Egypt is known for its rich cultivated land, and Egyptians have known how to grow crops efficiently on it since ancient times. During the time of the ancient Egyptians, people lived on the banks of the Nile growing crops like wheat and barley, along with figs, melons, grapes, and pomegranates.
The Nile was always considered a source of blessings, with drawings that have come down to us from ancient times showing that the ancient Egyptians understood very well the seasons and the cycles of the flooding of the River Nile. Agriculture has been a very old and rooted activity in Egypt for thousands of years.
However, with population growth has come the importing of food from foreign sources, with this food going through a long chain starting from the farmer, passing by the wholesale merchant, and then the retailer, until it finally reaches the household. Because of the widespread use of pesticides in agriculture, more and more people are distrusting farmers and fearing that their crops may not be healthy. As a result, some have decided to learn how to grow their own food on balconies or on rooftops.
Rooftop farming was known to ancient cultures like in Mesopotamia, the present-day Iraq, Syria, the Gulf, and parts of Turkey and Iran, which was famous for planting trees and shrubs on above-ground mud-brick terraces. Babylon, a city in ancient Mesopotamia, was particularly famous for its Hanging Gardens, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world and built during the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar II in around 600 BCE.
Such farming was also practiced by the Romans at Pompeii in southern Italy, and the Egyptians used similar techniques at the Arab capital of Fustat in the early 11th century CE, using ox-drawn waterwheels for irrigation.
Over the past decade, many modern methods of planting fruit and vegetables on rooftops and balconies to help people grow their own healthy and organic food have emerged, many of them assisted by governmental and non-governmental organisations.
Planting vegetables on rooftops has been practiced for many years, though up to now chiefly as a supplement to regular diets or even a form of ornamentation. One example of such a governmental rooftop project was implemented by the Academy of Scientific Research and Technology (ASRT) and the Agricultural Research Centre in Cairo in order to help teach people to grow vegetables on their rooftops without using chemicals or even soil. The project implemented a pilot project on the roof of the academy that quickly spread to other governorates.
Growing food at home
The system that the ASRT used is called a “hydroponic system,” or recycled water planting, in which small fish that have just hatched from their eggs are raised in a tank. This tank is joined to a wooden tray with plastic tubes with plant pots in it where vegetables are planted in water with a substance that resembles soil to hold them steady. At the end of each tray is a filter in which the water from the vegetables is filtered and goes back into the fish tank. Waste from the fish goes into the vegetable plant container to fertilise them.
Online courses given by a private company are now available for the public in the ASRT. Rooftop and landscape planting expert Ibrahim Al-Kaffas is in charge of the first online planting course offered by his company, and he told Al-Ahram Weekly how the idea started.
“The idea of roof gardening has been growing in Egypt for about 10 years. Our company has been participating in five years of this, and our idea started at the beginning of 2015 when we offered a course teaching the public the basics of domestic planting, which were followed by more specialised courses for planting fruits and vegetables,” Al-Kaffas said, adding that most of the students eager to attend the courses owned balconies or rooftops or gardens, which was where the idea sprang from.
During the current coronavirus pandemic, the company came up with the idea of online courses in planting fruit and vegetables at home.
“In the past, we would organise practical courses in company headquarters or in farms or greenhouses. However, after the outbreak of the coronavirus some eight months ago, we organised online planting courses for the first time because the safety of our students is very important to us,” Al-Kaffas said.
“Our aim is to help to implement the president’s campaign of Ethadar lil-Akhdar [Get Ready for Green] and to help spread the culture of planting among all classes and to prove that each and every person is able to grow his own food at home,” he added.
Growing food at home
GROW YOUR OWN
“Our courses include traditional and modern planting methods and the steps to implement each. We demonstrate how to combat pests and how to fertilise each plant according to its type as well as its needs through different seasons,” Al-Kaffas said.
The company teaches planting with or without soil. “I can plant anything from a fruit tree to herbs,” he added, saying that the time each plant takes to grow differs according to the method used, with the hydroponic method taking the least time. Growing lettuce in an alternative medium like peat moss takes about 35 to 45 days, while with the hydroponic method it takes 27 to 32 days, for example.
Al-Kaffas demonstrates how to plant without soil by using a wooden box, a foam sheet, a sponge, some mineral solution, plastic cups or pots with holes in the bottom, a plastic sheet, seeds and water. “First, you spread the plastic sheet in the wooden tray and pour water on it to about 15cm deep. Then, you put in the foam sheet after you have made holes in it for the pots. Then you put the pots in their places. After that you put in a piece of sponge and the seeds of the plants you want to grow,” he said.
“The main problems we face are that some necessities are not easily found by some of our students or are extremely expensive because they are mostly imported, even if local alternatives can be found. We try to overcome this through our courses by introducing Egyptian alternatives and solutions,” he said, adding that from time to time places in the courses are given to students free of charge to encourage people to plant at home.
Al-Kaffas now plans to spread this planting-at-home culture across the country. “In the near future, we aim to help people in every governorate to plant their own food at home, starting with Cairo and Giza,” he said.
“One of the advantages of online courses is that people are able to produce their own food themselves,” commented dean of post-graduate studies and agricultural research in arid areas at Ain Shams University Osama Al-Beheiri. “This is a good thing for those who may be afraid of eating food like leafy vegetables that may have been sprayed with pesticides. Home-grown food can be a healthy alternative for them,” he added.
People who have limited space at home will not be able to grow food for commercial use. But they can provide for their own households.
Nader Habib is a resident of Obour City near Cairo who has turned his balcony into a garden. He gave some tips for those who are about to start similar projects.
“The most important thing is that you need to examine the area you need to grow plants in and determine your aims. You need to be able to control how much sunlight enters your balcony by using an umbrella, for example, if you are growing ornamental plants. But if the aim is to grow fruits and vegetables, shade is not an issue. I chose to make my balcony a place for hanging out with my wife and two daughters, so I planted ornamental flowers,” he commented.
“There are ways of obtaining better plant quality,” Al-Beheiri said. “You have to choose the right method of planting that is suitable for the place you have. You should be sure that there is about four to five hours of direct sunlight, so that the plants grow well. If the temperature is too high, you could use nets or umbrellas to shade the plants. It is better to use alternatives to soil, as this will make the planting lighter,” he added.
Some types of plants do not need too much sunlight, including ornamental houseplants. Leafy plants need lots of sunlight, however, Roof-garden owners must also make sure their rooftop is fenced.
Each plant can be adapted to the place it is to grow in, and this can be done through the method of growing. It is possible to grow strawberries, lemons, peaches, plums, apricots and, grapes on a balcony or rooftop, for example. The last four need poles to tie their branches to because the fruit is heavy. Lemons can be grown in little barrels so that the size of the tree is always convenient for a balcony. Grapes can be grown on rooftops, and their vines make a good source of shade.
It is the financial dimension that may determine what people prefer to grow at home. “Every plant can be grown at home, but then there is the financial side,” Al-Beheiri said. “In general, people prefer to grow crops that are eaten fresh like lettuce or tomatoes. These can be expensive, so it is cheaper to plant them at home. On the other hand, people don’t always grow potatoes because their prices don’t change. The same thing goes for aromatic plants that are some people’s favourites, like anise and oregano,” he said.
He also had some tips for those who intend to grow their own food at home. “First, learn how to plant. Understand the difference between a dry crop and one that has been given enough water. It is always helpful to attend a training course for two or three days first,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly