Residents in the United Arab Emirates are scaling up their balconies with innovative recycling methods, as the country moves towards encouraging a more modern farming system.
The UAE has recently set out its national agenda and vision for 2021, stating that more time needs to be spent ensuring sustainable growth, protecting the environment, and maintaining what it calls a "perfect economic-social equilibrium”.
Currently, both the government and local farming companies play a significant role in tackling these challenges. The UAE imports almost all of the food it consumes. Around 90 per cent of the food consumed in Dubai has come from a far, clocking up a lot of food miles.
Fresh produce comes from places like India, Iran, Lebanon, North and South America, Europe, Africa, New Zealand, UK, and Egypt.
As a result, the UAE is keen to develop more solutions for crop production at home. Especially in the desert - an area that struggles with issues of food insecurity.
These Dubai locals are taking matters into their own hands, building vertical gardens of their own.
From yoghurt containers to plant pots
Taking on the extreme weather and often unpredictable conditions in the country, residents have been planting flowers and fresh produce at home.
From turning plastic bottles and yoghurt containers into hanging plant pots, to repurposing old bicycle baskets for plant propagation, many UAE citizens are urban farmers in the making, despite having regular full-time jobs.
They prove that even when living a city lifestyle, turning your balcony into a garden is always possible. With enough sunlight, a balcony can yield lots of fresh produce and flowers.
The first resident I spoke to hails from Al Ghurair in Dubai. Rubelin Balneg recently started gardening on her balcony after enrolling in a local contest called ‘Go Green.’
“I didn’t buy pots for my plants. Instead, I built them by recycling unused buckets, juice bottles, cookie jars and unwanted towels mixed with cement. I now grow tomatoes, chilli, spinach, sweet potatoes and bitter gourd in my tiny garden.”
Balneg, who works as a learning support teacher for children with special needs, did the carpentry work herself using all the space available to create her dream garden.
Yet another example is Take Aashi Samiullah, a Greens Dubai resident, who turned to balcony gardening for some mental peace during the pandemic.
“It was quite challenging to garden in my balcony as it’s small, but the stress of pandemic motivated me to do so,” she says. “Right now I am growing all the seasonal plants like petunia, asters, pansies vinca, coleus and xenia!”
Samiullah’s vertical planters are made out of up-cycled items like ice cream buckets, old plastic planters, carton boxes and wooden planks.
“Upcycling the balcony was a challenge as this is my utility place where I dry my clothes and store my vacuum, cleaning items and hardware items. But this also my only green space.”
Samiullah now houses 50 planters and hangs most pots on the walls and balcony rail, so she has some space to relax outdoors.
The importance of vertical farming
Vertical farming is the best solution for those living in populated cities but who desire fresh local produce, says Nikita Patel, the founder of hydroponics vertical farm Oasis Greens.
“Vertical farming, as the name suggests, involves growing crops in vertically stacked layers. So by farming vertically, you need only a fraction of the space. Thus, it has become popular in urban environments where there is a high population to feed, but there are space constraints.”
Local farming and gardening in this way has mental health benefits too. In fact, some even talk to their plants to encourage them to grow.
Every day after finishing her work, Kris Ang Marteja heads straight to her garden and listens to what her plants have to say. Along with her brother Jhun Adan Llamos, she has planted a rich garden of vegetables in a small outdoor corner of their house.
There are rows of bitter gourd, watermelon, rock-melon, eggplants, curry leaves and more in their garden. They all have personalities to Marteja - and she treats them with a good dose of TLC. She also recycles pots, wood and metals for her vines too, while using kitchen waste as fertiliser.
An Instagram-worthy garden
With a breathtaking backdrop of The Museum of the Future in Dubai, Theresse Ledesma Kerry’s garden is a sight to behold.
Kerry started gardening during lockdown and now enjoys being part of the local gardening community. “I never had time to think about plants before, but the idea called out to me. Now I’m an enthusiast and I enjoy learning from others doing similar projects across Dubai.”
It’s perhaps no surprise that more and more people are turning to plants and their healing qualities when times are tough. Founder of Eco Bio-Tech Agriculture, Essa Aldaboos explains why.
“I noticed this year that people bought plants even during summer. Usually, people stay away from their gardens because of the high temperature till October. This year, they were gardening throughout the year because they were staying in the house. That kind of forced them to connect with nature.
“Plants always open their arms for us - they comfort us and don’t judge us.”