The first lesson for the would-be balcony gardener: You can do this. Sure, the air up there is hot. Yes, the sun scorches and the sand-laden winds do blow, but with a few tips, a watering can and a palette of hardy yet beautiful plants, you can counter almost anything the Emirates' elements throw your way.
Once you are ready to channel this optimism, it is time to shop for some containers. While almost anything untippable with drainage holes will do, you might heed the advice of Dave Clark, a veteran Al Ain gardener, and seek out a terracotta or ceramic piece. "Terracotta pots breathe", he says, and evaporation through the pot walls keeps the potting mix and roots cooler - a good thing in this climate. For similar reasons, you might embrace a few large pots rather than many little ones. A large pot won't heat up as quickly or need as much watering as a smaller one. If you mount those big pots on rollers, you'll also be able to reinvent your display whenever the mood strikes. And it will.
Most balcony plants should do just fine with the commercial potting mixes available at garden centres, says Samar Bani, of Exotica Emirates in Abu Dhabi. These soil-less mixes usually include peat moss, to hold moisture, and lightweight materials, such as Perlite, that help excess water drain away. Clark likes to cut the commercial mixes 50:50 with dune sand for better drainage. That extra sand weight might also save your plants from skimming across the balcony in a strong wind.
Watering, says Bani, is the balcony gardener's biggest challenge; not because there is any sophisticated technique involved, but because the key to watering is consistency and humans don't always score high in that category. "Any plant in a pot always needs more attention than the same plant in a garden," she advises. "The worst thing is that people forget to water and then come all of a sudden and try to compensate." She counsels gardeners to make a schedule and stick to it, in addition to learning about each species' particular requirements.
How often you need to water depends on the type and size of the plant and the container, whether you mulch the top of your pots (which reduces evaporation), and how much sun, heat and wind the plant is getting. Clark waters most of his pots daily in the summer, but perhaps only every two or three days in winter. He simply sticks a finger into the soil about 3cm to check for moisture. If dry, water until you see water escaping from the drainage holes.
New plants come from the nursery already pre-fed, says Bani, and should be fine without additional fertiliser for a couple of months. She suggests balcony gardeners get specific advice on fertilising when they buy their plants, because trees, shrubs and small flowering species differ in their needs. Woody specimens may benefit from slow-release type fertilisers, whereas blooming petunias and periwinkles may need the quick access to nutrients supplied by a liquid fertiliser. Bani warns that over-fertilising in hot weather is a recipe for disaster: "Be very careful and get advice always." Clark finds he must feed plants more here than he did in his native US because nutrients get flushed out quickly with all the watering.
One benefit of growing plants in a challenging environment is that potential pests and diseases are similarly challenged. There are not very many yet, and for the most part they are dealt with relatively easily. If you take a few minutes to inspect your plants while cleaning their leaves or rotating their pots (yes, that's another tip), you should notice most problems early on. When you do, Bani suggests taking a bagged sample of the affected plant parts to a nearby garden centre for diagnosis and a suggested solution. As you add plants to your balcony, it is a good idea to quarantine them for a few days before incorporating them in your display. They may be harbouring a critter or two, and a marauding slug snuggled in the potting mix will certainly make short work of your newfound optimism.
Next week: Simple design ideas and hardy plants for the beginner gardener's balcony.