From seed to harvest: some essential advice for gardeners in the UAE
The National has teamed up with Grow Your Food, an initiative supported by Dubai Municipality, to create this comprehensive, UAE-specific planting guide. Committed to getting the UAE to start planting its own produce, Grow Your Food has been running a series of seed-planting workshops, offering advice on what, when and how to plant basic herbs and vegetables, according to organic principles.
The workshops have been led by Mariam Saeed Al Jenaibi, the Emirati owner and chief executive of Al Ebdaa Al Zahabi Investments, an agricultural consultancy. For those new to gardening, Al Jenaibi recommends trying herbs and leaves (such as lettuce, spinach and rocket) as an easy starting point. You’ll see immediate results and the plants will continue to grow and produce throughout the season.
Reference our planting calendar for tried-and-tested vegetables and salads, guidance on how to plant, and likely harvest periods. Remember that root vegetables such as carrots and beets need to be phased across the season to ensure a continuous crop, while leaves, tomatoes and peppers will continue cropping from the same plants.
Most plants listed here will continue to be productive until summer temperatures start to rise again in May or early June. Indicative times listed for harvest are from the planting of seed, although may vary according to prevailing conditions and individual varieties. If space and/or time is limited, focus on what you love to eat and those plants which establish quickly and continue to renew (such as leaves and lettuce).
• Read the seed packet to find out how much space is necessary for each type of vegetable you are growing (look out for varieties recommended for grow bags, containers or hanging baskets, if your space is limited).
• It’s now cool enough to plant into soil or containers directly. However, to protect some of the plants that start as very small seeds or are slower growing, it may be helpful to start them off in seed trays with potting soil or potting compost, before transplanting them to containers, raised beds or the ground.
• Once your seedlings have germinated and have become established, thin them out if they’re too close together, gently handling seedlings by their leaves rather than the stem, and disturbing the root systems as little as possible. If plants are packed too closely together, their growth will be stunted.
• Give some thought ahead of time to how much space some of the plants will need. The majority of the plants featured in this grid will grow in containers, the exception being melons, marrows and pumpkins, which really require their own patch of ground. Sweet potatoes can be container-grown – think of using a dustbin or something similar to give them enough space to expand, but a raised bed or soil patch offers more flexibility.
• Seeds, seed trays and other garden supplies can be purchased at larger supermarkets such as Carrefour, Géant and LuLu, as well as Ace Hardware, the Dubai Garden Centre and Al Warsan plant market. Also consider sourcing seed stock when travelling – a number of varieties that thrive in the UAE originate in South India, where varieties are adapted for growth in high temperatures.
• Plants need organic matter to thrive, and this should be dug through the soil before planting seeds or seedlings directly into the ground. When adding fertilisers, give the ground two or three days to settle, or else the mix may scorch young plants. The sweet red sand found in places like Al Ain will better support plant growth. Closer to the coast the soil is more salty, so good preparation ahead of planting will ensure that crops aren’t disadvantaged by poor soil conditions.
• Always buy organic feed, fertilisers and pesticides for food crops, and make sure any contractor working on your garden understands what you are using and how to use it.
• If space is limited, try growing tomatoes directly from a split grow bag – it will service two or three small plants.
• If using containers or boxes for growing, you may wish to blend sweet sand (try about 40 per cent to 45 per cent, which helps to control soil temperature and prevent roots from overheating) to about 40 per cent to 45 per cent potting soil (buy organic where you can, and/or look for blends specifically for growing fruit and vegetables, to which organic matter or compost can be added), and add a mix with 10 per cent to 20 per cent perlite (a volcanic rock that helps to aerate the soil and retain moisture).
• The addition of small amounts of Epsom salts and Neem Guard will help to condition the soil and protect against pests.
• Once seeds are planted, water regularly, taking care not to swamp small new seedlings. In the early days, aim to moisten the soil, not drench it, or else the roots will rot and seedlings may break or float away – a spray for delicate plants can help with irrigation while they become more established. Overwatering is as much a cause of plant mortality as lack of water.
• When growing in an urban environment, it’s not always possible to be picky about the aspect and the amount of sun, and one has to work with the prevailing environment and adapt accordingly. For optimum growing conditions, it’s best to avoid plants being in direct sun from noon to 3pm, with early morning and/or late afternoon sun being ideal. Conversely, even if your plants aren’t receiving direct sun, they will still grow with reflected light. Work with what you have.
For more information, visit www.growyourfood.ae.