There is no greater joy than waking up to a view of fresh flowers in your balcony or, better still, munching on a crunchy cucumber that you have grown yourself. Even if you have only a few pots or own a small patch of land, tending to a garden has immeasurable benefits – for, it will not just feed your body but also your soul. Research proves that gardening is a moderate form of exercise and a great stress buster. It also promotes healthy eating and family time together.
But if space constraints and the hot weather in the UAE stopped you from planting those greens, then meet these three home owners who will make you pick up that spade and shovel now:
Nine-year-old Aayush Jain is a gardening buff and is currently awaiting the avocado seed to sprout in the vegetable patch he nurtures with his mom Rashi.
Rajee Shyam Sundar who has grown an array of vegetables, including cabbages and cauliflowers, in her tiny balcony garden in Muhaisnah, Dubai.
Bur Dubai resident Sanjay M Lulla spends all his spare time curating his balcony garden with colourful flower pots, waterfalls and other garden aesthetics.
Little Green Fingers
Every day before he goes to school Ayush spends a few minutes in his vegetable garden tending to the plants. An ardent gardener, he tenderly inspects each plant – admiring the new saplings, inspecting over-watered greens and counting ripe fruit ready to be plucked. ‘I love being in my garden. It’s a place where I feel refreshed and relaxed,’ says the grade four student of Springdales School, Dubai. With his mom Rashi, he has planted a rich garden of vegetables in a small green patch in their villa in The Lakes. There are rows of spinach and mint, tiny saplings of capsicums with fully grown plants of bitter gourds, brinjals, tomatoes, chillies and even a papaya tree.
So enthusiastic is he about his plants that he heads straight to the garden right after school to check on them. Tilling and repotting with his little hands, adding manure and spraying home-made natural pesticides, Aayush is engrossed in his garden even on weekends. ‘He has green fingers. Whatever he plants, grows well. All our friends know of his gardening skills and whenever they visit us they insist on a garden tour from him,’ says the proud mom, Rashi.
A kathak dancer and teacher, Rashi’s family home in India nestled in a large garden. Her childhood memories of enjoying the fruits of her garden for meals with friends and family led her to recreate one when she moved to The Lakes five years ago.
Even as a four-year-old, Aayush took to gardening like a pro. Her younger son’s eagerness to grow new plants and his curiosity to learn about them encouraged Rashi to devote more time to her garden.
Together mum and son watch gardening programmes on YouTube and now on Netflix and surf the internet to find ways to develop their vegetable patch.
Over the years they have had sizeable harvests of aubergines, bell peppers and tomatoes. ‘The joy and taste of eating salads and barbecues from homegrown produce is very special,’ says Rashi, who takes a keen interest in cooking and includes homegrown veggies in healthy recipes - broccoli pizzas and aubergine chips to name a few.
Growing vegetables with kids also means that they understand the whole process of cultivation and genuinely develop an interest in eating vegetables, she says. ‘After a harvest of bitter gourds from their garden, Aayush started eating them for the first time in his life.’
Like everything else in life, gardening has its highs and lows. The duo has had their share of disasters when they lost plants to overwatering and the summer heat. Aayush was particularly upset when the avocado plant that he had painstakingly raised from a seed died in the summer this year. Undeterred, he read up more on how to grow avocados and has now repotted a seed pricked with three toothpicks half submerged in water. ‘I read on the internet that this is a better way to grow avocado. I am hoping that it will germinate well this time,’ says the young boy who one day wants to own an organic farm. The budding Mr Green Fingers also contributed to a noble cause this Ramadan – he sold home-grown saplings to his neighbours and spent the money he collected to buy food for labourers during the fasting days.
The garden is an integral part of the Jain family today – a place where they share their time together. But most importantly, it is a generous friend to the youngest member of their family.
Small space farming
The easiest way to bring a smile on Rajee Shyam Sundar’s face is to gift her a plant. A self-confessed gardening fanatic, Rajee’s eyes and ears are perennially searching for ways to sow and reap. A childhood spent in the lush green fields of Kerala meant that she gained deep insight into farming techniques and knowledge about nutritional value of several plants.
Eight years ago when Rajee’s family had to move to Muhaisnah in Dubai, a crucial criterion for their future house included a spacious balcony. Unfortunately things did not work out as expected. ‘I was heartbroken because the balcony was quite tiny – only 350x70cm. But then I consoled myself and took it as a challenge to grow plants even in this space,’ says Rajee, a stay at home mom.
She bought large pots to keep on the balcony. Then she fixed wooden crates on walls to place some more pots. Not content, she struck upon a novel idea of using pipes on the railing of the balcony. Two six-inch plastic pipes supported with clamps were attached to the railing. In them she cut out openings, filled soil and planted saplings. ‘I have grown several veggies in my balcony over the years including cabbage, cauliflower, beans, strawberry, tomato, aubergine, drumsticks, herbs and leafy vegetables,’ says Rajee.
A fan of organic farming, Rajee’s plants have all sprouted from homegrown seeds or from those bought from organic stores. She also makes natural manure and pesticides at home. In the potting soil, she mixes red sand, vermi compost, manure and neem cake. This mix is kept moist for two weeks. By then the seeds that had been sprouting in small cups are transferred into the soil. The pesticide spray is made by mixing turmeric, chillies, garlic and neem oil. "Even in my small balcony I am able to grow around 30 to 40 plants. I still need to shop for organic veggies. But my garden contributes to a fair share of chutneys, juices and curries I make at home,’ she adds.
The plants in her garden have not only helped Rajee add more nutritional value to the family meals but have also improved her mental well-being. ‘There is tremendous satisfaction in gardening and it keeps me busy. I used to have chronic migraines. A large part of it has been resolved thanks to my passion for gardening,’ she says. Rajee also conducts gardening activities in various schools in Dubai.
But the biggest motivator for her is the recent allotment of a plot of land under her apartment block. ‘It’s like winning the lottery. I have already taken two plots from the six that our building management has offered to residents. I hope to grow as many vegetables as possible including guavas and mulberries,’ says an excited Rajee.
Seeding away stress
One cool winter night last year when the petunias in Sanjay M Lulla’s balcony were in full bloom, he spread a mat on the floor and drifted off to sleep with their fragrance lingering in the air. ‘The weather was very pleasant that day. I was listening to music lying on the mat amidst all those colourful flowers. It turned out to be a memorable night and I am looking forward to more such moments this season,’ says Sanjay.
An employee of the Dubai Airports, Sanjay works shifts. And when not at work he can be found pottering around in the spacious balcony garden of his apartment in Bur Dubai.
From bougainvillea to geraniums, hibiscus and hollyhocks – there are a wide variety of plants blooming in over 50 pots in his garden. ‘It all started with a few money plants that my wife bought when we moved to this house 15 years ago. I was fascinated watching them grow. The first flowers I planted were red hibiscus. Nurturing them and seeing them bloom stirred in me a passion for gardening,’ recalls Sanjay.
Frequent trips to nurseries in Satwa further added to his gardening skills. As he bought more plants he learnt from the nursery owners about their water and soil requirements. When the number of pots increased he started investing in garden aesthetics. A latticed wooden frame was fixed on the wall to hang brightly coloured flower pots.
Sanjay also made a couple of waterfalls and has even had a huge rubber pond filled with plants in the past. A number of garden statues placed among the plants enhance the beauty of the green space. Beneath a waterfall made out of two pots, sits a large winged stone cherub flanked by a pair of coleus with two deer sculptures on either side.
‘I am also a cleanliness freak so I am always rearranging my flower pots, dusting the statues and thinking of ways to add a soothing ambience to the space,’ he says.
On weekends when most people are busy making party plans, Sanjay’s itinerary revolves around his garden. If not out to buy new plants or potting soil, he watches Garden Invaders on BBC. On holidays too he looks out for gardening shops and tips from home owners on balcony planters.
‘I have no time to think of anything else.
My balcony garden helps me to unwind and beat stress. I am there for almost six to seven hours every day,’ he adds.
Sanjay treats his plants like babies – he talks to them and spends a lot of time caring for them. ‘I am so thrilled to spot new buds and yellow leaves make me sad,’ he says. In the harsh summer months
Sanjay creates a shade with nets to prevent direct sunlight from harming his greens. Even when he is travelling he makes sure that there is always someone at home to water and nurture them.
Caring for your plants when you’re away
• Use self-watering pots and planters. They are built with a reservoir to collect excess water which is then reabsorbed by the plant when it is needed.
• Add a layer of mulch over the soil, and water. Mulched plants lose 25 per cent less water.
• Make a bottle drip system by pricking small holes in an empty bottle. Bury it in the soil, leaving only the mouth of the bottle revealed on top. Fill the bottle with water which will steadily seep into the soil for a few days.
• Automatic irrigation system for villa gardens. This includes a controller and solenoid valves that can function independently of an operator. Before leaving, the owner can pre-set the timer as required making sure there is sufficient water supply during their absence.
• Place netted green screens over heat-sensitive varieties of outdoor plants to protect them from harsh sunlight.
• Group pots together. This will create a humid micro-environment that will slow down water-loss and evaporation.
• Remove any weeds before leaving. This will prevent the weeds from competing with the plants for water.
• Request a neighbour or a friend to take care of your garden when you are away.
Info courtesy: Acacia Garden Center, Dubai