Click to read the first of the two-part series

The Flower Garden, Hinal Kale

This Indian artist likes nothing better than bringing back a dried flower or buying seeds during her travels abroad. “People buy souvenirs, but I’d rather get some seeds,” says the mother of two. “I have stuff from literally all over the world.”

Hinal’s Jumeirah garden is a flower lover’s haven.

The show begins outside her gate where a Thai Jasmine, Bougainvillea pots and a Plumeria stand guard alongside an assortment of Petunias and dwarf Zinnias. Once the gate swings open, it’s a flower riot. Roses, Water Lilies, Zinnias, Petunias, Desert Roses, Jasmines, Ipomeas, Begonias, Fuschias, Snake Jasmine and Moonflower and so much more.

Hinal is known in exclusive gardening circles for her roses, with just about everyone wondering how she is able to get them to do so well in Dubai’s climate.

“Roses are heavy feeders,” says Hinal. “So, every 15 days they need some kind of fertiliser. They prefer cow manure, but when the weather heats up, I switch to vermicompost, as cow manure is very heaty.”

Hinal’s garden is abundant and organised

Watering happens at the crack of dawn – when the pipe water is cooler. To make sure her roses survive the harsh summer, Hinal moves her pots into the shade of the bougainvilleas planted along the perimeter of her compound. “People have the wrong notion that the heat will kill the roses,” says Hinal. “But actually they need 5-6 hours of sun. What they don’t like is the hot air or the hot water from the pipes.”

Many of Hinal’s flowers have interesting back stories, such as the Zinnias that took root in her garden from a dry flower that she picked up outside her daughter’s university when she went to see her off. Then there’s the ketchup-mustard Rose, a double-coloured beauty that preens in the sun – again from one of Hinal’s travels.

A gnarled but heavily flowering Desert Rose, Hinal says, is a rescue plant. “I saw it in the trash when out for a walk. The knots forming along the stem told me that it hadn’t been watered for more than a month. But we salvaged it, and now, after two years of nurturing, it is rewarding me with flowers.”

Hinal’s garden is abundant and yet organised. Just outside her kitchen door is her huge compost drum into which go the household’s kitchen scraps. “The trick is the soil,” Hinal says. “You have to mix manure, either organic or home compost, into the soil you buy, and regularly feed your plants.”

Regular pruning and deadheading are also important, so that new growth is given the space to come up. Hinal harvests all her seeds, keeping them for the next season. “I have tried to plant a mix of flowers, so that I get blooms all year round. I do all my pruning and deadheading and fertilizing myself, because most of my plants are 5-10 years old, many grown from seed, and from cuttings. “

Hinal also suggests filling a spray bottle with a litre of water and a teaspoon of Epsom salt. “Spray it on the foliage to give your plants, especially your Roses, an immediate boost.”

Just one tip: “Give the soil some nourishment using recycled home-made fertilizers – be it compost, banana peel water, onion water or green slurry. Just add some to your soil at least once a month. This also ensures we reduce wastage and do our bit towards the environment, helping reduce our carbon footprint.

The Everyday Garden, Indrani Gulati

“We have so many ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things here in their own small way,” says Indrani Guati about the community of uber gardeners in Dubai who dare to grow species of plants that conventional wisdom says is a foolhardy enterprise.

Indrani is a member of practically every gardening group worth its salt here, and besides using her knowledge and skills in her large garden in Umm Suqueim, she channels it into her blog “letstalkgardens” so that newbie Dubai gardeners don’t have to hunt for “all the scattered knowledge”.

Indrani, herself, is partial to hibiscus and water lilies, the latter clustered together in large plastic pots filled with sand and water. Star-shaped blooms poke above the water, its round, shiny leaves floating above. “My ever-dependable Dauben never fails to give me a bloom every single day,” Indrani says, pointing to two pale blue lilies.

The beautiful hibuscus takes pride of place in Indrani’s home

Next door, two light yellow ones tilt their faces up to the sun and presently a bumble bee alights on the violet petals of a blue Pickerel Weed. Water Hyacinths and water poppies, a purple Tina, Peach Glow, the Wanvisa, a peach Colorado, the Mexican Nyphama, Siam Jasmine, a 1,000 petalled Lotus and a red night bloomer are also part of her growing collection.

Elsewhere in Indrani’s garden, Hollyhocks stand tall, Butterfly Peas creep onto walls, a hardy Mexican Coral vine drapes itself at the gate, a Snake Jasmine bears delicate white flowers that look like tiny ballerinas in skirts of tulle.

Indrani’s passion for gardening is plain to see as she works her way through the garden showing off a Chaste Tree here, a fragrant Petunia there, her Neem and Moringa that she insists must be everyone’s duty to grow wherever they are. “Unlike the Damas trees, whose roots can spread up to 10km strangling other plants, these are the good guys. They are medicinal and nurture other plants alongside, by sharing resources and preventing pests from coming in. They live in sandy soil and are drought-resistant.”

New gardeners would do well to pay as much attention to their micro-environment as to the macro-environment of Dubai, says Indrani, who has a degree in media and marketing. “For instance, those living in, say Mudon or Al Barari, are not directed towards the sea as we in this area are. Here the air is saltier. So, what works for them may not work for me here on the beach.”

Just one tip: “Patience and discipline. Walk around your garden for at least 15 minutes every day, even if you have a gardener. You will find the problems before they get out of control.” 

The Indoor Garden, Anita Chua

Anita Chua’s first plants were succulents she managed to bump off by and large due to some over-enthusiastic watering, typical of newbie gardeners.

The plants died, but her interest survived.

Today Anita’s backyard at her new Dubai Hills villa is bare, but step inside and you are engulfed by foliage. They hang from overhead baskets, arch above the dining table, sit in pots on every available sill, and paint every corner of her living space green. Most of them are exotic varieties of common indoor plants such as the Monstera, the Anthurium, Hoya, Calathea, Syngonium, Philodendron and the ZZ plant.

With innumerable indoor plants, Anita Chua’s home doubles up as a green sanctuary

While the profusion is what hits you first, linger over each pot and intricately patterned leaves and subtle colours emerge to fill you with awe at Nature’s artwork.

“I love indoor plants, and I am always looking out for exotic varieties. In my experience, the less attention you pay to them, the more they thrive,” says the Malaysian, her face breaking out in an impish smile.

“I water them once a week, and some of these hanging ones, maybe once in two.” The demand for fertilizer is also low, once in six months or so. Some of the anthuriums can be fussy, but by and large Anita’s plants are resilient and undemanding. Which works well for Anita because she juggles her passion alongside a full-time job as an internal auditor.

Anita, who shares her home with her husband, and their pet cat, an Arabian Mau named Brownie, makes sure that she intersperses her collection with varieties such as the Sansevieria, ZZ, Boston Ferns and Peace Lilies that are known to improve indoor air quality by removing toxins.

Pride of place, however, goes to the Monstera Albo, with its large split green and white leaves. It cost her dH900!

Just one tip: “Less is more for indoor plants.”

The Aquascape, Shagun Taware

Among the first things Indian software engineer Shagun Taware does when he gets home in Jumeirah Village Circle from office is check his 5 aquascaped tanks of varying size. He checks for any algae growth, makes sure the water filters are working well and the tanks are receiving the optimum amount of light. He peers at the fish and the plants, snipping leaves from the ones that he feels are growing out of shape.

Later on, he might work on his new tank that he is preparing for an aquascaping competition to be held in August in Japan.

Aquascaping is the art of designing gardens within the confines of a water tank. “The plants are different, the soil is different, the fertilisers are different,” says Shagun, who set up his first tank three-and-half years ago.

For Shagun Taware, aquascaping is about creating a biosystem that is beautiful and practical

According to Shagun, the hobby is a thriving one in Dubai with several “very active” Facebook and WhatsApp groups. The Japanese and the Indonesians are leaders in the field, the aquascapes they create are mindboggling in their intricacy.

Aquascapers tend to follow established designs such as the Nature Scape, the Brazilian Scape, The Dutch Scape etc.

“I would always recommend that a beginner starts off with the very simple, and yet visually appealing Iwagumi Scape,” says Shagun. “It consists of doing the hardscape with stones and planting plain grass for the greenery. Once you get a hang of what’s involved you can move onto the Nature Scape which is a bit more difficult.”

In fact, Shagun cautions that most of the challenges lie at the very beginning. “The initial set-up is crucial and if you don’t get it right, a beginner is likely to drop the hobby faster than he or she picked it up. So don’t rush the process of setting up your tank. Most beginners buy the tank, the water filters, the plants and the fish all in one go, and within a week the fish are dead and the plants gone.”

According to Shagun the water filters must first be allowed to run for almost a month so that the biochemistry of the water world being created is just right. “This is known as the cycling of the tank,” Shagun explains. “But first you must do the hardscaping.” This is where the stones and wood are laid out. “I keep moving them around, until I get the effect I want. Then I have to glue each stone with the next because if any of them slip or slide it can cause a crack in the tank. And that would be disastrous.”

With all the elements that go into an aqua garden including the lighting, beginner tanks can cost an average of Dh500-1000. “For advanced tanks the sky is the limit,” says Shagun.

Gardening teaches one to be patient. It’s the same for aquascaping. “However, you do need some, to start out with,” says Shagun, with a laugh. “Things can go bad overnight, and to set it right will take time.”

Just one tip: “Read, watch videos and understand what you are getting into before starting off. Take it step by step. Once your tank is settled, be on constant watch for algal growth. Everything must be held in balance, the three crucial parameters being fertilisation, lighting and the carbon dioxide level. The three together make up an equilateral triangle with any one of them being slightly more or less, affecting the other two.”

The Water Garden, Jimmy Grewal

It all started with a few Koi fish that Jimmy Grewal’s wife brought home. Within a year the decorative Japanese fish had outgrown the pond they were in. ‘I had a lot of free time during the Covid lockdown, so I decided to expand the pond making it wider and deeper,’ says Jimmy, who lives with his family in Al Barsha.

One thing led to the next and soon the Koi fish had their pond – 4 metres in diameter and a 1.2 metres in depth. To keep the water clean, Jimmy planted water lilies, Plumeria, creepers and Umbrella Grass on the fringes. To keep the water cool, he designed waterfalls. The filtered water from the pond needed an exit, and that led Jimmy to gardening and a 3-metre-long vegetable patch, that is right now giving the Grewals a kilo of cherry tomatoes a day.

Besides the Koi, the pond sustains some shrimps, and guppies that feed on mosquito larvae. Flitting above the water, are dragonflies that also do their bit in keeping the mosquitoes away.  

Even as all this was happening, it struck Jimmy that he couldn’t find his wife’s favourite flower – the lotus – in Dubai. ‘Usually, people grow them from tubers brought back from India or Sri Lanka,’ says the Indian software engineer. Since no one was travelling because of Covid, Jimmy bought a packet of lotus seeds and germinated them. It worked. ‘We got a few flowers last year,’ he says, ‘and although they were the right size and colour, they didn’t open fully.’

Jimmy admits that had he known the work involved for each of his projects, he might have thought twice about starting them. “If I knew now how much time and effort I would put into it, I would probably not have started it. But now that it’s done, it’s very satisfying,” he says.

Jimmy learnt every step of the way using YouTube videos. For instance, he realised that lotus seeds are very hard and durable some remaining dormant for thousands of years. “Usually, they fall into the water, which over the years softens its outer shell leading to germination. The way you speed this up is by cutting or filing one end of the seed to allow the water to penetrate. The seed will germinate in a day or two.”

The lotus does need a lot of sunlight to grow, but not necessarily the “direct scalding heat of Dubai”. So come summer Jimmy will shade his lotus plants from the mid-day sun. Shades will also come up over his pond.

He is already thinking of what he can do to make his job of maintaining the pond even easier, efficient, and sustainable. “I’d like to work out a closed loop system, where the water exits the pond filter, goes through plant beds and returns to the pond. This way, the only water I lose will be from evaporation.”

Jimmy believes it will be well worth the effort. “It will make my job of maintaining the pond easier because the more robust the system is to filter the water, the less risk that something will go wrong when I’m on holiday, and the fish will die.”

And so, it’s back to the fish!

Just one tip: “Start small: get a large pot and create a small water garden with a single water lily and a few guppies and see how it goes. If they flourish, then you’re ready to create a larger water garden with more types of flora and fauna.”

Click to read the first of the two-part series

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