Though they face challenges in the arid climate, UAE gardeners are reaping huge rewards from growing their own vegetables - including a strong sense of community.
Vegetable gardening in the UAE
It's a hot and sticky October afternoon in the Abu Dhabi desert, some 30km from the city. Out in an open field a large and robust patch of sweet corn, sown straight into the ground early last month, is now almost a metre high. Soon, courgette seeds will be sown nearby - as will tomatoes, melons, capsicums, aubergines, beetroot and all manner of other vegetables. Meanwhile, in a vast shade house, vivid green rocket leaves are being harvested, along with a host of other salad leaves and herbs.
This is Abu Dhabi Organic Farm and Khalid al Shamsi, its owner, is excited about the imminent start of the outdoor growing season: "Everything tastes so much better when it has been grown outside," he says with the passion of one who has grown up eating freshly picked, home-grown vegetables, thanks to this mother's love of gardening. "This is normal for many Emirati families," he says, adding that he also grows some vegetables at home. "Things like asparagus - some vegetables you have to keep close to you and to the kitchen."
We have just walked through a hugely impressive series of glasshouses (where green beans, cucumbers and numerous types of lettuce are being picked every day for Mazara'a, the organic shop in Mushrif, as they have been for all but a few weeks of the year) but what al Shamsi and his team have been cultivating successfully outside for the past couple of winter seasons, is proof that outdoor vegetable growing in the UAE is not an oxymoron. And it can be done organically (the farm has a hard-earned and strictly enforced international certification) and without profligate use of water.
The large-scale and highly organised operation of the farm is a far cry from a villa in my former neighbourhood where, between the footpath and the villa wall, courgette vines laden with fruit smother the sand and scramble into the trees every winter. And then there's the small mystery garden that has appeared every autumn near the junction of 32nd and Al Falah Streets in the capital, its sweet corn, courgette and tomato plants overflowing across the surrounding hedge. But these two almost wild vegetable gardens again show what is possible here.
It's a point not lost on a growing number of private gardeners, among them Leah and Steve Allison, a British couple who moved to a villa three years ago after 10 years in an Abu Dhabi apartment. The entire length of their garden along one side of the house is arranged into beds, with a dozen or so trays of small seedlings waiting to be planted out. It's impressive but, Leah laughs: "Coming from Glasgow, I hadn't a clue about any of this before I started. Luckily Steve grew up on a farm with a garden. But, even so, we're taking a suck-it-and-see approach - just trying things and learning as we go." Last year that approach yielded, among many other things "loads of different lettuce … some wonderful potatoes … tons of courgettes and more tomatoes than I knew what to do with" last year, says Leah. "I was making tomato soup, tomato chutney and we were giving away lettuce like mad. It nearly killed me at the end of the season when I had to buy a lettuce from the supermarket."
To start their garden, the Allisons dug down about 30 centimetres into the sand (coincidentally, the same depth to which al Shamsi's team added topsoil at the farm) and mixed it with bagged soil. "We've spent a fortune on potting mix," says Leah, "but it's been all that we need." Following the same good practice as at Abu Dhabi Organic Farm, the Allisons dig their plants in at the end of the season, to break down over summer and provide nutrients for the following year.
The Allisons' vegetable patch is covered by a length of shade cloth stretched across a simple wooden frame. "Steve put that together," says Leah. "We wouldn't have a thing without it. It comes off in the middle of winter then goes back up at the end of February." In Dubai, Patricia Eigenmann-Keller, a Swiss resident of Al Barsha, has promised herself that she will have proper shade erected this season: until now she has managed with freestanding parasols. "Last year I had a huge row of them sheltering the young plants. It's pretty crazy - I think I must have bought half of Carrefour's stock," she says. Not that makeshift shade arrangements seem to have hindered her gardening: "In the beginning I tried bringing some of the things I knew from Switzerland but couldn't easily get here. The climate is so completely different but I did really well with Swiss chard." Since then, largely by trial and error, she has had great success with aubergines, okra, capsicums, chillies, tomatoes ... Every few minutes she remembers something else: "Oh, and pak choi, and pumpkins and the long string beans … and those orange-fleshed melons; this year I already have some on the vine about this big," she says, making a ball with the span of both hands. The only plant she lost in this summer's heat, she says, was her parsley.
We have met at the Jumeirah home of Deena Motiwalla, the founder and driving force of Dubai Garden Circle, for the group's first get-together of the season. Motiwalla is coaching the 20 or so ladies in sowing their choice of seeds, offering endless tips and hints: firm down the compost; mix tiny seeds with dry sand for easier sowing; don't over-water; turn the seed trays regularly - and above all, touch, see and follow your instincts. There's a strong sense of camaraderie among the group - from Monica, a self-confessed novice who moved here from Korea six weeks ago, bringing with her a packet of Korean spinach seeds, to Eigenmann-Keller, who is sowing strawberry seeds.
Strawberries are one of her frustrations: "I have tried to grow them for the last two years and I'm going to keep on trying. I'm convinced that one day I will get them to work." Cucumbers are the Allisons' bête noir, having never produced anything so far. When I say that I'm going to visit Abu Dhabi Organic Farm Leah implores, "Can you please ask them what I'm doing wrong?" "The wrong seeds," says al Shamsi without hesitation. "A lot of the modern, hybridised seeds are very sensitive to growing conditions. The best are those that have acclimatised - and that takes only a season." Which probably explains why, after just "tossing some over-ripe tomatoes from last year into the ground", Eigenmann-Keller has huge crops of them. "With my Emirati neighbours I swap tomatoes for eggs," she says. "It has been a fantastic way of getting to know people."
That sense of community would surely gladden al Shamsi, whose dreams for vegetable growing here include creating a proper community.
"Local, organic and healthy - that's what we do on the farm and that's what I want to become part of everyone's culture here."