The city gardener: A promising home garden in Sharjah
‘I think vegetable plants are beautiful,” says Chaminda Hapugoda, when we meet at his Sharjah home. I immediately know we are in for a good natter about growing edibles in the UAE. Tucked away in a verdant community in a quiet alcove of the Al Ghubaiba suburb, Hapugoda’s vegetable garden surrounds the single-storey whitewashed villa where he lives with his wife, Asantha, and three young children. An oil and gas engineer, Hapugoda first wrote to me last year to share a video of his vegetable garden. The Hapugodas not only garden in the yards at the back and front of their house, but also a neighbour’s previously neglected backyard and the alleyway next to the house, using an overhead trellis. “The neighbour and the owner of the community let us use the spaces and we shared our produce with them,” Hapugoda says, as he reminisces about last season’s abundant harvest of tomatoes, aubergine, chilli peppers, long beans, snake gourd, bitter gourd, cucumbers, cabbage, lettuce, broccoli, spinach and strawberries. For seasonal colour, the Hapugodas filled the little patio with containers of daisies, marigolds, roses, nasturtiums, periwinkle, jasmine and ornamental pepper in neon hues.
The new season appears to be well on its way in Hapugoda’s backyard – a sparkling white picket fence, bamboo poles, trellises and nets installed to train plants vertically, and containers and planting holes prepared. Hapugoda repurposes old potting soil by loosening and moistening it. On top he adds fresh potting soil and a handful of treated cow manure. According to Hapugoda, there’s no set measure for cow manure. He adds some at planting time and then, as the season progresses, he keeps an eye on the health of the plant. Since treated cow manure is a natural fertiliser, the risk of overfeeding plants is quite low.
During the summer, Hapugoda started a couple of pumpkin plants in plywood planters, which were crafted by a carpenter. He also uses rectangular plastic containers and pots he has reclaimed from landscaping companies that discard them after transferring plants into the ground. “The initial cost of setting up the garden – buying the potting soil and containers – was significant. But this year, I only needed to buy soil and some stuff for maintenance and improvement. You learn so much along the way,” he tells me as we inspect the pumpkin plants. They didn’t fruit over the hot months, but Hapugoda appears unconcerned: “The new season promises more to come.” What seems a greater success are the strong, young papaya plants that have grown from seeds the Hapugodas threw on the ground after they ate the fruit a few months ago. From the last holiday in their home country Sri Lanka, the family has also brought a variety of seeds to try in their Sharjah garden.
Back in the bright living room, I ask Hapugoda about his encounters with garden pests. He appears as unruffled as the Buddha in repose on a shelf behind his head. “We had the common leaf miners and caterpillars, but nothing serious,” he says. For a general herbal pesticide, the Hapugodas stick to neem oil spray and inspect the plants daily for telltale infestation signs such as holes, bites and white trails. The caterpillars, he says, are best picked out by hand.
As satisfying as it is, I am not looking forward to squishing the tiny white butterfly eggs and caterpillars that will eventually arrive on my terrace. Most of the seeds I planted have sprouted and the seedlings are growing happily. I do feel protective about them, but there are a few lessons I learnt from Hapugoda: keep the garden tidy and organised from the start and don’t think too much about the pests. Worrying too much can kill all the fun in gardening.
Shumaila Ahmed is a Dubai-based gardener, teacher, researcher and writer. She will be outlining her gardening exploits in a series of columns for Home & Garden.