The disruption of 2020 has forced us to look for different hobbies that fit our ‘new normal’ and one past-time that’s growing steadily in popularity is balcony gardening. And why not? It’s safe to do from the comfort of your own home and the sense of achievement and a job well done triggers the release of feel-good chemicals including dopamine.
“Confined to their homes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, people have been discovering their green fingers and exploring indoor and outdoor gardening,” confirms Mohamed Al Dhanhani, director of the Agriculture Development and Health Department at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment (MOCCAE). “In addition to providing homegrown, fresh produce to supplement our diet, proven benefits of gardening include a positive effect on our environment, our physical and mental health and strengthening people’s connection with nature.”
Although full-scale outdoor spaces are still a luxury for many living in the UAE, it is not preventing eager gardeners from taking to their balconies to grow herbs and other plants, which could be behind the sales increases seen by home improvement stores such as ACE.
“Our sales have certainly increased this year,” says Simon Moore, head of garden and outdoor. “There’s been a big uplift in the sales of plants, seeds and soils. I think people are becoming more conscious of their personal impact on the environment and are wanting to grow their own fruits and vegetables. It’s also a very relaxing pastime that gives a great sense of personal achievement.”
The MOCCAE has also picked up on the growing gardening trend. “We’ve launched the #PlantAtHome campaign that aims to encourage the community to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits and ornamental plants at home,” says Mohamed Al Dhanhani. “We have a comprehensive guide on cultivating various plants available on online.”
So, do you fancy starting your own balcony garden? Or fine-tuning your current one? Simon Moore from ACE shares his tips:
No space is too small
All you need to grow basic herbs and salads is a windowsill and some pots and containers. Growing vertically limits the amount of space needed, while long thin troughs filled with seasonal plants and herbs use less space than square pots. Try using a mirror, an old gardening trick that gives the impression an area is bigger than it seems, as does adding planting zones at different heights.
Keep climate sensitivity in mind
Not much survives the summer, but try flowering plants such as the Vinca, which is available from March onwards and will thrive during the hottest months. From mid-September onwards, opt for Marigolds and Petunias for great colour, or Coleus, which brighten up an old pot with its strikingly colored leaves. If you’re looking for year-round growth: shrubs such as Bougainvillea, Thevetia, Leucophyllum and Oleander will all thrive, as will grasses such as Pennisetum and Muhlenbergia. Succulent plants like Adenium, Aloe and Euphorbia, and cacti such as Agave, Echinocactus and Opuntiodeae, are all great too.
Herbs are a good starter
Basil, rosemary, mint and thyme are especially easy to grow during the winter. Rosemary and basil should be moved into a larger pot once the roots are visible in the base while mint should be planted on its own in a bowl as it tends to be quite invasive and fast-growing. A good rule of thumb is to buy two of each plant, as one can be growing while the other is being used, and make sure to wait for new shoots to appear prior to using in cooking. Water early every morning or late in the evening. Also make sure to water the soil and not the leaves of the plant, as this prevents scorching from the sun.
Choose the right soil
For tomatoes, eggplants/aubergines and chilli plants, use a grow bag and for general shrubs and all other plants use potting soil in pots. For seeds it is best to use a fine compost and to break up the soil further to provide an easier medium. Follow instructions on the seed packet on how deep you should plant the seeds. Watering should be done daily, or even twice daily if the leaves are getting limp.
Protect your garden
Deadhead seasonal flowers twice a week and prune plants in early winter to encourage more growth and flowering during cooler periods. Look out for bugs, too. For small scale insects use a foliar insecticide spray; for leaf miner use an anti-fungal spray, first removing and discarding any affected leaves to prevent the larvae from taking hold. Adding a companion plant such as Marigold can prevent greenfly and whitefly attacks during the winter.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.