Hot Shoots – how does your desert garden grow?

Seven easy ways to get the most out of your new Dubai garden

The furniture’s in, most of the boxes are unpacked and the telly works. Congratulations on your new home! Like most people here in Dubai, the patch of desert surrounding your new nest hardly deserves to be called a garden, but somewhere out there under the sand and builder’s rubble is the makings of a cool, green, shady place, capable of producing wonderfully scented flowers and abundant crops of your very own home-grown vegetables. It may seem a daunting prospect, but there are some very simple and effective steps to take and start enjoying the fruits of your labours.

Plants need three things to thrive – sunshine, water and nutrients. Sunshine we have in abundance (often too much, in fact), water and nutrients we have to add. So where to begin?

1)            Planning. It’s always better to start with the end in mind, and time spent in            thinking about your garden, how you will use it and what you want from it will always be repaid. It’s a good idea to start with a mug of tea and a sheet of   paper, to sketch out roughly what you expect. Depending on the size of your   plot, now’s the time to think about such things as where to put the barbeque, is   there space for a pool or water feature, where should you plant vegetables and so on. This initial drawing should give you a framework for your own efforts, and is an invaluable tool to use when briefing landscaping specialists. You don’t have to do all the hard work yourself!

2)            Water. Given our climate, water is an essential component of successfully growing anything here. It is a precious resource, and one to use carefully for maximum benefit. There are three things to consider – application, conservation, and quantity. How are you going to water your garden? If you’re starting with a bare plot, it’s an ideal opportunity to install an irrigation system, either throughout the whole garden, or in key areas where you intend  to grow particular things. Some form of control system is essential, and thereare plenty of relatively inexpensive electronic timers available in DIY stores and larger garden centers.

Next is conservation – watering early in the morning and later in the evening helps to minimize losses through evaporation. Mulches and ground cover materials are also useful in keeping the water in the ground where you want it, and there are various materials you can incorporate into the soil to trap and hold moisture there as well.

Finally, quantities. It may seem obvious, but the bigger the plant, the more water it needs. Large trees may be wonderful for shade, but the can consume many hundreds, if not thousands of litres of water. Plan carefully.

3)            Nutrients. Desert sand is actually surprisingly rich in nutrients, but successful gardening depends on improving the quality of your plot by incorporating as much fibre and organic material as you can. The more you do, the better your results will be. One of the most practical and effective ways to do this is by composting. If you don’t have the space for a decent compost heap away from the house, choose the modern option, an indoor composting bin called a  Bokashi. This is basically an airtight container which you fill with organic waste such as vegetable peelings, and these are then broken down by  anaerobic digestion using special enzymes. There’s no mess or smell, and the results when dug into your garden can be truly spectacular. Much better for the environment than sending your waste to landfill.

4)            Shade. The UAE gets so much sunshine that it is almost impossible not to grow things successfully. But you can certainly have too much of a good thing, and most plants will shut down and go into a sort of hibernation when  the temperature gets too high. Think of it as the opposite of winter. One of the simplest ways to protect your garden is by providing shade, either with  screening trees and shrubs, or by shade sails and awnings. Provided you keep them watered, most plants will survive through the summer, and bounce back to life in the autumn when temperatures drop again.

5)            Containers.  If you’re growing things in pots, extra care needs to be taken.             Pots can get very hot very quickly, cooking the roots of your plants, and they also tend to dry out surprisingly fast. If you can, move any container-grown plants to a shady spot or the northern side of a wall, and do use a good mulch on top of the soil to trap as much moisture as possible.

6)            Kitchen Gardens. One of the greatest pleasures you can have is an abundant supply of fresh herbs to cook with. Most do well here – basil thrives, and             rosemary, mint, thyme, zaatar, oregano, lemongrass  and sage all prosper given enough water. Even tender coriander is possible if you can stop it from bolting, and bay trees can survive if reasonable shaded.

When you’re planning your garden, it’s a good idea to keep your herbs in easy             reach of the kitchen. That way they get used!

7)            Fruit and veg. Think tropical. Most shrub and tree-borne fruit do well here –       figs, mangoes, papayas, pomegranates, all citrus fruits, and dates obviously.             Squashes and melons love the warmth, but need a lot of water. Soft fruit such as strawberries and raspberries are possible but more problematic.

Vegetables follow a similar trend – beans love the weather, as do chillies, aubergines and cucumbers, and tomatoes do well. Lettuce and other leafy greens prefer the cooler months, but grow so fast you can have an almost continuous crop.

The best advice, as always, is to be nosey. Look at successful gardens to see what plants do well there, and chances are they’ll thrive in your plot too. And given how good growing conditions are here, it will feel like next to no time before your little patch of sand is transformed into a slice of cool green heaven.

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About jonathancastle

Copywriter, chef, journalist, keynote speaker, whisky authority, wine enthusiast. Based in Dubai but love to travel.
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One Response to Hot Shoots – how does your desert garden grow?

  1. Wow! My mouth is watering. I’ve actually sampled those gorgeous tomatoes in Susan’s fresh tomato soup. Make me want to start a garden!

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