Get Planting! The Easiest Way to Grow Tomatoes

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We have some pretty good weather for growing tomatoes in the UAE, as evidenced by the plethora of local tomatoes in the supermarket. I know very little about growing vegetables on a large scale, but it seems to me that the UAE tomato industry is in the early stages of growth and is just figuring out how it can produce tastier tomatoes, on a larger scale, to a demanding audience. We certainly have the sunshine, maybe they’re just figuring out the technology. The little I do know tells me that you can’t test the value of a seed, or a growing method without allowing nature to take its sweet time growing the plant, the flower and then the fruit. I guess it’ll be a few years til we see really delicious locally produced tomatoes in the supermarket but in the meantime grow your own!

It’s really not too hard- you just need to get started at the right time of year (September to November, not March when the temperatures are searing, as my husband once did), buy some decent sizes pots and good soil, and then some tasty tomatoes from the market. It’s not too late to start right now though. Plant them this week and they’ll do great.

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Firstly, I could launch into a list of suitable items you could recycle and use as a pot, but let’s face it, we live in the Middle East and not many people have old wine barrels or beautiful vintage trunks lying around. I bought some plastic planters from Carrefour, and some pretty ceramic pots from Dubai Garden Centre. Both have lasted me 3 years and still look in very good condition. I scrubbed them out with some washing up liquid in September before adding new soil to get rid of any diseases that may have been festering. I doubt there were any though as they’d been outside in 50 degree heat all summer (yes, you can put your plates outside to warm or fry eggs on cars at this temperature).The general rule, for your pots- the bigger the better. I think my largest is 45cm across and I wish I had bought bigger. Cherry toms will need smaller containers than beefsteaks.

A watering can is useful, but at a stretch you could use a cup. I have a trowel but more often than not use an old spoon.

Ok, so here goes- my so-easy-kids-could-do-it, method for growing tomatoes.

Choose your favourite tasting tomato from the supermarket. What the heck- splash out, hedge your bets, and choose a couple. You can assume that a locally produced tomato will have more chance of success than another.

Fill your container with soil and soak through. It should be damp to touch. Put the container in partial shade. 4-6 hours a day should be plenty in this region. You can always move it if need be.

Take your first tomato and put a hole in it with your thumb. Then bury it in the soil about 3cm deep. You’re done!

Monitor the soil to ensure it’s always damp to touch. You don’t want to over water it as the roots may rot but tomatoes are thirsty. 1 really good watering every 2 days should suffice but it will depend on the position of your pots and how big they are. The bigger the pots, the less frequently they need to be watered.

You will need to thin your tomatoes out once they start coming through. Weed out the weaker, straggly looking plants and keep the healthiest. Don be tempted to keep more than will fit in the pot, this will just result in weaker plants which don’t produce much fruit. 1 plant per 45cm pot is about right.

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Steak your tomatoes using anything you can find once they start to look like they can’t hold themselves. I am still experimenting but Ace Hardware has some good options.

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You should expect to see fruit after about 60 days. It’ll take another whopping 60 days for that fruit to grow and turn red! You’ll need patience!

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Good luck!! Let me know if you have any questions!

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.

Winter’s on the way

photoSeptember could be in the running for my favourite month of the year in Dubai. We’ve just survived another stinking hot summer in the desert- some summers by shivering inside in the aircon, watching endless box sets and plotting how to get things done without stepping a foot outside. Others by escaping the heat abroad for as long as our friends and relatives will have us to stay. I took 7 blissful weeks off in the States and the UK.

There is such energy in the air. At least in my home. And such pregnant expectations for the seasons ahead. Soon we’ll be able to picnic on the beach, my brother will be coming and we’ll go to the water park, I can run outside again and start swimming in the sea in the mornings before work. Work will be relentless through the next few months- just the way I like it. New restaurants and hotels will be opening and with them exciting opportunities for food photography.

I love looking forward to things, nearly as much as the thing itself. The potential of what might, could or will be is so charged.
I’m preparing my portfolio and having meetings about creative new projects, I’m setting myself goals for the last 4 months of the year. Plans are underfoot for a mastermind group between creatives and entrepreneurs. Lists get crossed off and added to and edited and added to again.

Most exciting of all? Camera in hand I’m back to work.

Sushi and Gardening at Nobu

Last week I had the opportunity to do a quick food shoot at Nobu, in the Atlantis hotel here in Dubai. Nobu is the creation of Nobu Matsuhisa who I was incredibly fortunate to meet and photograph last week when he was in the UAE. Despite having 3 Michelin stars and 29 restaurants to his name, he was remarkably uninhibited and gracious. He spoke at length about the importance of being passionate about our work. We had a great chat about how creatives: Chefs, Photographers, Musicians can’t be truly successful without passion driving what they do.

A week later and I was in the gorgeous sanctury of his vegetable garden. Multiple wooden planters, gravelled paths and moor grass sit in a spacious fenced in private garden. Nobu grow their own herbs- the usual suspects and well as tomatoes, some beans and mizuna (a type of Japanese lettuce which I’m growing too). The tomatoes plants and beans hadn’t fruited yet, so I’m not sure what type they were. Chef said that during the winter most of the herbs come from their garden. I did wonder why, when the space they have outside is so big, they aren’t able to use herbs solely from their garden?

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Here is my first shot from the shoot- a Shrimp Tempura Roll. It was an unusually cloudy day, but I still shot in the partial shade of a palm to get the beautiful soft light.

 

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