Sam George Abraham nurturing his ground floor apartment’s balcony garden that made him the winner of this year’s Grow Your Campaign by Dubai Municipality. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A farming revolution has been spreading across Dubai and beyond since Dubai Municipality started its Grow Your Food campaign in 2015.

Large numbers of kitchen gardens and school gardens have cropped up across this desert city known for arid lands and high dependence on imported food.

One of the major objectives of the campaign is to increase the participation of the residents in cultivating food in Dubai, which depends on imported food for over 90 per cent of its food requirements, and contribute to its food security.

The campaign which runs a contest for residents, educational institutions, government and private companies, and centres for ‘people of determination,’ has seen the number of participants increase this year, said Eman Ali Al Bastaki, Director, Food Safety Department, Dubai Municipality.

“The numbers [of participants] increased from 150 to 1,600; private schools from 20 to 55, government schools from two to 10. In addition, 15 corporate companies and 12 government institutes also participated this year,” she said.

Creative utilisation of space, healthy ways of growing produce, sustainability, water utilisation, varieties grown, teamwork, planning and cleanliness are the criteria for choosing the winners of the contest.

Shugufta M. Zubair, a senior food safety awareness support officer, said a major achievement of the campaign was a reduction in food wastage in school canteens.

“This was achieved by installing ‘bokashi bin’ systems. This system converted food waste into natural fertilisers used for growing crops, thus reducing food wastage by 30–40 per cent in schools.”

As many as 114 varieties of crops, including rare varieties like white chillies, were grown by schools and residents. More than three tonnes of fruits and vegetables were grown by schools, she said.

Schools initiated GYF markets and over 200kgs of vegetables and fruits were sold by each participating school.

Around 3.5 acres of land were cultivated by schools while the size of balcony gardens and villa gardens were 1.5 metres by 1.2 metres, and 1,500 square feet respectively.

“The participants also used various sustainable techniques and recycling methods. There was an increase of 45 per cent in the rate of hydroponics used by participating schools and residents while many used drip irrigation techniques.”

“Some schools set up green houses and vertical gardens. Some schools made best use of water by recycling water used for ablution and from air conditioners,” said Zubai, who was also the coordinator of the campaign.

Natural pesticides made from neem and other natural ingredients, as well as egg shells as nutrients, were used for organic farming in homes and schools, she added.

Kurt Seifarth, regional agricultural counselor with the Office of Agricultural Affairs, the US Consulate General in Dubai who was one of the judges for the contest, said the campaign helped children understand that they can play a part in food security and that even a garden in a small space can help you make at least one trip less to the grocery.

“These Dubai residents have proved that there is no excuse of space and water constraints that can stop anyone from gardening. This is really inspirational and a model for others,” he pointed out.

Gulf News spoke to some of the winners of the campaign and experts to help its readers with their tips about growing vegetables in their apartments and gardens.


How to grow your own vegetable garden in UAE

Dubai: Sudheesh Guruvayoor is perhaps the most acclaimed Indian agricultural enthusiast in the UAE. An electrical engineer-turned-farm supervisor, he has two world records to his credit in the field of farming in the UAE.

He believes it is important to make gardening a sustainable experience.

Summer time, said Guruvayoor, is a nature’s largesse as many varieties can be successfully grown in the kitchen garden.

A range of vegetables, and leafy greens, are perfect produce for summer planting.

“Commercial leafy greens have more pesticides on them. So, it is better to grow them at home,” he said.

“Green and red spinach, mint, long beans, curry leaves, varieties of ladies’ finger, eggplant, bird’s eye chillies - which are good for cholesterol - need only a little bit of shade. So, you can try planting all these in summer.”

“You can even grow a drumstick plant in a bucket with holes. You can use the leaf and fruits of this plant.”

Winter months, according to Guruvayoor, are ideal for planting cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, tomatoes, chillies, capsicum, coriander leaf, etc.

“If you put in extra effort, you can even grow banana and papaya in the balcony space,” said Guruvayoor, who has even harvested rice paddy in his villa’s backyard.

How to grow your own vegetable garden

How Sharjah-based teacher started her garden

Dubai: Shaima Al Sewari, a Yemeni teacher at the American School of Creative Science in Sharjah, had two main reasons to start vegetable farming.

“The first was to start my own garden and to learn the process.”

The second was her desire to eat organic food.

“I also discovered that farming helped me relax and feel excited to visit my plants. My garden has become a place to gather for my family members who enjoy a cup of tea in front of the garden while watering the plants,” said Shaima, who lives in Al Barsha.

She started with a small grassy area in front of her house.

“We removed the grass, got new sand and natural fertiliser. We learnt by experience,” she said.

The first thing the family planted was herbs such as mint, coriander and parsley which grow most of the year in the UAE.

“Then we moved to other vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, zucchinis and cucumbers. This gave our garden colour and variety and an almost year-round harvest. We also tried planting fruits such as strawberries, mangoes and bananas.”

The skill of growing produce, said Shaima, a mother of three, calls for multiple points of focus.

“You start with good quality sweet sand [available in nurseries]. Then you add compost and mix it with red sand. Once you have your base, you can start planting seasonal produce either as seeds or regrow from your kitchen scrap or use seedlings.”

In the summer, Shaima’s family plants greens such as spinach and odoratum and basil.

“However, summer plants require much care and attention and more watering. Also, watering needs to be done early morning or by sunset,” she pointed out.

One only needs a small area for planting, she said.

“Areas like the balcony, kitchen windowsill, can be used for your small home garden. You can use pots to plant and then move [them] to your garden if you have more space.”


Yana loves to work at her 'edible garden' at her Dubai villa

Dubai: Yana Samir, whose blog on her home farming experience is now helping several residents in the UAE enjoy the fruits of labour, was first exposed to the beauty of nature and gardening as a child growing up in Russia.

“I spent most of my summer holidays in the countryside with my grandparents who would tend to their big garden. I would help with the planting, weeding, and other tasks. They planted the seed of love for gardening in me,” said Yana, who moved to the UAE in 1996.

“I was always surrounded by green things,” she said. So when she moved here, she was determined to start home farming.

“I was pregnant with my youngest daughter and I saw a small plant kit. It had a little pot with soil and a round paper with seeds in it. All we had to do was fill the pot with soil, cover the seeds with paper and water them.

“It grew into a tiny herb garden.” Following this green endeavour, Yana and her kids began planting more things. “We planted beans and watched them grow.”

Beans, she said, grow fast and are an excellent tutorial for children in the science of growing.

“Parallel to this, I would always have a few onions growing in water, atop a fridge. Basically, you take an onion bulb, seat it in water (only the lower part) and you have fresh green onions for a good time.”

When the family moved to their own villa in Al Warqa in 2011, Yana got a good-sized plot. “I had grand plans. But little did I know about the challenges of gardening in the UAE. My basic knowledge was based on what my parents did in Russia. So I started planting in the sand with little potting soil in the middle of spring, closer to summer.’

Impatiently, she watched every year to see if something sprouted.

“Nothing came up. Maybe a few sprouts and that’s it. I was frustrated but not discouraged.”

Next, year, she embarked on round two.

“I grew the seeds in pots this time. But again almost nothing. The next year, I did my research and finally figured out my mistakes. I spent hours on the internet, bought gardening books and learnt. And [eventually], I had an edible garden,” said Yana, who now has a collection of books.

“In 2014, I started a blog mylittlegardenindubai.blogspot.ae. I wanted people to avoid the mistakes that I made, to be inspired and encouraged. I also have a Facebook page by the same name.”

In her garden, Yana grows most of the common vegetables. “During winter I almost don’t buy any from the store.

“I also have Asian greens such as kangkong which grows year round in my garden and Chinese cabbages, arugula, lettuce and more. I plant most of them in September-October, but some like lettuce are planted in late fall. I also grow melons, pumpkins, luffas and gourds.”

In addition, Yana has fruit trees such as Indian almond, pomegranate, citrus trees, mango, a date palm, moringa (drumstick) and others.

“Some of them have already fruited, some not yet.”.

Hana’s tips

* Start with the right soil.
* Start at the right time.
* Start small.
* Choose the location wisely (for example full sun in Europe is not the same as full sun in UAE).
* Choose the right varieties (some will only grow when it’s really cold, some need very long season).
* Water correctly.
* Use mulch to conserve water.
* Re-use kitchen water (like rice water, water you use to wash veggies).
* Start a compost bin.

Hana’s garden bounty

* Tomatoes
* Beans
* Cucumbers
* Beets
* Radishes
* Turnips
* Okra
* Courgettes
* Carrots
* Onions
* Leafy greens such as Swiss chard and molukhia