The restrictions of the pandemic prompted a lot of different hobbies, and one that might be around to stay is cultivating a balcony garden. You can do it safely from the comfort of your own home, you can see the progress you’re making and it provides a real sense of achievement. And with looming talk of food shortages, more people than ever are interested in taking empowering first steps to becoming more self-sustainable.
New research from the University of Georgia, in the United States, that was published in the American Society for Horticultural Science found that out of 4,200 participants, one out of every three people began gardening in 2020 because they were home more.
While many of those didn’t plan to continue, one out of 10 said they did. They provided a number of reasons, with 14 percent citing concern over post-pandemic food shortages and rising food prices. There were other benefits, too.
“Plants have been shown to help with a lot of different things related to people’s psyche,” said Benjamin Campbell, lead author of the study and an associate professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Gardening not only gave people something to do, but it also gave them a little bit more happiness.”
Whether you do outdoors or in, gardening is very good for your health, said Mohamed Al Dhanhani, director of the Agriculture Development and Health Department at the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment.
“In addition to providing homegrown, fresh produce to supplement our diet, the proven benefits of gardening include a positive effect on our environment, on our physical and mental health and it strengthens people’s connection with nature,” he said.
Although full-scale outdoor spaces are a luxury for many in the UAE, that hasn’t stopped eager gardeners from using whatever space they have to grow herbs and other plants on their balconies.
Simon Moore, head of garden and outdoor at ACE, has witnessed the trend.
“There’s been a big uplift in the sales of plants, seeds and soils,” he said. “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 ministry picked up on the gardening trend and last year launched the #PlantAtHome campaign along with a comprehensive online plant-cultivation guide to encourage the community to grow vegetables, herbs, fruits and ornamental plants at home, says Al Dhanhani.
Fancy starting your own balcony garden? Or revamping the one you already have? Here are some tips, courtesy of ACE:
All you need to grow basic herbs and salads is a windowsill and some pots and containers. Growing vertically means you need less space. Long thin troughs filled with seasonal plants and herbs use less space than square pots. Try using a mirror, an old gardening trick that makes any area look bigger than it is, as does having planting zones at different heights.
Respect the climate
Not much survives the summer, but flowering plants such as the Vinca, which is available from March onwards, will thrive during the hottest months. From mid-September onwards, choose marigolds and petunias for great color, or coleus, which brightens up an old pot with its striking leaves. If you’re looking for year-round growth: 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 ppuntiodeae are all great too.
Herbs are easy
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 Water early every morning or late in the evening. Also make sure to water the soil and not the leaves of the plant, which will get scorched by the sun.
Choose the right soil
Use a grow bag for tomatoes, aubergines and chili plants and potting soil for all other shrubs and plants. For seeds it is best to use a fine compost and break up the soil. 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.
This article was originally published in April 2020.
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.