Monday, 5 April 2010
You say “tomato”, I say “what, in this weather - have you gone insane?”
“Grow cherry tomatoes? In the desert? Why don’t I just go and build a snowman on Sheikh Zayed Road in July, while I’m at it, or put on a sheepskin coat and go hiking in the empty quarter with a giant magnifying glass for a hat?” This was my exasperated and rather childish response when it was suggested to me that I could grow stuff on my balcony in Dubai.
But last summer, while researching a story about an unlikely home gardening craze sparked by Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth II (I still can’t quite picture the Queen wading through the turnips in her size-11 Wellington boots, but there you go), I met Zafar Ali Khan, and everything changed.
Khan is the horticulture engineer at Dubai Garden Centre, and he’s a man who knows a thing or two about getting edible things to grow in the harsh desert conditions of the UAE. He assured me it’s quite easy to grow cherry tomatoes, coriander, basil and oregano on my balcony, as long as I give my undivided attention to the plants, keep ‘em watered and resist the temptation to chuck them over the railings and go and buy a load from Spinneys instead.
So I bought a few packets of Franchi seeds (vigorous determinate bush variety, no less) and a little soil and got cracking. The cherry tomato seeds were not organic, at least I don’t think they were, but since I had little hope of actually getting any tomatoes out of them anyway, I thought I’d give them a go.
One sweltering day last August, I took a handful of seeds and laid them out on some moistened sheets of kitchen tissue, which I placed into a cupboard overnight. I was amazed and excited to see that little white shoots had begun to appear on each seed. Less excited when I realised I’d sprinkled about 60 of them onto the tissue. That’s a lot of tomato plants.
When the shoots were about a centimetre long, I transferred them to my improvised seedling containers - a couple of plastic tupperware tubs. This, I realised shortly after the last shoot was placed in the soil, was a stupid idea. The containers had no holes for drainage, but I simply couldn’t be bothered to replant them - it just meant I had to watch how much water went in. Then I placed the containers on my work desk underneath a window with plenty of sunlight.
Within a week of careful watering, the green seedlings began to emerge, uncurling their baby cotyledon leaves unto the glory of the sun. I had created life where there was no life before. I felt a bit like Dr Frankenstein, although less maniacal and without the grave-robbing habit.
Soon the seedlings needed space of their own to flourish, so I had to buy enough small plant pots for 60 of the blighters. Some of the seedlings, ahem, sadly perished while being transferred to their pots, leaving me with a slightly more manageable 50 seedlings to devote my time to. I reckoned a few more would fall by the wayside before I was ready to harvest my cherry tomatoes.
I decided that I’d keep the use of fertiliser down to a bare minimum, so I used nothing but water and sunlight on the little fellows for the first few months and watched them grow (not literally, as that would have been extremely tedious and taken far too long). And grow they did, into hefty, healthy, leafy plants that had to be supported with canes, and eventually began to produce little yellow flowers from which my first green baby tomatoes would emerge. Some of them died, of course, so its a matter of luck, I suppose. I ended up with about ten to fifteen strong plants.
At this point, I had to repot of few of the plants in larger containers, and I added some Phostrogen slow release fertiliser tablets to the soil. Organic fertiliser, Khan had assured me, would stink like a Satwa trashcan, so I decided against that. It was as the first budding green tomatoes appeared that I transferred the plants to the balcony. The summer was over and although some of them began to wilt a bit, they soon adjusted to the cooler-yet-hotter-than-inside weather.
In the first week of February the first blush of redness appeared on a few tomatoes, and in a matter of weeks more and more of the fruit became flushed a deep red.
My first harvest was a bumper crop of about twenty cherry tomatoes, which were fine in salads and even better when roasted alongside some garlic in olive oil, with a sprinkle of salt and cracked black pepper.
For over two months now, I’ve been getting juicy, bright and spotless tomatoes - even from the plants that remained in their small plant pots because I was too lazy to upgrade them to a nice big pot. I didn’t have to use any insecticide either, and although the occasional bird has had it away with one or two of my beauties, some kind of large catapult might put a stop to that.
I’ve got tomatoes coming out of my ears (figuratively speaking). I could even have my own La Tomatina festival like they have in Spain, where I playfully pelt myself with tomatoes while only half losing my temper. Or perhaps I’ll just eat them?
I’m expecting the plants to succumb to the heat when the summer kicks in, but I’m ready to start all over again ready for next winter.
Because I can.