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Seeds of change. Hotel horticulture and growing food in the city

April 22, 2016

A thorn pricked my palm, my white linen trousers trailed in the sand, I struggled to raise the huge bag of earth to pour it into the hole, my hands coated with dust. I was in my element, planting a lemon tree for Earth Day. All around me similarly unsuitably dressed people were doing their own bit of gardening with the enthusiasm of kindergarten children. It seems we are so distanced from the land that the opportunity to reconnect delivers a huge primeval thrill.

Earth Day – which is today April 22nd – was founded in 1970 to tackle environmental issues and has set a target of planting 7.8 billion trees worldwide. At an Earth Day event in the Bio garden at JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort, GM Otto Kurzendorfer said he didn’t know why this exact figure had been chosen but the resort were planting fifty lemon trees in its garden to support the initiative.

The garden itself is a real working garden and produce has been cultivated there for many years. Of late the whole enterprise has been expanded with plans to introduce greenhouses in the near future. Executive sous chef Hussam Al Kassem showed us round with pride but he gave full credit to gardener Gawdat Mohamed Ali Hassan who was darting between the rows of herbs and vegetable plants and answering every detail about the growing calendar.

The fully organic produce is harvested and taken directly to the hotel’s kitchens and used within the menu. Just as important, the soil is enriched through compost made from food waste from the hotel. A combination of directly planting into soil and aquaponics is used to produce herbs in abundance – basil, thyme, sage, rosemary and parsley in evidence – plus fruit and veg such as tomatoes and strawberries. The Bio garden is one of the initiatives listed in the resort’s sustainability management plan.

Proving the sustainability of cultivating in the desert is not cut and dried. Anything involving water, especially in the Middle East is one that highlights many issues. However the hotel reuses water from the resort for irrigation in the aquaponics system and the irrigation system itself uses the recycled
water from the sewage treatment plant for the resort’s golf course. Used cooking oil from the kitchens is sold (and converted into diesel) and the funds go to buy tools, seeds and to pay the wages of the gardener.

Urban farming. Earth day at Jebel Ali hotel, Dubai - on

Planting lemon trees at JA Jebel Ali Golf Resort

Bringing green things into the city – and not just in the form of municipality flower beds – is starting to take root so to speak. Time Oak Hotel and Suites recently teamed up with Slow Food Dubai to create the first rooftop community garden. The edible produce from the garden – a wide variety of organic vegetables and herbs – is shared between the hotel kitchens and the volunteers who help to run the garden. Not only does it provide fresh, local food but brings a variety of people within the community together, sharing skills and teaching them how simple it is to grow their own even in a climate that could be perceived as challenging.

Major hotel chain Accorhotels has just announced that a major initiative to cut food waste by a third at its properties worldwide. This involves planting vegetable gardens in many of its hotels which include the Pullman, Sofitel, Novotel, Mercure and Ibis chains, and sourcing food locally. It’ll be interesting to see how this rolls out here in the UAE.

The difference in taste, the nutrient levels due to freshness, greater transparency in the food chain, and the reduction of food miles in using local, organic veg that hasn’t been flown halfway round the world are all drivers for my interest in these projects.  They also act as a way to differentiate the hotels in a world where everything is available all the time and international buffets all blend into one homogenous, unidentifiable mass.

On a recent trip to Jordan at the Movenpick Dead Sea Resort, we spooned slightly runny, very tangy, delicious marmalade onto our toast, yoghurt and labneh at breakfast. It was homemade every year by the head chef from the fruit of an ancient Seville orange grove in the extensive gardens. We took some home with us as the best souvenir of a trip which had many culinary highlights. Read more about the marmalade here.

I’m excited about future developments of cultivating food in our urban spaces. From the amazing work of gangsta gardener Ron Finley who challenged the law to plant food in Los Angeles to the guerilla gardeners of the North Yorkshire town of Todmorden, people are donning their wellies and getting some control back over the things they eat. Who knows what we might see here in Dubai. How about a community garden in Safa Park when it reopens? Or bee hives on rooftops? Just throwing it out there…

I’ll be spending Earth Day… well some of the morning anyway… buying local, organic veg direct from farmers. What are your thoughts?

  1. April 22, 2016 1:33 am

    It was lovely meeting you, these pictures are beautiful.

  2. April 22, 2016 2:36 am

    It’s really very late at night, but couldn’t call it a day until I read this. So timely and so happy that I could experience this by reading this post and definitely feeling less guilty now for having missed the event. I have intentions to go back and actually visit some of the hotels who are taking such initiatives. Believe Oberoi has something on the roof and Darren is also working on a terrace garden.

    • April 23, 2016 2:20 pm

      Came in after a night out and finished this post but you are even later than me! Really appreciate the comment. It was one event I just couldn’t miss and I’m glad I went but I’m sure they would welcome you to have a look round. The head gardener is super passionate about what he does too. Good to know about the Oberoi and The Croft – will investigate.

      • April 23, 2016 2:28 pm

        think it was day and a night out Sally! You have some incredible energy. But these are kind of posts that I look forwadr to reading in your blog – so you have done a reader happy!

  3. April 22, 2016 12:27 pm

    What a wonderful place! Such a great idea. There should be more urban gardens.



    • April 23, 2016 2:21 pm

      Hopefully the divide between city dwellers will become more connected with the land and the realities of food production – in whatever form it takes.

  4. April 22, 2016 3:17 pm

    I love urban gardens and it’s so nice to see so many of them popping up now.
    Thanks for the reminder that it is earth day too.

    • April 23, 2016 2:21 pm

      Me too Dannii – green spaces in built up areas are precious things.

  5. April 22, 2016 3:46 pm

    How lovely! Such a beautiful post and I hope that your lemon tree gives you much fruit.

    • April 23, 2016 2:23 pm

      Me too – picking that fruit would be my revenge for pricking me! I will be back to see if it bears any lemons.

  6. April 22, 2016 4:33 pm

    It’s great to see that more and more corporations are taking part in sustainability and going green.

    • April 23, 2016 2:24 pm

      …I agree… and not just paying lipservice or introducing compensatory measures to counteract the damaging things they are doing. This project is impressive.

  7. April 22, 2016 7:33 pm

    Great post Sally, it was lovely meeting you at Jabel Ali Golf Resort! Hope next time can have longer chat with you!

    • April 23, 2016 2:25 pm

      And you Amruta – you had your hands full! Hope your little gardener enjoyed himself.

      • April 23, 2016 5:56 pm

        Yes he enjoyed planting the lime plant (a bit taller than him) and covered himself with soil head to toe! My first experience of taking him with me on such events! 🙂

  8. glamorous glutton permalink
    April 22, 2016 9:26 pm

    Great post and lovely photos. It’s great to see the urban gardening movement being embraced by large companies. GG

    • April 23, 2016 2:26 pm

      Thanks GG – bringing small projects and organisations together with larger ones is key I think. It won’t work in isolation.

  9. April 23, 2016 5:09 pm

    What a wonderful initiative! Lots to think about in this post and it looks as if you had a wonderful time to boot. I love the idea of urban gardens and bees on rooftops – Nick is doing his bit with his allotment urban jungle 😉

  10. johnberk permalink
    April 26, 2016 1:31 pm

    Great! I wish more people were paying attention to what they eat and where it comes from. I also support local production and would never buy anything that is not labeled as fair trade. I had the opportunity to learn about the working conditions of people in Central America, so I do pay attention to how the workers are treated. The same goes for us, the consumers – I want veggies that were not grown in big greenhouses with artificial light and no soil (but herbs are OK).

    • April 28, 2016 7:15 am

      I really think we can make a change from the grass roots up if you’ll pardon the pun, if we all take more interest in where our food comes from. Thanks for stopping by John

  11. April 29, 2016 9:19 pm

    What a wonderful visit. I love the idea of cultivating food in urban spaces, and also of reusing water, and other waste from a hotel in such a garden. The marmalade sounds delicious!

    • May 2, 2016 9:46 pm

      So much potential for other hotels to take on board. I do hope there is a sea change on the way. And yes the marmalade was fantastic…. still enjoying my jar and dreaming of Jordan.

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