Lovers of green space! Desert gardening is possible!
Saudis love to grow plants and have inner gardens behind their villa walls. You will also see plantings along the street outside villa walls. Common plants such as palm trees are everywhere. Planting here is special. The soil is sandy, water must be conserved, summer is very hot and dry and when it rains it floods.
You must think of your garden as a fall, winter and spring project. When the summer comes you will just try to keep things alive. Moving from the northern US to the south threw my planting instincts out of whack. I was used to planting after the last frost in April/May and then having until October to harvest. Winter was a rest period of hibernation. The southern US is opposite. You grow in the winter from about September/October to March/April. It is like that in Saudi.
What Grows Here
Here are the plants that work for me. The ones starred grow through the summer.
Aloe*, date palm*, eucalyptus*, cactus*, hibiscus*, bougainvillea*, sweet potato*, milkweed (non native)*, native milkweed*, rosemary*, basil*, marigolds, petunias, hollyhocks, lemongrass*, jasmine, lemon trees, tomatoes, carrots, ginger, onions.
The native soil is sand and when you look out at vacant lots and plots of land what grows native are milkweed and low lying brush with a few trees. The best practise for growing plants here is container gardening. You need to be able to water efficiently, keep weeds out and most importantly make your soil the best it can be.
The first thing I did was build an above growing bed from some scrap wood. It’s about 3 feet x 18″ and 5″ deep. In this I put a mix of potting soil, sand, fertilizer (here they use chicken poop) and peat moss. I wanted to encourage worms and microbes to enter so I left the bottom open to the ground (no barrier paper, except laid cardboard to stop grass from growing up fast). Eventually the cardboard turns into dirt.
What if I can’t build myself an above ground planting area? If you don’t have the space or wood available to do this, many folks use pots and large containers, even buckets will work. You can line them up, buy the same color, different sizes, etc. We have both ceramic and plastic pots. Ceramic tends to get hot with the sun so you’ll need to water most days. Plastic tends to fade and crack over time. Whatever you choose please make sure you have drainage holes in the bottom. Put some stones inside before you put in your soil and plants. This way there is more drainage space. I even put rotting veges/fruits into a pot before the plant goes in.
Trial and Error
I tried planting rosemary twice but it was over watered by the gardeners. Rosemary thrives in drier soil, so I managed to keep one alive the second time around. I also planted basil which quickly became faded and sickly. The sun is so strong here. Better to find, like I did, a basil growing itself in the flowerbeds that the gardeners line our yard with. I find the “wild basil” or ones that seed themselves are much hardier and actually grow into bushes that you can trim. The taste of the leaves is not as sweet and more of an oregano-like basil. The gardeners meaning well thought my herb garden needed some color, so one day I looked and there were petunias protruding out of my box. That’s ok!
Last spring I put in some sweet potatoes directly into the ground in our small yard, with some potting soil. They had started growing in the back of my pantry after being ignored in the dark. Surprisingly they lasted throughout the summer and when I returned in the fall they were still alive! This summer had the same results. These plants are now a year old and going strong. I had planted them for two reasons.
- To grow actual sweet potatoes from these plants
- Keeping a ground cover vine such as sweet potato, added shade to protect the soil from moisture loss and added a nice ground cover with unique leaves. In the spring you get nice purple flowers from the vines as an added bonus.
Well I dug up the potatoes this past fall and found the “crop” small and a potato not much bigger than 3″. So much for getting my own potatoes! This summer most of the leaves were eaten in a matter of weeks by hungry juvenile grasshoppers. The plants survived and now new dark green shoots are once again pushing through the earth. To this area of the garden I add vegetable and fruit scraps. I also apply used tea from my tea bags to the above ground box and this ground area as compost.
So for the past two years the most successful plants that last through the summertime that you can eat are rosemary, basil, lemongrass, sweet potato and aloe. That is my find.