How to grow your own food in the UAE

Join the growing number of UAE residents harvesting their own organic food at home

Rachel The Homegrown Gardener
Rachel from The Homegrown Gardener in her garden. Image credit │ @the_homegrown_gardener

It’s no secret that most of the food we eat in the UAE has been imported, which makes sense seeing as we live in a desert, right? Not necessarily. The past few years have seen the ‘grow your own’ movement gather momentum, as both local farms and residents have been harvesting more produce. The temperate winter months mean that the UAE has one of the longest growing seasons in the world, and getting it right is easier than you might think. We caught up with some of those leading the movement to hear their advice
for beginners:

Find the right spot

“The first step when it comes to growing your own food is to choose the right location for the garden,” says Mohammed Al Dhuhouri from Local Roots UAE . “Most vegetables require at least four hours of sunlight to thrive, so your intended growing area should have that amount of sunlight to be successful.” Nasser Rego Co-founder of SoWeGrow, who offers gardening courses on food in the UAE suggests, “Using shade-netting when growing in the sunlight.”

Mohammed from Local Roots in his garden
Mohammed Al Dhuhouri from Local Roots in his garden. Image credit │ @localrootsuae

Select your crops

“As we have such a long growing season in the UAE, in comparison to other countries, it means that we can grow all sorts of produce,” says Mohammed. Year-round sunshine means there’s “opportunity to grow throughout the year, particularly those typical summer plants such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, okra and cucumbers”, says gardening vlogger and Instagrammer Rachel Wright, known as The Homegrown Gardener. “In the cooler months you can grow a larger variety, including squash, melons, and beans, as well as leafy greens such as kale, swiss chard, bok choy, rocket and whatever else takes your fancy.”

Get planting  

“In general, most varieties will do ok from October to April,” says Rachel, “but I like to start my tomatoes, peppers and eggplant seeds inside towards the end of summer.” When the weather starts to cool down and the humidity decreases, “harden your 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.” 

Gardening gloves
Bee gardening gloves by Sophie Allport. Image credit │Sophie Allport

Don’t forget to compost

“The aim of composting is twofold.” says Nasser, “Fresh, homemade compost is one of the best foods you can give your plants. Composting also means recycling the waste from the products that we consume. By composting, things aren‘t ending up in landfill and there‘s actually an alchemy of rebirth happening. We put our waste together in particular portions and what comes out is one of the best foods to feed our plants, bringing new life about.” So how do you compost? “It’s about getting the right mix of greens (fresh leaves, food waste, coffee grounds) and browns (dried leaves, twigs, woodchips). The mix is 3:1 in favour of greens. It‘s about keeping the mixture moist (but not soaking wet) – think of a well-wrung sponge. Stir the mix often enough, and in two-to-three months you‘ll have the sweet smelling, soft brown/black material called compost!” explains Nasser. 

Companion planting

Being strategic with which plants you put beside each other means you can maximise the growth. For example, tomatoes flourish when situated next to basil or parsley, “the vibrant basil herb repells pests, such as whiteflies and hornworms, and improves the tomatoes yield,” says Rachel. “On the other hand, there are some veggies which are not compatible when planting together,” explains Mohammed. “With both potatoes and cucumbers being ‘heavy feeders’, they will compete against each other for the same nutrients and water. Also, cucumbers may increase the chances of the potatoes to catch a disease called blight.”

Limes growing in the UAE
Limes growing in the UAE. Image credit │ @the_homegrown_gardener

Caring for your plants

“Plants need proper care, from the right amount of water and the ideal quality of soil and temperature control, to the right amount of organic fertiliser,” says Vishal, co-founder of Big Farm Brothers, an organic food distributor based in Dubai. “Having a regular watering schedule is important, as is making sure you water the soil, rather than the plants themselves,” adds Rachel. “Vegetables that are growing outside should be watered every one to two days. Good air circulation can also help prevent plant diseases,” she adds.

Avoiding pests 

“Healthy plants are more resistant to disease because they have stronger cell walls,” says Nasser, “therefore it is important to keep your plant happy, by growing it in healthy soil.” For keeping bugs at bay there are several natural options you can use. “Neem oil is commonly available,” says Vishal. “Garlic and pepper spray is easy to make at home we advise to stay away from chemical-driven products which are harmful for plants.”

“You can buy fertilisers enriched with neem, and in a small garden it is possible to do a visual scan to pick the bad guys off!” says Rachel.

Interested in more local gardening content? See our alfresco-based content here

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