Good gardens are surprising and unpredictable, which is one of the reasons why visiting them is so enjoyable. But I have to admit that a lesson in pest control was not the reason for my recent meeting with Khalid Butti Al Shamsi, the owner of Abu Dhabi Organic Farm, the UAE's first, largest and only internationally certified organic food producer.
Unsurprisingly, Al Shamsi can speak eloquently and at length about food miles, food security and the burgeoning organic food market in the UAE, but after a couple of hours in his company, I learnt lasting lessons about dealing with unwanted predators, diseases and pests.
More than a decade in the making, the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm now stands at 55 hectares, with 1.5 hectares of greenhouses. It grows more than 60 types of fruit, vegetables and herbs. It also includes 1,200 date palms, a forest planted with 12 indigenous tree species, and a wide variety of livestock including camels, goats, pheasants, ducks, chickens, quail, guinea fowl and even peacocks.
In addition to looking spectacular, the peacocks are one of several species that Al Shamsi employs as a form of biological management and control. "We handle all of our pest control naturally. We have our own lab, and twice a week we release our own, home-grown ladybugs into the fields to eat up all the green and black flies. We also breed other kinds of insects and let all kinds of birds nest on our land."
Despite the fact that a small flock of green parakeets repeatedly plays havoc with the farm's crop of maize, Al Shamsi would not be without them. "You will not find a scarecrow on my land. The birds come to eat a lot of the pests, so we don't want to scare them away. Plus, we grow a large plot of sunflowers in the middle of the farm so the resident birds can enjoy eating their seeds instead of our strawberries. You will find the whole cycle of nature on this farm."
As well as using birds and insects, Al Shamsi enlists the humble aubergine in his continuing battle with unwanted pests and disease. "We call them our early warning system," he beams as we inspect plants placed strategically outside the enormous greenhouses where he grows his most valuable crops.
"If you have any problems, you can find them here first and control them before they spread inside the greenhouses."
Just like a local domestic gardener, one of the biggest challenges Al Shamsi faces comes from aphids that cluster on new buds and stems, suck the sap and then leave plants weakened and distorted. A by-product of aphid attack is a sticky residue called honeydew. This is actually nothing more than excess sap that is excreted by the aphids during feeding. However, when it collects on nearby stems and leaves, it is colonised by sooty moulds that create an unsightly, sticky mess.
In the garden, this can be washed off with soapy water, but you will need to do this regularly and over a long enough period of time to make sure that you eliminate the aphids at each stage of their life cycle. Organic gardeners in Australia have discovered that a spray made from the boiled leaves of Lantana camara is an effective aphid insecticide, but take great care and wear gloves when handling this plant because both its leaves and berries are highly toxic. To make the insecticide, collect 0.5 kilogram of lantana leaves and boil them in 1.5 litres of water. Strain off the liquid and dilute it with an equal amount of clean water.
Another common pest that can have a catastrophic effect is the mealy bug or woolly aphid, an insect more commonly associated with succulent plants and houseplants in Europe. An infestation of mealy bugs spread throughout the region in early 2000 and almost wiped out the entire population of tropical hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinesis). Before the attack, hibiscus had been one of the most popular flowering shrubs in parks and gardens but thanks to the mealy bug its use is now far more limited.
Mealy bugs are white, soft-bodied, wingless insects that look like miniature trilobites when viewed up close. An infestation first manifests itself as an accretion of white fluffy material in the leaf and stem joints of new growth on plants. Just as with aphids, their honeydew excretions can be colonised by sooty moulds.
People are commonly advised to wash mealy bugs off with a jet of water. However, I have never found this particularly effective. Another technique for removing them is to use a toothbrush and an extremely weak solution of soapy water made from washing up liquid. The soap helps to break down the mealy bug's waxy covering.
Vine weevil is an insect pest that infests a wide range of ornamental plants and fruits, especially those grown in containers. Adult vine weevils eat a plant's leaves in summer, while the white grubs eat its roots in winter. Because these attacks take place throughout the year, the vine weevil is one of the most devastating and feared of all garden pests.
One of the most common symptoms of a vine weevil attack is the appearance of irregular holes along the margins of a plant's leaves. The cause of these holes, small grey or black nocturnal beetles with slightly bulbous bodies, appears at dusk and dawn at the beginning and end of a night's feeding. When they are disturbed, they simply drop off a plant and pretend to be dead. You should call their bluff and take this opportunity to kill them.
The maggot-like larvae are very difficult to find because they live buried deep in the root system of the infected plant. Plants grown in the ground are less susceptible to vine weevil, and older, established plants can sometimes withstand an attack, but unfortunately there is no effective organic method for controlling this pest. You will need to use a chemical, pyrethrin-based spray instead.
Visits to the Abu Dhabi Organic Farm can be organised through its farm shop, Mazaraa, in Mushrif, 02 447 9933
My garden is surrounded by huge damas trees and their insidious roots have killed all the grass, leaving a sandy mess. I'm renting, so obviously don't want to spend too much on trying to get the grass back to its original condition.
So far, I'm considering putting down new turf or spreading more soil and planting seeds, but I have a feeling I will be back to square one in a couple of months if I take this route. Another option is fake grass, but the quotes I've been given are very expensive.
I don't think my landlord would appreciate me cutting down the trees, which, ironically, provide us with excellent privacy. What would be my best option?
Your instincts are right and, unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this conundrum.
Conocarpus lancifolius has a dense, fibrous root system that will oust other plants by effectively outdrinking them, especially something as delicate and shallow rooting as grass. They also generate considerable amounts of litter in the form of dropped leaves, flowers and seeds, so I would abandon the idea of trying to grow anything.
Artificial turf, like gravel, will only draw attention to the fact that the area is a mess, so I would opt for an inexpensive and discreet bark mulch that will blend visually with the litter.