Is it time for UAE gardeners to think beyond plants?

Martha Schwartz Bagel Garden (courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners)

Now is time for UAE gardeners to take matters into their own hands and develop an authentic new gardening aesthetic better suited to the region.

I will never forget my first formal lesson in garden design. The tutor showed the class a slide show of gardens and quotes from their designers, each of which embodied wildly different definitions of what a garden is, could and should be.

The assembly of budding designers, who desperately wanted to appear sophisticated in front of their tutor, made appreciative noises, but many were unable to disguise their disdain for one image in particular, of the very first garden created by the London-based, American landscape architect Martha Schwartz.

Schwartz started her career in 1979 by decorating her front yard in Boston with bright purple gravel and neat rows of bagels. The bagel, she quipped, was the perfect gardening material because you didn’t need to water it, and it did well in the shade.

Since the creation of her bagel garden, Schwartz has become one of the world’s most celebrated landscape architects, but her work still divides opinion, even within the design profession. Gardening and garden design have experienced something of a renaissance, enjoying a profile and popularity not seen since the 18th and 19th centuries. Garden makeover programmes now dominate television schedules in North America and Europe, glossy garden titles take up ever increasing space on newsstands and garden design courses have become a favourite among ladies who lunch and those seeking a career change.

Given this mania for all things horticultural, what international trends are emerging in garden design to inspire gardeners here in the UAE?

With its extreme weather conditions, limited palette of available ornamental plants and large, transient population, the UAE remains largely unaffected by international trends in garden design, but thiscould be about to change. More and more designers have identified a broader set of issues that are set to transform gardens in the near future. Most vocal among these is Andrew Wilson, a British designer, author, chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society and director of the London College of Garden Design.

One of the key shifts Wilson identifies is a move away from the plant-focused aesthetic that has dominated garden design for the past 300 years: “I refer to it… as the ‘horticultural hijack’. Because of our old empire, we travelled the world, found all sorts of amazing plants, brought them back to the UK and they would grow. This richness of planting developed the horticultural sense of what a garden should be.”

For Wilson, the contemporary alternative is to take notice of issues such as climate change, which make the plant-focused approach to gardens increasingly unsustainable, and to go back to the future, to a time when the experiences and sensations experienced in a garden were as important as its plants.

“If you went back to Renaissance gardens, they were all about fun, enjoyment, entertainment, the sensory experience of a garden, and I think that’s what gardens are going back to being.”

Wilson is in illustrious company. In a 2008 debate with the architect Will Alsop, Schwartz also called for designers to understand the bigger picture. “Everybody loves gardens, but they don’t understand the issues of the wider landscape. The romantic notion of what landscape is gets completely in the way… We need to do everything we can to reverse the great environmental damage that we’ve done and create spaces of great beauty and meaning.”

For Anne Wareham, a UK-based gardener, journalist, and author, the contemporary garden should be set free from the grip of “plantaholics”, and be transformed into a space governed by ideas, debate and by deeper forms of artistic expression.

Wilson is just as convinced about the need for gardeners and garden designers to lift their heads from the minutiae of horticulture: “What garden designers have to do is to confront this sense of a garden as an exciting, sensory experience of outdoor space, rather than it being a gardening experience or a horticultural experience or a collecting experience. Many gardens are actually just a collection of ‘stuff’ really… from a design perspective that flies in the face of everything that design is about in terms of coherence and structure and some kind of order.”

If spaces based on conceptual principles, sustainability, an experiential sense of the garden and elegant contemporary design are the future, there is no reason why designers and gardeners in the UAE cannot join this international process of change straightaway, even with the limitations of the local market and challenging climatic conditions. Functional, experiential elements such as lighting, swimming pools, water features, barbecues and jacuzzis already tend to dominate designed gardens in the UAE. The secret now is to rebalance this emphasis with a more environmentally sensitive approach and to move beyond the cliched stylistic tropes of the Islamic, Mediterranean and jungle garden.

Twenty-five years ago, gardeners in the American Southwest faced a similar set of challenges to the ones that we do now. The market was dominated by thirsty, exotic plants unsuited to local conditions, water reserves were dwindling and declining in quality, and unsustainable water treatment was on the rise. The response was a shift in gardening and irrigation practices that culminated in a move away from the use of colourful and exotic annuals, biennials and short-lived perennials towards the development of a new, distinctive plant palette based on previously uncultivated and unloved local species.

The result was xeriscaping, a system of gardening, irrigation and landscape design that minimises water use. As well as providing the American Southwest with its own, distinctive gardening style, it helped to create a garden philosophy, industry and aesthetic that is now being used in arid regions across the world, including the UAE.

When the next generation of Abu Dhabi’s landscapes, parks and open spaces starts to emerge, guided by sustainable principles, it will become clear that these wider issues have already been influencing design in the public realm for quite some time. Now it is time for private gardeners in the UAE to take these lessons on board, to transform the local market through their purchasing power and, in doing so, create a truly contemporary style of native gardening that will make as distinctive a contribution to the gardening world as its classical Islamic predecessor.

This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

Andrew Wilson’s most recent book is Contemporary Colour in the Garden: Top Designers, Inspiring ideas, New Combinations (Timber Press, 2011). He is a Director of Wilson McWilliam Studio and specialises in designing fine gardens and landscapes, garden design education, and garden writing. He is a judge for the RHS specialising in show gardens at Chelsea, Hampton Court, and Tatton and also assesses Bloom in Dublin.

Anne Wareham is the author of The Bad Tempered Gardener (Frances Lincoln, 2011). With her partner, Charles Hawes, she created Veddw House Garden in Monmouthshire, Wales. For more of her writing and information on her approach to gardens and gardening, see thinkingardens


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  2. Great post, Nick. I think that the topic speaks to the same phenomenon for a lot of the design fields and a greater process of reframing and reevaluation. The definition and perception of urban parks in general is has been going through some exciting changes for a while, culminating in things like the Highline, which has to be one of the best urban parks I have ever experienced–and yet so different from Olmstead’s Central Park that is only 30 short blocks northward. I’d go as far to say as buildings should receive a similar round of fresh scrutiny given the new questions of how buildings can power themselves, decrease their ecological damage and hold increasingly complex combinations of programs and activities.

    1. Thanks very much. How delightful to have such a considered response. When it comes to the need to re-think buildings and the role they play in the city and in helping to mitigate the ongoing environmental crisis, I couldn’t agree more.

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