There’s a disarming charm and a refreshing simplicity to the advice given by Shumaila Ahmed, aka Dubai Veg Growers, an increasingly popular blog and Facebook site that offers tips on home-grown food, cooking and recipes to gardeners in the UAE.
In part, this stems from Ahmed’s skills as a communicator; online posts have titles such as “Picking beans in PJs” and “How many ways can you use a coconut”. Readers also respond to Ahmed’s honest assessment of her own gardening expertise and her knack for understanding just how much detail is necessary when planting the seeds of horticultural wisdom. In a recent post on making your own fish-based liquid fertiliser, Ahmed took her readers through the process, one detailed photograph at a time.
Ahmed’s interest in vegetables and fresh food started with a concern for the quality of the food she was preparing at home. “When you have children, you worry about what they eat. I also came to realise that, as a city dweller, I will probably be pushing a supermarket trolley around forever, but by growing some of my own food, I was connecting with nature for at least a part of the year and that turned into an interesting relationship with gardening.”
That relationship began when Ahmed was a child in Karachi, where both her parents gardened at home. However, it wasn’t until she moved to the UK that she first had a garden of her own, and it was not an auspicious start. “I just wasn’t used to that kind of climate at all. I had no idea how to go about growing anything. Back home the weather is much friendlier to growing things.”
Once Ahmed moved to Dubai with her family three-and-a-half years ago, the gardening bug bit. “It was a personal challenge I set myself, to do something that I didn’t know anything about. It was also a response to being in Dubai. It’s so dry and so built up.”
From the start, Ahmed’s attempts were guided by enthusiasm and some seeds that she found in a hypermarket in one of Dubai’s many malls. “I was in Géant in Ibn Battuta. I just went crazy and bought all the seeds I could find. I really had no idea what would happen so I grew cabbage and cauliflower, things that you grow once and then have to replant. There was a lot that I didn’t realise.”
Part of Ahmed’s struggle was in finding information that was relevant to the area, a real problem for gardeners in the UAE, and a challenge that eventually persuaded Ahmed to start her own blog. “I looked online and I got people to bring me books from the UK, but it’s possible to get lots of conflicting and confusing information. Also, living here, lots of the stuff just isn’t available and products that are here aren’t clearly labelled very often.”
The first time Ahmed tried to grow anything from seed was a case in point. Having been told that she was buying compost, it didn’t take very long for her to realise that she’d actually been sold a bag of animal-based fertiliser instead. The smell was the biggest giveaway.
Despite such early setbacks, Ahmed enjoyed successes in her first season growing tomatoes, coriander, mint, basil, okra, pak choi, snow peas and eggplants and this, plus a passion for healthy eating, inspired her to continue with the experiment. “I’m very concerned with health. Our health is not separate from the health of our food, the soil, and the other organisms that make up the planet. We can’t treat our health as something that will happen on its own by popping pills or eating blueberries, so I take an overall approach.”
Now plants grow on every available surface in Ahmed’s garden, including the walls where she is experimenting with salad leaves, rocket and lettuce in a home-made vertical garden made from converted guttering pipes.
Ahmed also approaches local landscape contractors to recycle plant pots that would normally be discarded after their gardens have been planted. She also recycles her own waste in an indoor Bokashi composting system that provides her with invaluable material with which to enrich expensive shop-bought potting compost and garden soil.
“I realised very early on that you have to start right by conditioning your soil. When you’re growing in pots, it’s expensive to fill them with expensive potting soil, especially if you’ve got a big 25-litre pot. You can use sweet soil and if you build it up right with a mixture of perlite, compost and potting soil, you’ll improve water retention and save money.”
If good growing conditions are important to Ahmed, understanding how to irrigate plants properly and doing everything possible to conserve and recycle the water she uses is essential. Ahmed always irrigates her potting compost for a couple of days before using it, never waters in the heat of the day, places trays under her pots to collect excess water, and then combats evaporation by mulching. She even covers some pots in plastic bags, leaving only a hole at the top for the plant and for irrigation. Ahmed also waters by hand. “I don’t do surface watering. I check my plants every day but I only do a deep watering once every other day or so.”
As well as her blog and popular Facebook page, Ahmed also looks after her family while working on an MA in International Studies and Media. “I am trying to be good this season and not do too much, but I’m always tempted,” she says.
Her latest project is working on a kitchen garden with the children at a local kindergarten to provide them with an early introduction to gardening, nature and to where food actually comes from. When asked if a book is the next goal for Dubai Veg Growers, Ahmed’s thought turn to the bigger picture and to community gardening instead. “Dubai is so full of space. There’s grass everywhere that’s just wasting irrigation water when there could be community gardens. I think that when you grow food you’re also growing a community. You change and your relationships with the people around you change as well. It’s not impossible, anyone can do it. You just have to start; it’s just the story of a single seed.”
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi
Image: Jaime Puebla, The National