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A rooftop garden near Cairo
A rooftop garden near Cairo
Isabel Esterman

CAIRO — Interested in planting summer vegetables such as pepper, zucchini or molokhia? Now is just about the right time of year to plant, says Hany El Khodary, head of urban farming company Green Zone Egypt.

Even city dwellers with no outdoor space apart from a small balcony can grow small gardens or recycle some of their own food waste into nutrient-rich soil.

Along with organizations such as Nawaya and Schaduf, Green Zone is among a small group of food activists and entrepreneurs who have worked to popularize urban gardening in Egypt.

Nawaya has a community bent, devoting much of its energy to working in poor, rural areas. Schaduf pairs a program working with poor city dwellers to grow produce with a line in designing and installing upscale rooftop and indoors gardens.

Khodary, for his part, is targeting people who are already highly motivated to try their hand at growing food or to set up a composting system. "People who like plants, who like nature and want to use organic waste in the best ways," he says. "People who are interested in sustainability but don't know how to do it."

Khodary has plans in the works to launch training programs for kids: A paid version for private schools and a partnership with a local non-profit to set up free summer sessions for public school children. Until then, he relies largely on attracting those looking to introduce green practices into their urban lifestyles and willing to spend 120 Egyptian pounds ($15) for gardening advice.

Since he started giving workshops in 2013, that audience has largely been represented by expats. But in the last four months, he says he has seen growing interest from Egyptians. "Some people want to grow healthy food for their kids and their family," he says. "It's like a trend now to go green and use renewable energy."

Two kinds of green thumbs

The Green Zone offers two types of workshops for would-be urban farmers. Natural gardening workshops are aimed at people who have space for an outdoor garden but need to learn how to work with gardening tools and prepare their soil for planting. Urban farming workshops are aimed at apartment dwellers and others with limited outdoor space, but who still want a little green in their lives.

The urban farming workshops combine presentations on composting and planting methods with practical demonstrations on starting seeds, transplanting seedlings and starting a worm compost bucket.

Composting, the process of recycling household food scraps into soil, can be a great option for people with a lot of outdoor space. But what if you just have a balcony? Realistically, unless you either don't eat many vegetables or are willing to give up a lot of balcony space to a rotating series of compost buckets, you probably won't be able to recycle all of your food scraps this way. But even the smallest balconies should have room for a worm compost bucket to transform scraps into a perfect planting medium, a process Khodary demonstrates.

For those who have never planted a seed before and are interested in background information about organic agriculture and permaculture, Green Zone workshops are a good fit.

Those hoping to come away from the workshop with a well-defined plan for rooftop or balcony gardens will probably be disappointed, although Khodary promises free follow-up advice to workshop participants.

Likely to be of more interest to serious gardeners is the Green Zone's merchandise selection, available for delivery around central Cairo. Khodary stocks special worms for compost bins — the local variety work too, but not very efficiently, taking weeks to eat their way through a kilo of vegetable matter.

He also sells organic pest spray, lady bugs, tiny parasitic wasps and other natural pest controls. These live pest eaters are developed by Egypt's Agriculture Ministry but difficult to obtain. Proving that you really can get just about anything delivered to you in Cairo, Green Zone will bring a container of worms or aphid eaters to your home.

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