Around 6am every Friday, as much of the UAE sleeps, Darshan Murali heads to a school in Sharjah, all the way from his home in Dubai. No, he’s not going in to study – although no one can dispute that he’s definitely learning a lot. He goes straight to an organic garden that he has set up in a little space inside the school compound, the green a stark contrast to the brown of the buildings and the yellow of the buses that are parked a little away. Some days everything’s perfect – the plants are all growing well, there are no weeds or weevils growing in competition with them, the sprinkler systems are working fine – and he can head home in an hour or so to catch up with the rest of his weekend. Other times, he’ll have to spend much longer – tending to the soil or checking up on all the various veggies growing, from cucumbers and chilli to tomatoes and aubergines.

One recent morning, after a night of rains, he found the leaves on tomato plants had developed small pores and white spots, due to the frost and insects. So the 16-year-old spent hours tending to that with organic insecticide. Another morning he noticed ants attacking the amaranthus plant, so he had to increase the dosage of pesticide. Yet another time the ladyfingers weren’t growing satisfactorily, so he got busy using more potting soil.

[Organic farming in UAE: from harvest to your local market in 24 hours]

This has been Darshan’s routine for the past three years, when, as the youngest member of a UAE community group called UFK, Unique Friends of Kerala, he participated in an organic farming venture in a member’s villa in Dubai. That project in a small plot of land yielded a produce of about 20kg of vegetables, and almost overnight turned Darshan into Mr Green Fingers.

Armed with no formal training or playbook or mentor but with a strong passion, Darshan and members from the community group decided to then turn that small project into a big one. Thus started an organic farming initiative that shifted its target market from adults to schools and schoolchildren in the UAE ‘to empower students to learn all about where the food on their plates comes from,’ says Darshan.

The idea of focussing on gen next developed after an informal experiment that Darshan and a few volunteers conducted with numerous second-grade students. ‘The first question we asked them was where they thought vegetables came from,’ says Darshan, a student of Our Own High School, Al Warqaa. ‘Shockingly, every child told us the name of a different supermarket. That made us realise the extent to which children are unaware of where the things they eat come from or how they are produced. So we decided creating awareness on organic gardening among the young was more important than anything else.’

A green revolution

So two years ago on UAE National Day, around 40 volunteers from UFK, after securing the requisite permissions from the authorities concerned, set about creating a garden from scratch in his school.

Five months later their efforts were rewarded: The volunteers of UFK harvested close to 80kg of vegetables. The vegetables they gathered were handed over to the Emirates Red Crescent and distributed to the needy, so that ‘kids learn two lessons, the value of giving plus the importance of organic farming,’ he says.

Students, teachers and parents are all equally enthusiastic about organic gardening
Stefan Lindeque

Soon after, a second gardening project was launched in GEMS Millennium school in Sharjah, which is still ongoing. ‘The school already had a garden, but no one was doing anything much with it. And so we started a kitchen garden there in October,’ says Darshan. That venture was a huge success, to the extent that on November 30, Martyrs’ Day last year, an official from the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment came over to the school as the students planted 48 plants commemorating soldiers who lost their lives. ‘Plants were grown in pots bearing stickers of ‘we salute the heroes’,’ says Darshan. ‘After the first harvest, the yield of around 35kg each was distributed among the kids of the school.’

Darshan is quick to point out that more than the kilos of produce obtained, the projects are all about involving students in learning abut sustainability and farming practices. ‘Our volunteers tend to the garden on Fridays and Saturdays, but the other days the students maintain them. It’s a practical learning experience for them – all we do is give them a push by creating the environment.’

Teresa Varman, CEO GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah, stresses on how necessary this is, saying while kids can be taught a lot about organic gardening in the classroom, it’s the practical experience that ultimately helps them gain. 'We had been trying to get a garden going for two years and UFK came at the right time. From the start, we saw very obviously displayed a passion in them. And the children loved all the digging up and learning and being a part of something.’

It’s a win-win deal

For Grade 4 student Gayathri Thuppla, practical learning definitely trumped textbooks. She says she learned about growing plants ‘in my EVS [environmental studies] textbook’, but what got her truly excited was when she ‘got to know that my school was creating an organic farming project for us to grow plants. I could learn about various plants and how to take care of them. I also got to know about various organic fertilisers that can be used to grow vegetables quickly. The best part is these vegetables don’t harm us.’

Besides being a great physical development activity gardening brings on a multitude of benefits into children’s lives: helping them connect with nature, become more responsible as they care for a plant, be present in the environment, and importantly, changing their relationship with food as they learn how to care and nurture.

Take Shreyas Sreejith, a Grade 6 GEMS Millennium School student who at first was indifferent to gardening. ‘I didn’t know what’s happening in our school when our teachers asked us to plant a few saplings. We were even asked to water it daily. After few weeks of watering, we saw the sapling grow and sprout new leaves. From then I was keen to see it grow. So I daily watered it and used to join a bunch of people who came from outside and they taught us about the entire process. I am very much interested to carry on with this initiative in my school.’

Their biggest harvest was 25kg in one day last year. Vegetables are given to labour camps and to students
Stefan Lindeque

This keenness is reflected in Our Own school Al Warqaa, where the students have decided to continue the initiative themselves, picking up from where Darshan and team started. ‘We spread the seeds and students take it forward,’ he says. ‘That’s the aim.’

A variety of veggies

Vegetables grown in the garden include tomato, chilli, lettuce, ladyfinger, cucumber, cabbage, cauliflower, snake gourd and bitter gourd. ‘Eggplant is the easiest to raise,’ Darshan says. ‘Tomato, on the other hand, requires some dedication and love!’

Their best bonanza was a 25kg harvest in one day last year, with harvests done about three times a year. But this year there’s already been a harvest four times, thanks to a new all-natural fertiliser Darshan and his team developed – fish head and jaggery. ‘Store it for 45 days in an airtight bucket and it will ferment. Add this to plants and they will grow faster! Cauliflower, which used to take over 100 days, now takes about half that time!’

Giving to the needy

If two years back, the fruits of the students’ labours were handed over to people living in workers’ accommodations, this year the veggies were given to students. 

One of the first things you notice is the difference in taste between the organically raised vegetables and the ones available in the supermarkets, says Darshan, munching on a cucumber that he grew in his garden.

‘Maybe because it’s something you make from scratch, and when the hard work pays off it tastes extra nice and sweet! And I think you can’t really trust the produce you buy from the market, but the veggies you grow, you see every day from the time it’s a seed, you watch the entire process, and you are aware of what goes into it at every stage.’

What goes into the plants in his garden are ‘pesticides that are completely organic, with no chemicals’. He offers the recipe: Make a mixture of equal quantities of chopped ginger, garlic and chilli, and keep it aside for one week. Then dilute the mixture with water. ‘It’s a spicy mix so when we spray it on leaves, insects don’t attack. That’s what we’ve been using for three years. We also use fertilisers brought from Kerala; neem cake, which our volunteers bring back when they go on vacations – they use up 5kg of their 20-30kg baggage allowance for us.’ He also sources cow dung  – an excellent organic fertiliser – from a local cattle market. ‘For Dh2 we can get 20kg.’

Darshan says while at first it was difficult to spread the word, ‘the second round onwards was a success as we had all the students behind us. The best way to go about changing a negative attitude is to show results, and we had a lot of colourful, delicious results to show.’

Darshan’s enthusiasm is contagious, to the point that it’s not just the students who want to go green – parents have been enthusiastic about the venture too. Manoj Percy Lionel is one such father. After he saw his son Ethan Manoj, a Grade 6 GEMS Millennium School student, go beyond learning about agriculture from textbooks to more hands-on experiences such as watering the garden, he was firmly on board. ‘From the start of the journey, Ethan was learning something new about farming each day, which I thought was great. And as a parent, this initiative is also benefitting us. We are getting our children involved in an activity that helps the environment. Along with team UFK, we parents then started supporting them in all the process. That includes watering, ploughing, planting etc. The impact it makes is very powerful.’

Darshan agrees. ‘Parents completely support it, and so many of them have extended organic farming to their own home’s balconies now,’ he says. ‘They ask us where we get the seeds and soil from, we give them the contacts, and they’ll use a yogurt box to start going green.’

Myths of UAE farming

It’s quite a grand venture for a project that started with no formal knowledge of basic gardening techniques. ‘At first I didn’t know what to use, how to use it, whether it would grow at all,’ Darshan says. ‘Everyone kept saying the soil wasn’t suitable, the weather wasn’t conducive. What gave us strength was teamwork, the belief we could do it together. Our volunteers have full-time jobs and commitments, but they still come out in force during the weekends. Some of them work on Fridays too, but every Friday morning they’re there all cheery. The kids are watching and learning too. One of our volunteers Kishore’s three-year-old daughter now helps him water the plants!’

The path to the rich harvests wasn’t paved with just roses. ‘Most commercial ventures are in a greenhouse, but we can’t afford to do that as we’re doing it as a free service. It was a big challenge initially.’ Dust storms, birds and insects can all destroy a carefully nurtured garden in a jiffy. To keep out the birds and insects they began using nets. ‘It’s been all trial and error. I’ve learnt by doing, I now quickly know if some plant changes colour, what the reason is for it. As today’s generation I have a lot of tech at my disposal, so I use google, youtube, watch videos of tomato planting etc, and on Pinterest to see people sharing their experience and learn from that.’

Darshan says his team spreads the seeds and the students take it forward. ‘That’s the aim’
Stefan Lindeque

Darshan balances life in the garden effectively with school work, heading to the garden before class begins every day to water the garden. The first time he began working on a barren piece of land, a lot of his friends thought it was a worthless task ‘and they didn’t appreciate it, they thought I was crazy to spend my weekends there. But when they saw the garden thriving they understood that hard work bears fruits, literally!’

From a few weeks back, with the coronavirus outbreak and social distancing needs, only Darshan and about three others head to the garden, compared to the 30 volunteers earlier.

Fruits fervour

Next year the initiative hopes to spread its green wings in another direction. ‘The Ministry wants to take this forward to 20-25 Emirati schools in a major initiative,’ Darshan says. ‘Discussions for that have been put on hold due to the ongoing pandemic, but they definitely are aiming for next season, which starts in October. We also want to start growing more fruits: strawberries, bananas, cherries. Also medicinal plants such as tulsi.’

Darshan says he wants to promote agriculture, not study it. ‘I don’t want a Bsc in agriculture, but I want to keep an appreciation and passion for nature alive,’ the civil service aspirant says. ‘This should be a part of our life. Take this pandemic and the quarantine as an example. If you have a garden in your balcony you can go about one to two months with healthy vegetables as part of a diet that also helps in preventing lifestyle diseases. You can wholly trust your vegetables.’

He agrees that organic farming is seen as non-profitable and less efficient. ‘As the ministry official who visited us said, kids don’t know what organic vegetables are, and because it costs more, people go for the cheaper ones. But there’s a long-term adverse effect that can outweigh the short-term benefit. And it’s a myth that it can’t be profitable. We know of a woman in Abu Dhabi who grows watermelons in her one acre plot each weighing around 3kg. If she sells it for Dh5 each, she can easily make a profit plus ensure her customers are getting chemical-free produce.’

His advice to kids around the UAE is to give growing your own vegetables a try, ‘because it’s not as hard as it looks. And after taking up the initiative and getting your hands dirty, have the belief and patience to continue it, and not just let it be a first infatuation! At the end of the day, it’s all about getting outdoors and smelling the roses. And the tomatoes and cucumbers and the chilli and the ladyfingers…’

Darshan’s tips on building your own organic farm

• The main ingredient required to start up a garden at your home is the passion towards farming and doing it organically.

• Growing plants is very convenient for those with a balcony. You can use a large yogurt container or any other similar type of container for holding the soil. In the UAE, it is preferred to use potting soil, which is available at any store.

• Compost can be made with vegetable waste and paper waste at home. This can be stored in a container.

• The location of the pot should be dependent on the requirement of sunlight. All other pesticides and other maintenance procedures are similar to the ones we do in large spaces (read the story to find out how Darshan makes pesticides and fertilisers organically.)

• Give the plant regular water and care and dedication, and it will give you a great yield in return.