Updated: April 2021
Bright days, warm sunshine, a sense of nature renewed – what better time to turn your thoughts to gardening? Whether you have a balcony, small backyard or larger plot, now is a great time to start cultivating the organic, sustainable way.
Imagine stepping out into the garden and just picking what you want when you wish to eat it or turn it into an infusion as a quick pick-me-up. In an organic garden, what the produce may lack in terms of visual beauty is made up for by its wonderful taste and the quality of the essential oils it contains. True, it’s a more labor-intensive approach, and chemical feeds and pesticides are strictly out of bounds, but your time and effort can be richly rewarded with health-giving and flavorful crops full of essential oils and vitamins, thriving wildlife – and a sense of enhanced wellbeing.
I grew up in a family of gardeners in the south of England, and the “back garden” was an integral part of home life throughout my childhood. I have been gardening in the Middle East since the 1980s. My first experiments were with pots of annuals (petunias, marigolds, lobelia) and herbs such as parsley and mint confined on a very small, narrow balcony in the Gulf state of Qatar. To my surprise they did well, until the extreme heat of the summer killed the whole lot off and I had to start over.
From there, it was an easy step to gardening on a small plot when we moved to a ground floor flat. I learned the ropes with hibiscus, bougainvillea and yet more pots of bedding plants. The little yard turned into a blaze of color for several months each year, a welcome refuge in a harsh environment.
None of this, however, was on the scale being attempted in New Cairo. This is what makes the experiment such an adventure. Part kitchen- and part pleasure-garden, it is managed in as organic and sustainable a way as I can achieve.
This means placing emphasis on building up healthy soil, trying to be economical with water, avoiding the use of chemicals for pest control, and using natural supplements to feed the plants such as compost and compost-derived liquid tonic.
There are probably as many ways to approach organic gardening as there are books written about it – at least in English! The foundations of this approach to gardening are:
1- Feed the Soil, Not the Plants.
Build up organic matter by digging in dried leaves and/or adding homemade compost. The signs of healthy soil are a crumbly texture, evidence of plant matter (dried and disintegrating pieces of leaf, stem, flower), the presence of earthworms and other forms of life, and decent drainage.
I started an organic garden in New Cairo six years ago and since then I have removed countless chunks of concrete, broken tiles and iron bars from the land. This is best done before getting down to creating beds and borders, but you will probably continue turning up debris for years.
The great thing about this is you get to recycle the vegetable and fruit waste from your kitchen, as well as cuttings, clippings and so on from the garden, creating a virtuous circle.
Prioritize Irrigation and Drainage.
It’s a challenge to manage these in the Middle East, but it can be done if the basic infrastructure is competently installed and well maintained. If you garden on a balcony this won’t be a problem: Just invest in a watering can.
Frequently, potable water is used in domestic gardens. It’s a wasteful and unnatural practice: Grey water would be a better substitute. If you can, save what you use to rinse your fruit and vegetables, let it stand for 24 hours in buckets so chlorine evaporates, and then use for tender plants.
When you buy plants, inspect them carefully to make sure they are not completely pot-bound, or even rooted into the ground, or bug-ridden. Choose drought-tolerant species where water conservation is a priority. Avoid potentially towering trees unless you have a huge estate or they will end up cutting out the sunlight, preventing smaller plants from thriving.
Control Pests Simply.
Arguably, some plants are best avoided – they are too troublesome. I have banned Lantana, much favored in the Middle East as a hedge shrub, as mealy bugs just love it. Natural predators help control some pests (ladybugs for aphids, for example). You will come to regard many insects and birds as your friends and allies.
It works well to use netting over the kitchen garden to prevent butterflies and moths from entering a bed to lay eggs on, say, brassicas. If you buy netting with the appropriate size mesh, pollinators such as bees can safely come and go.
Basic Tools Work Best.
I wouldn’t be without my trusty stainless steel fork and spade from England, but there are successful organic gardeners who never dig the soil, simply adding a deep layer of compost on top of beds annually and planting into that. You will need shears and secateurs for pruning; a trowel for planting and transplanting; plenty of plant pots/modules and some seed compost or finely sieved soil for sowing seeds; plus a watering can for “targeted” watering.
With the Spring Flower Show in Cairo’s El-Urman Gardens opening imminently, this is an excellent time to turn your thoughts to cultivation. No matter what you have, balcony, backyard or larger plot of land, an exploration of the art and science of organic gardening could prove compelling and open the door to a beautiful way of life.
Time to roll up the sleeves and get started: Enjoy!