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. 

32 comments:

  1. Wow, those are lovely. I am not much of a plant person, I only keep mint and a curry leaf bush for culinary purposes. But our housekeeper took the initiative to plant flowers and other things just for fun. She planted some chile bushes that yielded beautiful thin Indian chiles this winter, too. I'll have to let her know about your tomatoes.

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  2. If I can grow them, anybody can. I also grew basil, oregano (which just grows and grows) and coriander. All went really well, except the basil eventually goes to seed and begins to flower. So does the coriander, although much more quickly than the basil, but that got a nasty case of black fly. I sprayed it with a light solution of water and washing up liquid, as advised, and killed the black fly. Trouble is, I killed the coriander as well...

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  3. Welcome to the wonderful world of home-grown cherry tomatoes, James! I'm not so much into gardening myself but growing tomatoes and basil has been thoroughly enjoyable for me, especially since they taste much, much better compared to ones we get in the stores, nowadays.

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  4. Hello parulbh, welcome to the Guzzler! Well, they're certainly cheaper homegrown. As I said, mine are best roasted, which really brings out the sweetness. If I had a garden I'd be growing all kinds of stuff that's insanely expensive to buy here. I'd get my own wagyu cow as well - they don't need much space to move around!

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  5. freshness is above all.
    when i cook or think of arecipe i always have in mind fresh red tomatoes

    thanks!

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  6. Too true, recipeman, plus I know exactly where they've come from.

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  7. I grow basil, thyme, oregano, chives, rosemary, mint, lemongrass and sage in Dubai every year. They all do really well. But my tomatoes are really hit and miss. I can't believe you've had such a harvest without using any fertiliser (therefore agree with smug git tag!).

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  8. Hello writebyte, do you grow them all in pots or in a garden? I reckon luck plays a big part when it comes to tomatoes. I did use a little fertiliser, but it was a bare minimum. Would have loved to slap manure all over them, but I didn't fancy turning my balcony into an open sewer.

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  9. Grown in pots, but might not bother now the organic farm shop has opened. Their tomatoes are fantastic.

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  10. Not expensive. My tomato addict husband has put a link to this post on his blog btw. http://somethingtochew.wordpress.com/2010/04/18/it%E2%80%99s-a-dog%E2%80%99s-life/

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  11. very interesting. maybe I overlooked it but where do you get the seeds?

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  12. Hello, 'anonymous', I got mine from Ace Hardware, but you can get them at Carrefour or the Dubai Garden Centre on SZR.

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  13. Hello there James. I am being very brave and have begun stumbling along the 'herb garden in your balcony' path. Replanted a two week old store bought basil plant today and am trying to keep, again a store bought, rosemary alive.

    Sowed thyme and green pepper(!) seeds today in the now empty little black pots. Keeping my fingers crossed now. Will keep popping back here to draw inspiration from the gorgeous looking tomatoes.

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  14. Good on you, warsha. Once those seeds begin to sprout you'll never look back. You might need to be patient, but there's no reason why they shouldn't grow just fine.

    The supermarket herbs are often placed in a weird variety of soil that will need thoroughly shaking off your roots before replanting - be careful though, as you don't want to damage them. However, one of the best things I had on my balcony last year was a store-bought oregano plant that grew like a bodybuilder on steroids.

    If you're in Dubai, get next month's What's On for more about growing - and killing - your own. P.S no kittens were harmed in the writing of the article. Ok, just the one kitten.

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  15. Hey James, very much in Dubai so will get that What's On and will try and keep the carnage to a bare minimum :-)

    The basil is alive but doesn't look appetising at all. Got a healthier (and sturdier) rosemary plant from Dubai Garden and with lots of help from them, I am now the proud parent of about a dozen tomato seedlings! Read your entire post again (to keep the said carnage at a minimum).

    The pepper seedlings are doing well too!

    Here's the blog I have started and hoping to record all this. http://nerolipublishing.com/Blog/

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  16. hi...i just landed here from google searching for stuff on tomatoes! i just started a balcony garden as well.. hmm dont know if anything will survive because of the heat... but trying to grow summer veggies, like runner beans and squash. are you growing anything at this time of the year in dubai?

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  17. hello im a newbie gardener in dubai i have palnted plum tomato and beef tomato which i cannot handle them right now they have grwn and fruit is every were in may small garden but my chili plant banana chili and red thai i kept them indoors for overwintering hope they survive i would like to ask someting were can we get bhut jolokia seeds in dubai? ive been searching and no luck if anybody knows anybody please advise thanks

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  19. Iam also new in gardening I started it in Jan .but I don't know how to manage them in the hot summer.lam growing the vegs in the water bottles.

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  20. Hi wat about blender composting for tomatoes

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  21. Hi,
    wat is the right time to plant okra and egg plant in abudhabi.can I grow cilantro in Feb and march pls help.......

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  22. Any ideas of what I can grow on my window ledge in my apartment? We live in the one of the glass jungles without opening windows. Can I grow tomatoes on a South West facing window ledge?

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