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!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

How to Improve Shop-Bought Potting Soil

To grow well, the roots of your plants need:


Air - In general, most potting mixes sold commercially around here have good aeration. You can tell by how light and crumbly the mix is. If you are using a container with potting mix from last year, it may have compacted a bit. It's a good idea to fluff it up with a fork and combine with some new mix to ensure your roots don't suffocate once they reach the lower half of the pot.

Moisture- Your potting mix must drain water well but also retain moisture efficiently. Most especially in the growing season here that sees little rain and a lot of sun, watering needs of plants can be huge and quite demanding. At times, potting mixes dry up very quickly despite regular watering and stress your growing plants. I like to add some Perlite, a naturally occurring volcanic glass with several excellent characteristics. It is sterile, lightweight, odourless and retains moisture and nutrients within your growing medium while improving aeration.  It also reduces extreme soil temperature fluctuations. So in order to keep those pots light and to make your water last longer, add a few handfuls of perlite to your container along with potting soil and fertiliser. You can find perlite in Warsan nurseries in Dubai.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Plenty and Pleasure from the Garden

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— Wendell Berry

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

3 Men and a 'Zero Mile Diet' in the Industrial Wilds of Dubai

Out on the timber yard, Bishu, Prince and Jose probably don't see a lot of ladies. And certainly not two gardening enthusiasts who have ventured into the industrial wilds of Nad-al-Sheba one bright morning to see nothing less than a small wonder-  food growing on the yard, right there alongside the bare concrete and wood piles of the men's workplace. They smile shyly, stuffing their hands in pockets and shuffling their feet, almost a little embarrassed at our praise and questions.

But we cannot seem to get over the fact that, here in Dubai, except for the hottest months of the year, the men practice as much of a 'zero-mile' or 'farm-to-table' diet as they can.

There's a kitchen on the yard and in the growing season, most of the food cooked there comes from the vegetable patch. 

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Swap Your Cow for Beans

In the market, I swapped my cow for some magic beans.

Fortunately, my mother never got wind of it and I never had to go to bed without supper. In fact, with my younger brother's wedding looming, Ammi is much too busy to pay heed to my bean adventures. As for my suppers, I have indeed had many happy ones under the cool moonlight recently, admiring the gorgeously lush bean vines twining around the poles. Where will they lead me to?

Thursday, 24 November 2011

A Garden Veg Tagine & My 'Thing' for Markets

I have a thing for markets- the chaotic,  not-very-tidy types. Head to Dubai Vegetable & Fruit Market in Ras-Al-Khor and you'll know what I mean. The first thing that hits you is that it's a men's world. The only women you see around are a couple of Arab ladies who look like they know how to hold their own over the vendors. And a few tourists who have stranded off the main trail in search of something more exotic and organic than Dubai's standard malls. The market is also a piece of Dubai's history, preserving a sense of continuity in a city where everything from trees to homes feel newly sprouted. 

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

10 edibles to grow in the smallest of spaces

Things to consider before you head to a garden centre
  • Start with the right sized container- anything with a minimum depth of 6" and a drainage hole will do. 
  • Consider going vertical - fix baskets on a balcony wall or buy a sturdy plant table to save space.
  • Good quality potting soil is enough to start the plants suggested here- you can boost your plants with plant food as they grow. More advice on fertilisers at the end.

You can grow any of these 10 edibles on your balcony.  These plants are non-fussy and with some regular care, they will produce delicious, homegrown harvest for you all through the UAE winter/spring.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Beyond a Blue Gate in Oman

Driving into Oman from the Hatta border, I catch glimpses of farms all along the Batinah coast- date palms swaying against the rain-washed sky, groves of coconut, papaya and banana trees, green carpets of mustard and spinach behind closed gates and wire fences. We are headed into the Omani desert for our Eid holiday.

Stopping for a break at a petrol station, I catch sight of this brilliant blue gate- half ajar. I cant't resist poking my head in. Just inside, a couple of Bengali men are washing their clothes. After a brief exchange in a mix of English, Urdu and gestures, they wave us in. We look harmless enough, I suppose. It appears to be a small private farm. Palm-shaded paths lead off into a couple of directions, peaceful and dappled in the late afternoon light. The girls run ahead of us.

There's rows of aubergines, a banana orchard and lots of dates growing.

I linger by a mango tree, fingering the long stiff-edged leaves. It hits me that I hadn't really seen one in Dubai- they do grow there but I suppose I just hadn't paid attention. I grew up with one right outside my grandma's house in Karachi. The story goes that one summer day my dad ate a mango and buried the seed just outside the gate. The tree grew strong against all odds. Much happened around the house- new storeys added for newly married sons, municipality footpaths, a garage built within an inch of the trunk for my dad's first car. But the tree grew on and brought us an enviable mango harvest year after year, not to mention neighbourhood boys who whiled away their summer afternoons by throwing stones at the fruit (and breaking window glasses in the process which had my dad chasing after them!). I don't know how long mango trees live but our one started to weaken. Some pest bored it into it, hollowing it from the inside. It died. A few years later in 2007, my grandma passed away too. The neighbourhood had already been changing, bare of trees and lined with vehicles and renovated houses. The last Peepul tree in front of the cricket ground had been cut for new electricity cables. But by then, I had already moved on and away.

This Omani mango tree is still young and obviously the preferred laundry hanger for the workers. In the forty five years grandma's tree lived, it grew grand, its roots drawing life from under the concrete of the street. From our first floor balcony, we used to be able to see the sparrows, crows and lizards that lived under the lush canopy. But looking back, I don't think I  ever took the time to wonder...too busy growing up, checking out those boys :D

It's funny that we have come to Oman for a holiday in the desert but all we have seen so far are things green and growing.  In the desert too, life pulses on. Thorn Trees dot the resort. Birds twitter. The sky itself seems to be more alive here, thick with stars at night while we eat outside.

The girls are besotted with the camels. Zola, Salman and Baraaq arrive every morning with their bedouin owners to offer rides around the resort. They have eyelashes a girl would kill for.

Back in Dubai, my plants are thriving despite my four day absence. The drip system seems to be serving its purpose. Deep down I know that whatever else I may become, I will always be a city girl. And much as I love open fields and rustic farms, I will always come back to the intimacy of an urban garden. The contrast of a 34 floor high-rise and a modest collection of vegetable plants right at the base of it gives me a real kick. 

Sunday, 30 October 2011

How to grow Tomatoes in a container on your balcony

Most of the time, when I tell people I grow vegetables, they assume I live in a villa with a  huge garden. I actually live in an apartment and although, I do have a large terrace, I believe there's no reason why you can't grow food on your balcony if you set your heart on it. Honestly, when I started last year, I had never so much as SEEN a tomato plant, let alone grow one. Once I started, I expected my plants to die every day. Surprise, surprise, they didn't just NOT die on me, they gave me absolutely gorgeous loads of ripe, fresh fruit from January all the way into April.

So here's how you can go about growing a tomato plant on a balcony/terrace or in a container in your garden...

Shopping List
To start
  • Tomato seeds
  • 4-8" pot or plastic cup with a small hole in the base
  • Potting soil  (50l )
  • Watering can
  • For your growing plant
  • Cosmoplast container or bucket(50l) 
  • Compost bag (50l) or Granular fertiliser (small pack)
  • Water-soluble general-purpose plant food and tomato plant food (optional)
  • Tall bamboo cane or stake
  • Plant ties or nylon socks 

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Tips for transplanting and an invitation to a garden(ing) party

While learning about growing vegetables, you often come across the words 'transplanting' or 'pricking out'. When I first began gardening last year, I didn't trust myself to get anything right- what do you mean I need to pull out a happily growing seedling and trasns-plant it? How on earth....and so on.

But as I had gone on with my beginner's enthusiasm to plant about 25 tomato seeds in my seed tray, you can imagine just how much transplanting was staring me in the face. And when the weather gets right here, it really does get right- things begin to grow at an almost unbelievable rate. If you leave your rapidly growing seedlings in their tiny pots for too long, you are restricting their growth as the roots have nowhere to go. You can usually see them forcing their way through the drainage holes of the little pots. Being constricted, they also come under water stress and hence become more prone to pests and other problems. So yes, you gotta get down to it and somehow work up as much enthusiasm for transplanting as you did for the sowing!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Making a bed for the Brassicas-Cabbage, Cauliflower, Pak Choi and Radish goes in

My first foray into growing Brassicas was a container of Pak Choi here in Dubai last year. It was unbelievably trouble-free and just kept coming and coming as a cut and come again crop. It was ready to harvest within 60 days of germination, by the first week of December and given some shade didn't bolt until almost the end of April. In the end, I was almost sick of it. So I figure that growing other Brassicas shouldn't be too hard either. However, Pak Choi is an open headed cabbage and free of the intricacies of growing a perfect round, tightly wrapped white cabbage or a creamy white cauliflower head.

Cabbages I picked up in Sharjah plant souk to see how they develop

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The cucumbers beat everyone else to it!

The heat that's still lingering on must be working wonders for the germination of my seeds. In less than three days, the cucumber seedlings have burst their way through the soil and are standing tall and proud. 

I am growing two varieties of cucumbers- Marketmore and Armenian Cucumber or Kakri, as it is known  in the subcontinent. Marketmore is a home growers slicing favourite perfect for sandwiches and salads. I did grow some last year although having left the planting too late into the spring, I had a brief but beautiful harvest before the plants succumbed to the heat. The produce disappeared all too quickly into egg sandwiches and a couple of green juices.

Kakri is a vegetable from my childhood. Botanically, it's classified as a melon but tastes and looks somewhat like a cucumber. It had a very brief season in the Karachi winters. When Ammi used to come back from the market, the long, ribbed kakri would be peeping out from the bags and would be sliced or cut into sticks immediately to be eaten with a bit of salt and pepper. If a rice dish such as kichdi or pea pulao was on menu for lunch, Ammi grated the Kakri into yoghurt for raita. Yumm. During my years in London, I completely forgot about it but am looking forward to introducing my kids to it.

Some tips about growing cucumbers:

Sunday, 2 October 2011

A few tips for growing vegetables with children

As the girls ran out on to the terrace in the cool of the early morning, the first question they asked was 'Are we doing the seeds today?!' They have been asking me this ever since we got the seed packets in our mail box. They love pronouncing all the names of the vegetables even though they refuse to eat most of them. Still, i think, it will pay to spark their interest. I am pretty sure i refused Spinach until the age of twenty. This year, we have also been doing some informal unit studies about seeds, vegetables and gardening in general. Just stuff like making stamps from potatoes, cutting out veg and fruit pictures from magazines, discussing how seeds grow etc. The long summer finally seems to be on the way out and it's a relief to be able to let them out on the terrace and get all hands on. We got some excellent bargain in outdoor toys from Dubizzle- a play house, a plastic slide and lovely handmade doll house. The girls love them.

I have to confess that I feel a bit too precious about my vegetable seedlings and plants. I get nervous when the kids play around with them. While I am learning to relax about it, I gave each of them a little plastic pot to fill up with soil and plant a tomato seed. I felt quite magnanimous but saw that Sara was frowning.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Time to Get Sowing!

You can feel it getting cooler in the UAE although the sun still has that scorching edge in the afternoons.
What I learnt from my gardening adventures last year tells me that the time is just about right to sow seeds for the nightshade family- tomatoes, aubergines and peppers both hot and sweet.

Here's what you need:

Potting Soil- Shalimar or Desert group are the ones I come across the most.

Seed Trays or you can use paper cups, egg cartons, small yoghurt pots with drainage holes punched out or even toilet roll tubes. I use seed trays simply because they are reusable from year to year and also do not get blown away by the wind. When you sow seeds in small pots, the seedlings have a chance to develop good, strong root balls. When you transplant or 'prick out' your seedlings into bigger pots, you give your plant a chance to grow strong and sturdy rather than leggy and weak.

Seeds- This is by far the most fun part- choosing your varieties. Last year, I just picked whatever I could find in the supermarkets. This year I have indulged myself and ordered seeds from online catalogues from the US and UK. I was also quite keen to try some varieties from the subcontinent and have managed to get hold of a few.