These are the weeks when gardeners can get frustrated. The new season is almost with us but the heat still prevents anything but cursory morning and evening inspections of the garden, and the plants whose renewed growth is a telltale sign of summer's end - hibiscus and bougainvillaea - are yet to break out from their heat-induced dormancy.
However, these are also the weeks when experienced gardeners and novices alike can learn important lessons, and when plans can be made that will help to make next season's plot a pleasure to garden as well as a horticultural success.
Some friends recently invited me to their new home so that I could give them advice on their first garden in the UAE. When I arrived, I was met with apologies, firstly for being asked on such a visit in the heat of late summer, and then for being invited to a garden devoid of plants, without even so much as a blade of grass. Fortunately, I was soon able to put my friends' minds at rest. The garden is a smart, contemporary, well-built courtyard with built-in pergolas and tensile shade canopies. There is even an outside tap.
I was surprised and impressed that shade and water, the two most important factors in any UAE garden, had already been taken care of. While we would have to work with restrictions - the only space for planting was in a 60cm-wide raised bed that ran around the inside of the perimeter wall - all the bones of a beautiful garden were already in place. All that was needed now was the right planting medium, a palette of suitable, hardworking plants and an irrigation system and maintenance regime that would sustain them.
A thorough understanding of your garden's peculiarities is essential when it comes to choosing plants that will not only survive but also thrive. Among these factors, aspect and soil are key. It is important to know how much sun your garden gets and when it get it. My friends' garden faces south-west, which is not ideal when it comes to gardening in the UAE. Fortunately, a taller, adjacent building also shades it, so their plot, which should be the sun's anvil, receives only indirect light. Unfortunately, given the strength of the sunlight here, reflected heat can be a problem, especially when it bounces off buildings and walls.
To mitigate this, we decided to clad as many of the garden's vertical and horizontal surfaces as possible with climbers and vines. Not only would these provide extra shade, but the water lost from their leaves through evaporation would also help to lower temperatures as well as create a sense of "greenness" in a garden where plants have very little space.
Even though they will not be purchased or planted until later in the year, we chose the Rangoon creeper, Quisqualis indica, with its scarlet and white blooms, to clothe the pergola and bougainvillaea, and jasmine, the orange trumpet flower (Campsis radicans) and yellow mandevilla (Urechites lutea) to dress the courtyard walls. Not only will they provide colour and flower throughout the year but some will also introduce fragrance, something that is often missing from gardens in the UAE.
Understandably, given their newfound space, my friends quickly bought furniture for their garden. Rather than introducing lots of pots and shrubs that would leave the space feeling crowded, we decided to use fewer, larger pots and to plant these with architectural, drought-tolerant plants including the desert rose (Adenium obesum), frangipani (Plumeria obtusa) and mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata).
To help make sure that the chosen plants stand the best possible chance of success, the existing planting material in the raised beds, a very light, desiccated potting mix covered with a layer of pine mulch, will be enriched with locally produced Al Qaria organic compost from the Abu Dhabi Compost plant. Not only is this a more sustainable alternative to the European compost mixes that are often available from nurseries and plant souqs, but it is also considerably cheaper and, because it is produced from horticultural and agricultural waste, is the type of organic compost that lasts longer and has a greater ability to retain moisture.
The woodchip mulch will also be replaced with a sweet sand and gravel mulch. Mulches reduce the temperature of the soil and the evaporation of water from it. Sand and gravel mulches work by allowing irrigation water and dew to percolate down into the root zone and then resist its movement back up to the surface by capillary action. If the underlying soil has a higher water-holding capacity than the sand, the water will remain there until it is used by the plants. In effect, sand mulches are like one-way doors that allow water to flow downwards toward the soil but do not let it out again.
This only leaves the installation of an automatic drip irrigation system. While many are available, their effect and efficiency will be improved by inserting "sand tubes" below each drip emitter. The amount of water lost to evaporation from a drip system depends upon the type of soil under the drip emitter. Slowly draining soils can become saturated and lose water to the air before it can penetrate to plants' roots. One way to overcome this problem is by setting the drip emitters on top of a column of sand that reaches to the depth of the root zone. Water from the emitter rapidly penetrates down to the root zone before it can evaporate from the surface.
It is surprising how often factors such as climate, aspect, irrigation and soil are either forgotten or ignored. Whether you have an established garden or are just starting out from scratch, now is the time to consider these issues and to act accordingly. Early successes with plants and gardens are almost entirely a matter of understanding your context and getting the basics right.
I often see people searching the trees in my local park for fruit, but the trees in question do not look like fruit trees. I've seen the fruit lying on the ground and they are small, sometimes green and sometimes brown. Do you know what they are?
This isn't an easy question because I would need to see the trees and fruit for myself, but if the tree isn't a date palm, then it's most likely a jujube, or Ziziphus zizyphus.
These trees are found throughout Asia and the Middle East, where they are called red, Chinese or Indian dates. They are also grown in southern Europe and in Spain. The fruit can be seen in markets where it is commonly referred to by its Catalan name, Ginjol.
The best fruits, apparently, are partially ripe. Unripe, green fruits tend to be bitter while overripe brown fruits can be slimy because they are high in mucilage, a substance found in many plants and believed to have medicinal properties. Ziziphus fruits feature widely in traditional remedies and cuisine throughout south and South East Asia.
Garden buy: Marimekko Kumina tablecloth
As far as we're concerned barbecue season is just round the corner. What better time to spruce up our outdoor eating areas?
This tablecloth from Crate and Barrel is a good place to begin. With its bright summery tones and bold pattern, it's the perfect backdrop to a casual outdoor dining experience.
Designed by Erja Hirvi, the Marimekko Kumina orange tablecloth features oversized pumpkins, courgette and squash flowers in a vibrant crescendo of colour. Kumina is made of cotton twill and available in three sizes. Crate and Barrel, Mall of the Emirates and Mirdif City Centre, Dubai.