Keeping oneself busy with some sort of routine is conjectured to be the best way to deal with stay-at-home phenomenon. Some experts say it is even better to try and learn new things or develop new hobbies.
Nothing is better than nourishing a hobby that is at the same time fruitful and productive. Home gardening is one activity that no-one can deny the value of. Though it needs little more time and effort than usual leisure hobbies, staying-at-home offers an opportunity to grow one’s own vegetables and fruits.
Community recently interviewed Vicky Damalou, a Greek agronomist based in Qatar. She has long been a part of different projects related to agriculture and gardening.
Please tells us a little bit about your family, education and expertise.
I am from Greece and have been living in Qatar since 2009 with my family — husband and a 4-year-old daughter. I have a Master’s degree from the Agricultural University of Athens and since 2004 I have worked in gardening and in agricultural production and marketing in Europe and the Middle East.
What different projects have you worked with so far in Qatar and other countries?
I started working in Qatar at the end of 2010, and worked in production, marketing and sales in various agricultural businesses; in garden centres, in the establishment of greenhouses, and in the business development of landscaping and agricultural supplies companies.
At the beginning of this year, I started my own business, which I am now looking to expand by building a website offering gardening advice specialised for the Middle East. The website is called www.hadiqaa.com, comes from the word garden in Arabic and will be fully operational in the coming days.
How have you been managing your time while staying at home?
Accidentally, and probably luckily, when the stay-at-home order started in Qatar, the founder of the Facebook Group ‘Gardening Club-Qatar’ contacted me and asked if I would be interested in starting a gardening website with her. She had started the group in 2017 to help gardeners in the Middle East by sharing knowledge around gardening in the challenging environment we face here. Todate, the group has more than 3,000 members with 10,000 interactions a week. So we thought why not take that knowledge and experience and help every home in the Middle East have a sustainable garden producing fruits and veggies.
Building this website and preparing online courses take all of my remaining time after home schooling, housekeeping, working out and spending quality family time.
With your experience, how do you see the role of an agronomist in the perspectives of environmental issues at large?
Agriculture, in general, has a great impact on the environment and this impact is, unfortunately, mostly negative — I am referring to CO2 emissions and water usage. Despite the significance of food production, the farmers usually have a low income, which doesn’t make the sector attractive to well educated people. The low returns, in combination with the lack of education, lead to a lot of environmental issues, such as overconsumption of chemical products, over pumping of the underground water and many more, which include conventional agriculture unsustainable in the long term. One solution for sustainable production is growing organic food. It however requires experience. The associated costs are higher and the yields are lower so it’s complicated for farmers to follow organic practices of crop management.
Agriculture is a strength for any country and Qatar knows that very well, as there have been a lot of efforts towards national food security for more than a decade. In the past three years, the government has given special support to the agricultural sector and a lot of investments have been made.
However, room for improvement is still felt in the agricultural education in the country. If someone would like to study agriculture or specialise, their only option would be to study abroad. I am a strong supporter of education as the basis of any field, and if a country wants to develop a particular sector, they should look at the specialisation and the development of the human capital in the particular sector.
Do you think the stay-at-home norm offers an opportunity for people to create gardens and grow plants, fruits and vegetables at home?
People in Qatar are definitely turning towards creating gardens and growing more plants over the past few years, which might come as a surprise to many people. However, the climate of Qatar can be as good as many other countries for agricultural production, with the growing season being nearly 8 months, starting in October and lasting until May. The major difference with other countries is the low annual rainfall, which means low availability of good quality water. This can be solved with suitable technology for this climate.
The Gardening Club-Qatar group has seen a rapid increase in joining requests since the stay-at-home order started and it is only natural, as extreme situations, such as the one we are living now, make many people concerned about food availability.
Apart from that, the stay-at-home order offers much more time to many people, and time is often a limiting factor for the ambitious gardeners. The more plants you have, the more attention they require, and the more time to care for them.
Keeping in mind the climate of Qatar, how can people start growing their own plants or garden as most of them live in apartments with no space for gardens?
As technology has progressed, there are a lot of indoor solutions to grow your own food that require limited space. I would say that the most limiting factor in Qatar is the light, not space, as the apartments are larger than many other countries. But this can be easily solved. I am also working with a company to develop a solution for growing indoor plants.
Qatar also has a lot of potential for community gardens, as there is a lot of space available. There can be an option to create gardens and make them available for people who want to grow their own food, similar to what happens in many other big cities around the world.
What are some of the benefits associated with gardening if someone pursues it as a hobby?
Gardening can offer many benefits, both mental and physical.
The physical benefits come from the obvious need for movement that gardening requires — carrying soil, digging, bending over the plants to check them, and walking around the garden. All these activities offer an opportunity for a workout, especially during the plantation season.
As far as the mental benefits are concerned, I rate the sense of achievement first. Nothing feels better than knowing that what you see, or, even better, what you eat, was made by you.
Last, but not least the health benefit is the organic side of growing your own food. With all the chemicals used in large scale agriculture, there is a turn nowadays to eating organic. Growing your own food definitely offers organic food — at a very low price!
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