Your Guide To Growing Fruit and Veg in the UAE
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Your Guide To Growing Fruit and Veg in the UAE

With sustainable farming practices gaining favor in the UAE, we take a look at ways to grow your own fruit and vegetables in the desert.

Your Guide To Growing Fruit and Veg in the UAE

Weather in the UAE can be harsh, but with tastefully manicured and artificially verdant suburbs, it’s often easy to forget just how difficult it is to farm in the desert.

One of the biggest issues facing agriculture is the lack of water above and below ground. The UAE region has experienced a massive drop in the fresh water tables over the past few decades, largely due to rapid development and the draining of natural water resources. The result is greatly increased levels of salinity in the soil and remaining water, which makes it very difficult to grow crops. With the demand for fresh water likely to increase by around 30 percent over the next few decades, the situation is reaching a critical breakpoint for the region’s farmers, many of whom are already going out of business.

The government is responding with a drive to increase awareness of sustainable farming practices that conserve water and place more reliance on “smart farming” practices such as water harvesting and cultivating climate and region-appropriate crops.

Happily, these are all methods and practices that can be applied by the home gardener as well. With a little effort, it’s even possible to grow fruit and vegetables successfully and sustainably, despite the scorching heat and unfavorable conditions. If you’re prepared to change your expectations and adapt to the environment, gardening in the desert can be fun and highly rewarding. Follow these tips and don’t be afraid to experiment a little – the results may surprise you.  

The Challenges of Desert Soil

Desert soil is a mix of sand and rock, lacking in organic matter. It’s difficult to plant anything at a great depth in desert soil, and good drainage is difficult as well; on top of that, desert soil tends to be quite alkaline (salty). For all these reasons, it makes sense to create your own growing environment for plants and vegetables using your own compost/soil mix. A raised bed works well, but consider its position – a south facing bed will get very hot and will need to be adequately watered.

To make a raised bed, mark out the area you wish to use. Now dig down a few inches and create walls using logs, wood, rocks, bricks or cement blocks – you can get creative but use materials that can sustain the weight of the soil. The depth will depend on what you intend to grow. You will need adequate depth to contain any root systems, particularly if you plan to grow carrots and other below ground vegetables. Despite obvious concerns about plants not getting enough water, it’s also vital to ensure adequate drainage, particularly if constructing a raised bed over a base with a lot of dense rock. There is a danger the roots could end up sodden, and rot. For this reason you will need to ensure you add some loose rocks to the base of your bed to create a drainage system. Once you have the walls and base, fill half way up the wall with sand. Add your own compost/soil mix (and any organic fertilizer you wish to use) and mix well.

Making Your Soil and Compost

Pure compost consists entirely of rotted down organic matter. Soil differs slightly in that it contains other minerals and inorganic elements too such as sand, silt, rock, clay and so on. A good, rich soil/compost contains a mix of all these elements, but the mix is not an exact science – it will depend very much on your site and environment and the type of plants you wish to grow. You may want to use additional minerals, and it can take some experimentation to get it right.

If your soil contains plenty of good, organic plant-rich compost and a healthy balance of minerals, it should contain virtually all the nutrients required for growing vegetables successfully, and little to no fertilizer should be needed. A soil used in hot, dry climates will also need to contain something that’s going to hold the water well, so add a coconut coir or peat moss filler to the mix.

Of course it is possible to purchase store bought soil and compost combined – and in the beginning while you wait for your compost to rot down, this might be a good idea, but you can best be assured of a healthy, organic provenance if you follow these instructions for making your own compost:

1. Find an old garbage can (PVC or metal is fine), or you can even custom build a composter out of wood – anything, so long as it has a lid and can be kept dark and out of the reach of animals, kids etc.

2. Place a coarse layer of organic material, such as straw, on the bottom of your container. This will assist with drainage.

3. Add organic matter such as leftover potato peelings, apple cores, grass cuttings and so on. NO animal products!

4. Once the composter is getting full, it’s time to add a dry, top layer of shredded, organic based matter, such as leaves, straw or paper.

5. Add a layer of soil – an inch or so will suffice. Add water to moisten and leave to rot down for a few days.

6. Using a fork, turn the top layers over to aerate and mix.

7. Continue adding organic matter until the composter is getting full, and repeat from step 4, turning over every few days to incorporate the newer top layers. After a few weeks or months you will have a light, rich soil packed full of organic goodness that can be used in your garden.

Water – The Crucial Factor

Ensuring plants are adequately watered, and in the correct way, is key to a successful desert garden. Unlike most conventional gardens, overhead watering – or the use of sprinkler systems – is not advisable; the leaves will only scorch and burn in the fierce sun, and the plants will not receive sufficient water near the base and roots where they need it most.

For this reason, a drip irrigation system or subsoil irrigation system is the way to go. These methods may involve a little more outlay at the start, but they will prove effective and far more economical in the long run because they get the water where the plants need it most:  in the soil and around the root zone. The pipes can be run around the base of the plants or sitting on top of the soil, or they can be buried below the soil. You are then able to set the system to the desired drip cycle to provide a steady, regular and targeted flow of water throughout the day as required, freeing you up to do other things. These systems can be purchased from garden centers in the region.

While it may be more economical to install a drip irrigation system, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to utilize other water sources available. There are a number of ways to do this:

  1. Installing a water butt is one option to harvest rare rainfall. You will need to ensure you can capture the rain run-off from a downpipe – a large plastic bin or trash can with a lid (to prevent mosquitos) works best. You will need to attach an adapter from the pipe to the lid to allow the rain to flow into the butt and allow you to open the lid and access the water. Try to keep the butt in the shade to avoid evaporation.
  2. If space allows, a simple survival-style solution for harvesting water is to place a large plastic sheet outside on a hill or sloping surface (or strung securely to trees or heavy objects). As the sun rises and air temperature increases rapidly in the morning, condensation will form on the sheet and the run off can be captured into a suitable container, or you could funnel the water directly into a hose pipe with holes cut at regular intervals to run around the base of your plants and create a kind of DIY irrigation system (at least for part of the day; you may need to supplement with another water source later). You can experiment with various techniques based on this method. Try the internet for more tips and suggestions.

Planting Tips

  1. Mulch, a layer of organic, decaying material such as bark chippings, leaves or coconut husk, is an essential element for desert gardening. Spreading an inch or so deep layer of mulch around the base of your plants is a great way to help retain moisture and discourage weeds.
  2. Even in the desert there are cool and warm seasons that will not only affect when you plant but how your plants will act; again, this will vary depending on location. In the very height of summer – when temperatures hit 90 degrees or more – very few species will actually produce fruit and flowers and so understanding seasons is generally about keeping your plants hydrated and stress-free. Stressed plants will be more susceptible to pests and disease, so a shade cloth can work well at the hottest times.
  3. When gardening in the desert, it’s a good idea to plant quite densely. This more crowded environment creates a microclimate that traps valuable shade and moisture – much like a rainforest. However, as ever with desert gardening, it’s a fine balance between adequate hydration and preventing rot in stems and roots.
  4. Save your seeds. After a few successful growing seasons your plants will have acclimatized nicely to the harsh desert environment and that’s why it’s essential to harvest your own seeds where possible for continued success.
  5. Grow climate appropriate crops – although it may seem a little obvious, it makes sense to grow crops that are adapted to and able to thrive in hot, sunny and dry climates. Think about countries with similar environments and the types of fruit and vegetables typically associated with their regional cuisine for clues. Some salad leaves, for example, may not be suitable because they will essentially cook in the sun and valuable enzymes will be destroyed.

If you want more online information about at-home gardening and how to maintain small farming beds while living in a desert climate, have a look at thedxbgardener and growingyourgreens. Two good resources for garden supplies are the Dubai Garden Centre and the Sultan Garden Centre, and you might like to visit a farmer’s market to get more information on small scale gardening in the desert.


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