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.

1- Rocket A couple of rocket/arugula plants will keep you in this spicy salad leaf all season. Sow directly and thin to the two or three healthiest looking seedlings.

2- Basil Easy to germinate and easy to maintain, the herb is best grown from seed. Start seeds in small pots or sow directly but don't sow more than a couple of seeds to a medium sized pot. Pinch growing tip when plant is a foot or just under. This will make it bush out nicely. In my kitchen, basil seems to end up in all sorts of dishes, from rice to sandwiches. What about yours?

3- Mint Have you tried to pop a sprig of supermarket mint into a pot in the hope of seeing it grow? If it's always died on you, here's what you need to do. Take a sprig of mint that's as fresh as you can get, cut it to about 8 cm long and put into a pot filled with moist soil. Water deeply and put the pot upright into a plastic bag. Tie the bag up above the mint. Place the bag in a secure, slightly shaded spot. Check every other day for moisture. In around  a week, you should see new growth sprouting on the mint sprig. Your mint has rooted and will now grow without fuss. And every time you water or pluck a few leaves, the most wonderful minty aroma will waft up to your nose.

4- Radish Did you know that some varieties of radish such as French Breakfast take as little as 3 weeks to grow from seed to spicy crunchy radishes? The best vegetable to grow if you are looking for quick gratification. Sprinkle seeds in a medium sized pot. Thin to about 2 inches apart if the seedlings seem too thick. Use the thinnings in salad. There's more vitamin C in radish leaves than in the actual radish itself!

5- Green Onions Start from seed, broadcasting them thinly on top of the soil. Cover lightly with a layer of soil, pat down and water generously. These small seeds have a tendency to blow away and end up in other pots or disappear altogether. Did you know that you can also plant the white ends of supermarket spring onions and they will sprout new greens? You can just snip a bit of the greens off every time and the onions will grow back. Give it a try this year. I think young green onions add so much to soups and omelettes!

6- Baby Carrots Growing carrots is simpler than it sounds. Carrots actually don't like soil that's very rich so here's an idea for you to try. Take a bag of good quality potting soil. Make a couple of holes along one side seam. Place the bag so that the intact seam faces up. Split this seam open. Water the soil throughly until you see water draining out of the bag. The next day, sow a neat row of carrot seeds along the open seam. As the seedling sprout and grow, thin to about 2 inches apart. Try varieties that mature in 60 days.

7- Coriander No none of that soaking or splitting seeds. Just make slight indentations all over the soil with your finger and push seeds in. Water generously. Some varieties of coriander are even 'cut and come again'.  When you have nice healthy growth, snip some stalks off, a couple of inches from the ground and see if they grow back. If not, make regular sowings every 2 weeks. It's best to keep two pots going for a ready supply.

8- Pak Choi There's nothing like snipping off a few fresh leaves of pak choi for your stir fry. Sow no more than 4-5 seeds in a container and in around 60 days, you should be able to harvest young  pak choi leaves.You won't run out as these leaves will just keep growing back throughout the season.

9- Tiny Tim Tomatoes This variety of cherry tomato is so forgiving, it will even fruit in a 6 inch pot. But it will do infinitely better in a reasonable space. One or two plants should be enough for daily salads.

10- Lettuce If you can get hold of some mixed cut and come again lettuce, you can grow it easily all the way from november to march, given some shade. Harvest leaves young or they will go woody and bitter very quickly. If you have seeds for lettuce varieties such as gem, cos or romaine, you may need a bigger container to ensure regular supply. How about using a multiple shoe pocket thing that you can hang on a wall in your balcony?One seed per pocket, sown successively. I have seen this on some gardening blogs and am itching to give it a try. Just haven't get hold of any shoe pockets yet. Wherever I ask seems to have run out!

How do I fertilise my balcony edibles?
For green plants such as basil, coriander, green onions and lettuce, you need to use an all-purpose plant food with equal numbers of NPK. N is the Nitrogen that plants need for good leafy growth.

Radishes and carrots don't like being fed too much unless their green foliage looks unhealthy. In that case, apply a soluble plant food high in P (phosphate) and K (potassium). P and K is what's needed for good flower and root growth (this can just be a tomato fertiliser). Too much N will give you lush foliage but gnarled, stumpy, bitter carrots at best. And trust me there's nothing more disappointing than that after the long wait.

For tomatoes, use a balanced NPK fertiliser until flowers appear. Switch to tomato fertiliser after that. For more info, read our post on growing tomatoes.
How often should I water?
Remember the smaller the pot, the quicker it dries out. So water every day or at least every other day. Avoid watering overhead, directing it to the base of the plant and the root zone.
How much sunlight do my plants need?
Semi-shade does best in our parts of the world. However, move things around to find out how your plants grow best. If plants wilt in the hottest part of the day, they may be getting more sun than they need.
When should I worry? 
If new leaves on your lettuce, basil, coriander, mint, grow a lighter green than they should be, your plant may be suffering from a nitrogen or magnesium deficiency. Don't worry. Just pick it up and give it a hug. I mean, show it some love and feed with some plant food. Its should bounce back within a week or so.

Check Dubai Garden Centre for Baby Carrot, Tiny Tim Tomato, Pak Choi and Lettuce Mix seeds from the Yates brand. Other suggested seeds are available in Carrefour.


  1. Hi shumaila,great post! Missed your planting party as it was a weekday.Wish I could come over to your place and get a first hand experience in planting!

  2. Fabulous post...so relevant to so many of us in Dubai! I shared your blog with someone who's super passionate about gardening in Dubai, and now she's inspired to grow cucumbers! You rock lady.

  3. Farwin, of course you can come over...just drop me a line at shum.ahmed@gmail.com. I will respond with my number and we can take it from there.....

  4. Thanks so much Arva...let me know who this lady is...sometimes i start to feel a bit alone around here :) I am looking to feature other gardeners on the blog...

  5. Shumaila...we have a garden here and once tried to grow stuff and while some things were successful, others weren't. I wonder: do you think it's better to grow in pots with controlled soil, as opposed to the ground with whatever soil is available here?
    (Sorry if this is a silly question; I know nothing about gardening)

  6. Hey Devina, i think sometimes pots are useful in avoiding pests and stuff but growing in the ground makes for more room for roots and less watering....Unless your garden is crawling with slugs and snails, i would say just improve your soil a bit by adding a layer of potting soil and some fertiliser and try again...and its not a silly question...:) I don't know an awful lot either..it just looks like that to people like you :)

  7. hey shumaila... lovely post... thanks for sharing lovely ideas. been meaning to start on my veggies now. been so busy. loving your detailed posts and really sad about missing out on your garden meet and meveg :( talk. okay i have a question for you - my tulsi (holy basil) leaves have been completely chewed up by some insect - i have no idea what? cos nothing can be seen. i have a couple of these plants and they were doing beautifully. now the stalks are all green sans a single leaf. this happened last time as well and eventually my plant died. can you recommend any neem based pest controller? and where i can source it from? and is you DM me your contact on FB I can call you.

  8. Hi Rajani thanks for dropping by...meveg was good- some great people there! Sorry about your basil plants- it could be slugs or japanese beetle. Basil plants are like magnets to them. They usually come out at night that's why u can't see them. You can try using a garlic and chilli spray on future plants. Mince up 4 cloves of garlic and 1 chilli. Steep it in a couple of spoons of mineral oil overnight. The next day, strain it. Discard the herbs. To the strained liquid, add a pint of water and store. Every couple of days, dilute a few spoonfuls with some water and spray all over plant, especially underside of leaves. You can also try a simpler garlic, chilli and water mix...

    Shalimar herbals does a neem pesticide-cost you about 100 dhs, order directly by phone or look in geant ibn battuta

    Some people also place a ring of salt around the plant and wake up to find a load of slugs dead in it!

  9. thanks i am going to try that! but what is mineral oil? i tried mild soap water on my last plant and though the leaves were saved they shrivelled up and died :( anyway there are no leaves left to spray on though the stem is still green!! and the shalimar need pesticide how many litres is that? 100 bucks is steep. lemme see i see some neem trees growing outside maybe i can make my own.

  10. Yes soap will do that to a lot of plants. Mineral oil is just the odorless, colourless byproduct of petroleum that basically smothers/strangles pests...come to think of it, i have never bought it in dubai, got some from the UK. I will ask around, in Ace or even a pharmacy. Personally i wouldn't spend the money on the shalimar thing....you can try the garlic spray recipe with shredded neem leaves.

  11. i planted some fenugreek and onions (from the supermarket that were sprouting) and my mustard seeds have germinated.

  12. Did you just use the normal fenugreek and mustard seeds?

  13. good post sis! will sow seeds again, only two seeds germinated the chilli and cucumber,...i figured out that the quality of soil wasnt good and i also didnt know that compost or manure is not needed at the time of sowing...it killed them.

  14. Great info here , my mom would love this post , gotta show her .

  15. Thanks Shania and Shabs! Keep coming back for more:)

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  17. Johnson baby oil is 100 % mineral oil , so is vaseline hair oil , i believe. Hi Shumaila , Im also a first time kitchen gardener here in dubai , started last year but was only successful with basil and mint :/ i started too late with some cherry tomato plants , started around feb , so at flowering time the crazy heat and humidity came and killed all the flowers :/ going to plant some again now , hope i do better this time. I've gone thru almost all your posts and have got a lot of help, so thank you :)

  18. Hi Shumaila :D
    love your blog! I'm new to gardening but would love to start a vegetable patch outside. but i'm not sure when is the best time to start planting. I'm worried the summer here will be too hot for the plants... :C

  19. hello im a newbie in dubai vegi gardening i have started chili and tomatos indoors and 2 months have past and just now they have true leaves comming out. any idea when can i transplant the seedlings since i have treid my first batch and some died due to severe heat tried doing parasol cover but still young chili and tomato died any idea when is the best time to put the baby on the garden?

  20. hi. I planted coriander seeds. they have sprouted alright. But the stems seems to be weak and seem to fall to their sides even though the leaves haven't started to go pale/yellow yet. What do you suggest I do?

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  23. Can lettuce be grown now ,is it possible to get a round the year supply of lettuce and other salad leaves by growing continuously,any idea.Please advise if you know .