps the pests away. Yutuc says, “For example, garlic is a good companion with potatoes as most insects can’t stand the smell and this serves as a bodyguard. There are many types of flowers that are a good companion with some vegetables, and this will drive away the pest.”

A family passion and creating sense of community

The entire family joins in the gardening venture
The entire family joins in the gardening venture Image Credit: Supplied

In the middle of Vengaserry’s garden, there is a basketball hoop as well. This terrace garden also serves as a playground for his three children, who join him in his gardening hobbies. Vengaserry says that the children are well-versed with the idea of recycling - nothing goes waste. “Everyone will have their time in the garden, they’ll play with the sand or mud, and know how to plant the seeds. The kids really know what to do with these seeds, like orange seeds, and bring it back to me and so we sow it again. They know that when you have a fruit, you can grow the plant and take the food from there.” Vengaserry adds that as soon as he and his wife finish work and return home by six, the family spends time in the garden, and it also helps his children to get away from the lure of television screens.

There’s a strong sense of community in gardening. Vengaserry explains that he is part of a group where all of them are avid gardeners, and where they share and discuss tips and advice. Yutuc furthers this point of community saying, “Having your own home agriculture will bring people together. Once they find out you’re into this hobby, some people will be encouraged and will have an idea of the do’s and don’ts. There will also be a constant exchange between gardeners alike. Some people have green fingers, others can do creative crafts. So, by having these contacts, you are creating a community and sooner or later, everyone will have their own home agriculture and compost.”

Your garden doesn’t need to be lush, fabulous and straight out of an advertisement - it can be something to suit your personality. As Vengaserry shows, it also serves as a fun community activity, where you can discuss and exchange ideas, and learn more. It’s also a difficult task - so keep in mind that if you do take up gardening, you pursue it seriously and not on a whim.

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(Note: Published in March 2023)