Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Foray into Square Foot Gardening and Repurposing the Old

Square foot gardening (SFG) is a concept so simple that I almost ended up paying it no attention. Until now. And even now I seem to have arrived at it in a roundabout way- from my desire to own a raised bed (as  some of you know from the Facebook page) to the admission that until I can find a reasonable quote, I will just have to repurpose the old rectangular containers as best as I can. More about that in a second.

So what is SFG? A concept pioneered by Mel Bartholomew back in the 80s, it divides growing space into square measuring a foot each- so for example a typical 8' x 4' raised bed will have 32 squares to grow plants in.  In general, small vegetables such as Swiss Chard can be planted 4 to a square, onions 9 to a square, while big plants such as tomatoes and eggplants will take 1 or 2 squares. Mainly aimed at food growers with limited space, it maximises space usage and minimises the effort of digging, weeding, hilling and trenching and whatever else you have to do with typical row planting. This is how a typical SFG raised bed looks:

Since a couple of local carpenters here in Dubai quoted the enormous sum of Dhs 700 for a raised bed (8' x 4'), I have decided to forget about it for now. Instead, I got creative and rearranged my 9 rectangular planters to look like a raised bed. Each measures 3' x 1'. So in total, I have roughly 27 sq ft of growing space. This looks like a lot more space to grow food in compared to when the containers were arranged in a long row!

Alot of information is available about the type of plant and how many of it can go into one square foot. This takes some of the pain out of wondering about spacing in containers. I have decided to use my square foot garden to grow herbs, greens and some of the root vegetables. Black Kale and Russian Red Kale transplants are already in along with Swiss Chard and Golden Chard. Rocket is growing fast, the lettuce has been sown. I have yet to plant spinach, carrots, radish (long red and round yellow), opal basil and hopefully a couple of nasturtiums.

Russian Red Kale

Golden Chard

Here's the spacing I used:

Kale - 1 per square
Chard- 4 per square
Coriander- 4 per square
Basil- 1 per square
Lettuce (cut and come again)- sown thinly, no particular count
Lettuce Butter - 6 per square
Rocket - 4 per square
Coriander- 6 per square
Spring Onions- 9 per square
Carrots - 9 per square
Radishes- 9 per square

And much more hopefully!

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Growing Basil- An Edible View from the Window

Basil has to be one of the easiest herbs to grow and a very versatile one too- I just had some for breakfast with rice cakes, humus and black sesame seeds. And I snipped it from right outside my living room window too. My edible window view is well on its way. The basil seedlings that I picked up from Dubai Garden Centre are thriving. Here's a few tips for growing fragrant, glossy basil plants in pots on your patio.

  • Basil likes rich, healthy soil. Start with good quality potting soil and amend with slow-realese all-purpose NPK fertiliser, compost or fish based fertiliser.
  • Basil likes plenty of water. Don't let the soil dry out completely between watering. Give it a good, deep drink every other day on cool days and every day when it gets warmer. Water around the base, not from the top, in the cooler times of the day. 
  • Basil likes to be fed regularly. If growing in pots, fertilise every fortnight with an all-purpose liquid fertiliser such as Phostrogen or fish emuslion if you can get hold of some to get the most aromatic leaves.
  • Basil likes sun. Place it somewhere where it gets at least 4-5 hours of sunlight daily. In our region, it may do well to give it some afternoon shade while the heat lasts.
  • Basil likes to be pinched back. When your plant is well established and has reached a good height, snip off the main stem just above the pint where you see two new shoots emerging. This will encourage your plant to branch out and become bushier. As these branches become bigger, repeat the same process. 
  • Basil likes to be picked regularly. There's no hard and fast rule really. Everyone has their own way of picking herbs. If you need a few leaves, pick the larger individual leaves at the bottom that are threatening to turn brown. If you need a whole bunch such as when making pesto, snip off branches as described above. Merely picking lots of leaves will leave the branches looking ugly.
Most common leaf problems such as brown/black spots are caused by over- or under-watering and water splashing onto the leaves that can transport soil-borne fungal and bacterial diseases to the plant. Also, water droplets on the leaves in hot sun is not a good idea as it can burn the leaves.If you spot browning on your leaves, the first thing is to check your watering and location of plant. Too much sun here can usually cause leaf edges to curl and brown. Move it around a bit to see what helps. 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Natural Pest Control from the Kitchen: 5 Recipes to Defend Your Plants

Natural pest control can be as simple as using items from your kitchen to rid your beloved plants of undesirable critters. However, before you try any of the recipes for homemade pesticides, keep a few important points in mind.
  • Keep soil healthy and plants happy. Good pest control always starts with healthy soil, regular watering and fertilizing your plants as required.
  • Never spray plants with any type of pesticide in direct sunlight.
  • Always test by spraying a small area of the plant. If no leaf damage occurs, proceed to spray the plant.
  • Regularly inspect the underside of leaves as that’s where most pests reside.
  • Encourage ladybugs, wasps and bees into your garden as they are natural predators for pests like aphids.
  • A word about soap: don’t use harsh chemical soaps or detergents when soap is called for in a recipe. Always go for pure soap or biodegradable dish washing liquid.
  • Use pesticides, even natural ones, sparingly as they may also affect beneficial insects in the garden.

Garlic, Onion and Chilli Spray
Leaf-eating insects such as caterpillars, Japanese Beetles and Spider Mites chew off juicy green leaves, leaving behind the tell-tale c-shaped bites on leaf edges, lace patterned or skeletonised leaves. Other soft-bodied pests such as aphids and thrips insert their mouthparts into plant tissue and suck out sap. Infested plants show stunted growth, yellowing or curling leaves and even death. This spray is very effective as a general purpose natural pesticide around the garden.
4 bird’s eye chillies
2 large onions
2 bulbs garlic
1 tbsp pure soap
2 litre water

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

How Many Ways Can You Use a Coconut?

For me, coconut trees evoke the memory of the street I grew up on- a quiet place lined with palm trees rising tall in front of the modest villas. The gardens where these trees grew were well-tended, layered with the colours and smells of bougainvillea, morning glory, frangipani, jasmine, periwinkle, Rangoon creeper and other plants. Yet, I was living in no tropical paradise.

Beyond the soothing whispers of the palms, beyond the street security barrier manned by a burly chowkidar, there was always the sheer press of Karachi’s teeming crowds, ethnic clashes, political instability, the bang and shatter of gunfire, regular news of bombs and bodies dumped in bags. Although we were cocooned in relative peace, the times were tainted with confusion, turbulence and often fear, as indeed they are today. In those days, the coconut palms dotting the violent landscape of my city came to signify a particularly defiant strain of grace and beauty for me.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Gorgeous, Glossy Red Cabbage: Soup, Salad and Pleasure

Nature knew what it was doing when it gave red cabbage its gorgeous, glossy colour. These days I cannot seem to return from the supermarket without a piece of this locally grown, beautiful and nutritious vegetable in the bag. The colour alone, both raw and cooked warrants the amount of red cabbage we seem to be consuming in soups and hearty salads on these mild middle eastern winter days. And of course, the deep deep red pigment also reflects a superb nutrition profile- a high concentration of phytonutrients and a number of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

I have been reading Michael Pollan's book In Defence of Food and what a brilliant read it is! With his unique perspective on food, society and health, Pollan strives to free us from the clutches of 'nutritionism'- the modern trend of breaking every single food down to its individual nutrients. 

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Cooking with Dill and other things from the garden

Going back to Karachi always does this to me. It's almost traumatic- especially the return. Not so much because I miss my family- indeed three weeks of pure wedding can be a family dose large enough to last a long while- no, it's more like a massive drain of energy so that I come back virtually juiced out. That faced with the husband travelling a bit too often for work, start of school for Sara and the blustery weather that I didn't quite know what to make of. So come evening, I would crash in front of the telly with my dinner while the wind howled through the trees outside.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Picking Beans in PJs

Last year, we had mixed luck with the runner beans we planted. This year, we are full of beans! 

We are growing the Blue Lake Pole variety and they are coming along like a dream. Magic beans, indeed. And they have to be picked first thing in the lovely cool of the morning, in panda bear pjs. That's half the fun. The other half is a bean brunch- garden fresh beans stir fried in a bit of olive oil, garlic and sea salt. The girls eat them like chips and have coined their own term for it- 'chip-beans'. Whatever it takes to get the greens in, I am not complaining!