Desert Container Gardening

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For the last two years I’ve grown herbs and veg on my balcony both to improve the taste and healthiness of the food we eat at home, as well as for use in food styling. Despite the odds I’ve had a lot of success.

I have a North West facing 14th floor balcony in a city surrounded on 3 sides by desert. Traditionally Emirates eat a diet of fish, imported rice and spices. Before oil was found most of their trade was with India and their food roots are firmly planted in Indian cuisine. Goat also features prominently, particularly during Eid, Islamic festivals, when a goat is often slaughtered as a sacrifice. Biryani as well as flat breads are the mainstay of the traditional Emirati diet. Fresh vegetables weren’t really featured – apart from of course the fantastic Khaleeji dates.

Nowadays the Emirates does produces quite a lot of food, and a few excellent vegetables. The small cucumbers in particular are delicious. There is also a small and growing local organic movement where local farmers are producing vegetables and fruits for a demanding local market.

Having learnt lessons from the past this year I’ll be growing herbs, tomatoes and mixed salad greens. All my seeds come from America and England although you can buy them here from Dubai Garden Centre, Carrefour and Ace Hardware amongst others.

I have had huge success growing herbs, and they’re so useful. This year I’ve planted thyme, coriander and oregano. My basil, mint and chives all survived the summer thanks to my zealous cleaner watering them on a regular basis whilst I was away. I buy soil from Dubai Garden Center- 29AED for 50litres, and simply sow the seeds generously straight into small containers. I water regularly (most of the time!) and pinch back with gusto. The more you pinch back the more the herbs flourish.

The mixed salad greens and mustard greens couldn’t be easier. I sowed seeds liberally in a medium size rectangular container on Friday and by Saturday I could see shoots poking through the soil. I planted ‘cut and come again’ leaves. Last year they provided many bowls of delicious salad, far tastier than anything from the local supermarket. This year I’ve also planted microgreens. You can see last year’s salad in these photos.

Then there’s the tomatoes… I seem to have ended up with 10 different types despite my 7ft x 3ft balcony. I thought it was ok. I counted containers, and figured I could just about squeeze in 10 different tomato plants having abandoned last year’s experimental cucumber, beans, aubergine and lettuce! So, I cleaned out every pot I have and got out my seed tray. I sowed the tomato seeds- purple tomatillo, pink brandywine, super sioux, black krim, bonnybest, evergreen, coustralee, red and yellow heirloom, and Djena Lee’s golden girl, watered them and put them in the shade on my balcony. Then I came back into the air conditioning to research what I’d sown. I’ve never been one to read the instructions first.

Coustralee alone are expected to reach 1-2lb. Whoops.

Last year I struggled to keep my cherry tomato plants standing.

Still, I’m going to give it a bash. You never know, I might win a prize at the Dubai Garden Fete this year.

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