Yes, it is possible to grow your own food in the desert – and Rachel of The Homegrown Gardener shows us how to do it
Being that we live in the desert, the concept of ‘grow your own’ food is relatively rare, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. One Dubai-resident who is proving that backyard farming isn’t as hard as you might think, is Rachel of The Homegrown Gardener.
An Australian expat, Rachel shares her “made in the UAE” growing and planting advice on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. We caught up with Rachel – who recently won in the Zayed International Prize of the Urban Farming Champs – to get her top-tips for growing food in the desert:
Can anyone grow food in their UAE garden?
Absolutely, yes! Of course, the more space you have the more you can grow. But any sunny window or small balcony is enough to grow a few herbs, or even a chilli plant. Starting to grow just a few small plants to include in your meals is a great way to begin learning about gardening and the joy of growing your own food. Don’t be discouraged if something doesn’t work out – take it as a lesson learned and try again.
What foods grow well in the UAE climate?
We are lucky here in the UAE to have sunshine year-round. This really is an opportunity to grow more food throughout the year, particularly those typical summer plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra and cucumbers. In saying this, even these will need shade and plenty of water in the peak of summer. Either side of summer and in the cooler months you can grow a larger variety including squash, melons, beans, leafy greens such as kale, swiss chard, bok choy, rocket as well as basil and whatever else takes your fancy.
Consider seed or plant varieties that are heat and/or drought tolerant (read the packets and labels) and if you can, collect seeds from plants that have been grown locally here in the UAE. Tomato seeds are so easy to save!
Another thing to consider is traditionally grown foods from the region. Molokhia or Egyption spinach is an easy to grow, cut and come again green that is well suited to our climate. Malabar spinach and Amaranth are worth trying also.
Also read: Creating a tropical garden in Dubai: Emilie Jacob on the plants to buy
What time of year should you plant your seeds?
I like to start my tomatoes, peppers and eggplant seeds inside towards the end of summer. As the weather starts to cool and the humidity drops, you can begin “hardening” the seedlings by putting them outside for an hour or so in the morning or evening. By October, they should be ready to plant outside into pots or directly into the ground. Late winter is another great time to start seeds giving them several months to grow and produce food before the peak of summer.
In general, most food varieties will do okay from October – April.
Is it possible to grow organic food? Or do pests mean that pesticides are necessary?
I always prefer to grow organic. Our bodies are exposed to enough chemicals and toxins without adding them to our homegrown food. A dilution of neem oil sprayed directly onto the plants or even an organic fertiliser that has been enriched with neem will help to keep those pests away. Also, in a small garden it is possible to do a visual scan and pick the bad guys off!
What would you recommend for a beginner to grow?
Basil, mint and chilli!
These hardy and prolific plants love the UAE sun and are little more forgiving some other varieties. Also, as these are such versatile flavours, it is easy to incorporate them into many of your regular home meals. Once you start enjoying the flavour of homegrown food, you will be inspired to keep growing!
Where do you shop for seeds, soil etc?
My favourite place to shop locally is the Dubai plant souk. This outdoor space is massive with many different shops and almost anything a gardener could possibly want! Take cash and don’t be afraid to haggle.
When it comes to seeds, I like to buy these from a variety of places and online seed specialists. I love finding heirloom seed varieties of vegetables that you can’t find on your supermarket shelves. Growing something unique helps to keep me inspired.
Also read: Science-backed reasons why you should add plants to your interiors
What are your top three tips for growing food in the UAE?
1) Grow what you love to eat. If you love tomatoes, grow several different varieties of tomatoes. Loving to eat the end result will ensure you give your plants the attention they need to thrive.
2) Just get planting. I can guarantee you will get more food from seeds that are in the ground then those that are still sitting in the seed packet. If something doesn’t work out, learn from that and try again.
3) Never water your plants in the heat of the day. Early morning or late afternoon is best and ensure that the water is going onto the soil, not onto the plant itself. Watering in a hot climate can be tricky, try sticking your finger a few centimetres down into the soil as a way of seeing if your plants need water. A slow water is best, this will allow the water to get deep below the surface to the plant roots where it is needed.
What is your favorite recipe to make with your homegrown food?
Pesto. This quick and fresh recipe is a great way to use all different herbs and greens from the garden. It’s so simple to make, delicious and healthy. You can add or remove ingredients depending on what you have available and it will still taste delicious.
– 1 large bowl, mixed fresh greens of your choice (parsley, coriander, kale, basil, spring onions, rocket, mint, dill, sage and oregano are a few of my favorites)
– 1/2 a medium purple onion (optional)
– 1 large clove of garlic (optional)
– Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
– Lemon or lime juice
– Pure Pink Himalayan salt to taste
– 50g Pine nuts or Cashew nuts (optional) toasted and roughly chopped
– 50g Parmesan Cheese (optional) grated or roughly chopped
– Pick your herbs and greens from the garden and give them a good wash to get off any dirt, shake of the excess water and roughly chop
– Roughly chop the onion and garlic
– Gently toast the nuts in a dry fry pan until they smell delicious and are golden brown, allow to cool
– Place the chopped greens, onion, garlic, nuts and parmesan in a food processor or nutri-bullet and blend to a rough paste
– Add Olive oil, lemon or lime juice and salt to taste
– Blend again until you achieve your desired consistency – leave chunky or blend to a smooth paste
– Enjoy with crackers on a cheese board or trying using this on homemade breads and pizzas
Ready to flex your green thumb? See more aspirational garden inspiration.