Friday, March 2, 2012

Who says nothing grows in the desert?

A few of  you may have fallen about laughing at my enthusiastic plans to create a balcony garden detailed in this article which I wrote last year. But, I have been as good as my word and attempted to create a garden on our terrace, although, in not quite the way I had planned. There are two reasons the garden is not quite what I envisaged.  First, at the time of writing, we were living in a tower on the 13th floor and I fully expected to still be living in a tower with a very small balcony as opposed to a low-rise with a freakishly large (for Dubai) terrace. Second, a chance encounter with a fellow Brit ex-pat at Dubai Garden Centre.

The main news this ex-pat had to impart was that he had recently acquired a chicken from a school fete which was in chick form at time of acquisition. Unfortunately after it had grown up a bit, the chick turned out to be a cockerel and his insistence on waking the neighbourhood up at dawn every day from the balcony (yes keeping a chicken on a balcony was probably not a good idea anyway but this is a city in which one sees tigers riding in the front seat of cars so one becomes used to such eccentricities) had caused him to be evicted from his flat.

So, ex-pat, wife and cockerel had moved into a villa with a garden.  The subsidiary and arguably less important bit of news was the fact that ex-pat had successfully grown vegetables in his garden.  So, as we were at a garden centre, I immediately trotted over to the seed stand to see what food growing opportunities were on offer to grow on pots in the terrace with all thoughts of wind, sand and sun resistant plants banished. I guess a deeply English desire to cultivate one's own vegetable patch dies hard even if you have moved to a dust bowl.

One thing they don't tell you at the various garden centres in Dubai is that although one may sneer at the obviously forced grown, regimented lines of plants that line the sides of the city's roads, the heat and the dust is not the only reason that such 'unnatural' gardening practice - of growing in polytunnels then importing to the site before ripping up again when they look a bit tired - is necessary here.

I have found gardening in Dubai to involve fighting off biblical plagues of pestilence armed only with a weak washing up liquid solution. Leaf miners are the chief culprits for the slow but eventual destruction of plants, followed by black fly and then if that's not enough, some weird yellow snot resembling bugs that are currently trying to munch their way through my desert rose. There's not much you can do about bugs eating vegetable plants in Dubai. Pesticides are not widely available because garden centres have to have licenses to sell them because they are of course highly toxic, so not many of them bother, and the high toxicity could of course render the crops inedible anyway.

So, while I have successfully grown beans and tomato plants, others have fallen by the wayside.

Here are aforesaid tomatoes growing in a thicket like arrangement I expect is typical of the inexperienced gardener who was not aware of the triffid-like proportions that tomatoes can reach given the right conditions until it's too late.

Here's a closeup of said tomatoes which are getting quite big now:

They're refusing to ripen at present which I suspect may be due to lack of sun which is not as mad as it sounds given our location in one of the world's hottest places as the terrace is in shade for much of the day. I have ignored the Prince Charles approach of talking nicely to them to get them to grow and instead can be found swearing at them to get the **** on with it because that's a bit more my style.  The white squiggly marks on the leaves are the ever present leaf miners which I feebly spray with water and washing up liquid in an attempt to keep them at bay.  I think the problems with pests are down to the fact that there are not enough cold snaps to kill them off.  They certainly seemed to retreat during the cooler months but as the temperature is creeping back up again I suspect they are now here to stay.

Despite this, we have already enjoyed my first, admittedly rather small, harvest of beans:

Although the first sowing of courgettes succumbed to leaf miner followed by black fly, some of the next ones are looking pretty promising:

Growing all these edible things of course makes growing flowers seem tame as progress is so slow. I don't know if it's my lack of skill but the yield from the amount of flower seeds sown is tiny in comparison. Here's some blue asters that finally look as if they are going to flower after several months in the soil:

My attempts to grow so-called desert friendly plants are feeble. I suspect this Blue Agave would rather be in the ground than in a pot but there's not a lot I can do about that unless I decide to dig up the terrace and create a flower bed which is admittedly tempting considering our landlord's behaviour:

I have been trying to find a position for it on the terrace in which I don't walk into it and damage its spines but have so far failed, hence its slightly sad looking tendrils.

The desert rose did not like the cold (for Dubai) winter very much and is also currently looking a bit sad.

Despite the sap being poisonous to humans, that's not the case for the aforementioned snot-like bugs that have recently started attacking it. I recently pruned it rather haphazardly with some blunt shears so it's looking particularly sad which is a bit galling when I keep seeing flower covered desert roses thriving in flowerbeds everywhere. Over the winter, it sulked and threw off all its leaves if I put even a drop of water near it.  I think it's the lack of sunlight on the terrace that it doesn't like and perhaps it will start looking a bit more cheerful when the warmer weather comes.

I have the Western instinct that a garden should be green and lush so I find the Agave and desert rose's slow growing not so greenness rather uninspiring. I expect the greenness will start to disappear and fall victim to the hot weather soon so perhaps my enthusiasm for desert friendly plants will grow accordingly.

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