x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Garden frenzy

With growing your own going high profile, we take a look at how to do it in the UAE.

Gabriele Kurz, the chef of Magnolia restaurant at Qanat Al Qasr in Dubai, picks some Thai basil from the herb garden outside Magnolia.
Gabriele Kurz, the chef of Magnolia restaurant at Qanat Al Qasr in Dubai, picks some Thai basil from the herb garden outside Magnolia.

Michelle Obama is doing it. And now even the Queen of England is jumping on the grow-your-own bandwagon.  Not since the Second World War has either the White House or Buckingham Palace had a working vegetable garden. But a combination of factors - including the rise in obesity and diabetes, the increasing demand for local and sustainable produce, and the global economic crisis - has led to two of the world's most famous women becoming unlikely figureheads for a burgeoning movement in home vegetable gardening.

In March, the first lady began digging up the presidential lawns to plant a kitchen garden that will eventually produce food for the whole Obama family. Her intention is to highlight the benefits of growing good, wholesome, organic produce in preference to the unhealthy fast food that's so popular in the US. In London, Queen Elizabeth II's new vegetable patch covers an area of only roughly 65 square metres, but it will yield runner beans, sweetcorn and onions among other vegetables for the Royal household.  

While demand for allotments - or small patches of land where people can grow their own food - is sharply rising in the UK, people in the UAE might be left feeling somewhat frustrated. After all, what could possibly flourish in summer at the edge of a desert other than a measly pot of supermarket basil on a kitchen window sill? And even that begins to droop and wilt after a few days. Indeed, since much of the produce that ends up in our kitchens and restaurants is imported from abroad, it's easy to assume that nothing can grow here without a team of farmers and horticulturalists on 24-hour standby. But that isn't strictly the case.

That there are challenges to be faced by those wishing to grow their own herbs and vegetables in the UAE there is no doubt. But with a little knowledge, effort, preparation and perseverance, you might be surprised at what you can grow for yourself. Juicy tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, tasty spinach and fragrant coriander are all within reach of the home gardener, provided the conditions and care are right, according to Dubai Garden Centre's horticulture engineer, Zafar Ali Khan. If you're fortunate enough to live in a villa with a spacious garden, access to direct sunlight and plenty of water, now is the time to start thinking about planning your vegetable patch, even though your first sowing might not be until at least the latter stages of the summer.

"First, you should check the soil condition," advises Khan. "Here in the UAE there is too much salinity, too much salt in the sand. We substitute that for sweet sand in the gardens, up to about 20cm depth. Then we mix in some organic fertiliser or compost like cow manure. Everywhere in the UAE, the soil needs attention. In Fujairah and Hatta the soil conditions are better than in Dubai, for example. So conditions vary. There is salty soil near the sea in Dubai, but some plants like the salinity. The date palm, for example, will grow in salty sand."

If you want to follow the organic approach of Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth, use organic fertiliser in your patch. "Inorganic fertiliser is synthetic, and made in factories," explains Khan. "Organic fertiliser is made from living things, whether it's plants or from animals, like cow manure. Organic fertiliser is the best for the plants, but it has a very offensive smell. That might be a problem. Inorganic fertiliser doesn't smell, but it isn't as good and can have side-effects for your vegetables."

Once the soil conditions are right, you must decide whether you want to start your garden with seeds or seedlings. The hot weather in a UAE summer will prove too harsh for some seeds to flourish, so they must be started off in a greenhouse, while other varieties can be planted directly in the ground. "Some varieties of tomato, such as fantom, empire and royal flush, can be planted directly in the open field," Khan explains. "With other varieties, such as mateus and carmelo, we have to establish the seedlings in the greenhouse. We will start that on or after August 25. Later, we can transplant the seedlings to the open field from October to January. After two or three months, you'll have tomatoes.

"Another thing that's slightly different is the leafy vegetables and herbs, like spinach, coriander, radish, parsley, sweet beet and garden roquette," he continues. "You can directly place the seeds into the soil in November or December, when the climate is good. We don't get four seasons in the UAE, we just have summer and winter. So in February and March you will have the results. With cabbages, peppers, eggplant and cauliflower you will need seedlings from the garden centre greenhouse, which are planted in mid-August. Then they can be planted in the open field from November to January."

Perhaps the most important consideration for a successful home vegetable or herb garden at the edge of the Arabian desert is water. How often you need to water your crops is subject to the conditions in your area. "It depends upon the temperature and the weather," says Khan. "If you sow in October or November, then the temperature is good, but later when the plant starts growing, you may need more water. 

"When it's hot, there will be evaporation of water from the soil, so you will need more. If the plant is bigger and more leafy - like spinach, cabbage and cauliflower - there will be more transpiration, which is when the water evaporates from the plant. So then you will need to water it more. Ideally, an automatic irrigation system would be best. But if not you should water the vegetables at least once a day, and twice when it's very hot."

If your timing, soil, weather conditions and watering regime is right there's very little to stop you from gaining excellent results - apart from insects, pests and other garden nasties. Khan offers a solution: "You can use insecticide to deal with pests such as aphids, white fly and leaf miners. Leaf miners are very common in the UAE, especially with tomato plants. There are also fungal diseases to watch out for. Vertimec is good for getting rid of leaf miners. You have to take care, though, because they are systemic poisons. You must always wash the vegetables before eating."

Growing vegetables often requires a lot of space in your garden, but if square feet and inches are in short supply, growing herbs makes for a very satisfying alternative. Chef Gabriele Kurz of Magnolia vegetarian restaurant in Dubai's Qanat Al Qasr hotel is envied by many a UAE-based chef because of her restaurant's herb garden.  "Where I come from in Germany, it is very common to have herb gardens beside restaurants, so I wanted to do one here," she explains. "I had many emails from other chefs saying: 'How did you set up your herb garden?' But I didn't do it all on my own. I had a little help from the gardeners in the resort. I had lots of ideas, but some herbs we just couldn't do here, no way. For example, chervil - no way," she laughs.

"What's growing perfectly is lemongrass, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, parsley, mint and roquette leaves," she says proudly. "Sometimes what is very challenging is sage - it likes the heat but probably not the soil that we can provide here. In the summer we have things like chives and a variety of cress, which has lots of nice orange, yellow and deep-red flowers that are edible. I can also grow some calendula (pot marigolds) which are edible flowers. And then, of course, we have our own bananas and green papayas, which we use for our detox mocktails."

Kurz keeps salt to a minimum in her all-vegetarian cuisine, so she has become reliant on all kinds of herbs from her garden to balance out the flavours in her cooking. "I have one dish, it is couscous-stuffed baby eggplant," she reveals. "In the couscous I put marjoram, mint and parsley. It goes with tomato and cardamom ragout, and I also use lemongrass in the dish. It has Asian, Arabian and European flavours."

Even during the grip of a harsh UAE summer, the garden at Magnolia keeps on giving thanks to some surprisingly hardy little herbs. "Marjoram is very successful," says Kurz.  "It's very good during summer. When I see it in the Magnolia garden it's very green and grows very well. Lemongrass is also good, I use a lot of that in my cooking. Also Thai basil is good, and aloe vera, which I use for some desserts. Aloe vera grows all year long."

Of course, most people won't have the luxury of a team of gardeners and an automatic irrigation system to ensure their home garden is a success, but nether will they have to supply a full service restaurant with a daily crop of fresh produce. "For people at home, it's easier to grow herbs than vegetables," Kurz states, by way of offering hope to the amateur agriculturalist. "Even if you have a balcony, you can grow herbs there; it's very simple. You can even grow tomatoes. I use far too many tomatoes to be able to grow them on my own, but for home use you can grow two or three tomato plants on the balcony and that will be enough."

In general terms, her advice is simple: whatever you decide to grow, try to enjoy the experience. "It's a lot of fun to do. Your garden should be nice to relax in and nice to look at. But it's even better when you can eat from it. Create some space, buy good soil - it needs to be a 50/50 mix of sand and compost - and make sure you have a good irrigation system. It's a lot of fun!" Quite. If tending a vegetable garden is the sort of thing that makes America's first lady get her Wellington boots on and start digging, it really ought to be a lot of fun.

jbrennan@thenational.ae