Nick’s Garden: green fingered anarchy

In the first of new a series, Nick Leech starts a new garden and explores issues facing gardeners in the UAE.

Along with all the usual upheavals, my recent move to a new neighbourhood brought with it the kind of surprise I could never have expected after a year of high-rise living in an austere and anonymous block near the junction of 11th and Muroor. I have swapped the building sites and badly parked cars that used to mark my daily walk to work for the cooling shade of Australian Eucalypts, thorny Jujubes and enormously shaggy Chinese fan palms alive with the sound of feeding birds. As is often the case for pedestrians here, I’m still forced to walk in the road each day – but on my new street the obstructions are the canopies of trees that lie full and low over the pavement. The shade cast and their cooling effect are more than welcome interruptions.

Where the footpath is visible, my new neighbours have ripped up the paving stones to create vegetable plots, and every wall, roof and balcony is festooned with trailing and climbing plants cascading from tatty home-made containers and recycled pots. The whole area is suffused with a ramshackle, green-fingered anarchy and this quiet reclamation of the streets reminds me of the Parisian événements of May 1968. Back then, revolutionary graffiti proclaimed, “Under the pavement, the beach.” My local guerrilla gardeners could just as easily claim: “Under the pavement, the plot.”

Unlike the spectacular claims made by the architects and developers of “zero-carbon” communities, it’s precisely this kind of grass-roots activity that the politicians and planners of Europe and North America are now starting to get excited about. For them – and me – gardening and localised food production are key ingredients for truly sustainable city living. I see it as no coincidence that my walk to work is punctuated by the smiles and waves of neighbours, by people en route to prayers who wish me a good day and by children who play in the street. While the ducks and the geese that follow me down the street might not be to everyone’s liking, there’s a warm humanity here that never ceases to raise a smile, and an irrepressible fecundity that prepares me for another day at the office.

Living here, I find myself inspired as never before. The fact that I now have enough outside space to consider gardening for myself is another first. Over the past decade I’ve worked as a gardener, nurseryman, designer and landscape architect. During that time, I’ve created and nurtured private gardens for royalty, tycoons and oligarchs, as well as public spaces for corporations and city governments, but I’ve never known the pleasure of watching my own garden grow.

Despite my profession, I’ve never considered myself to be a “true gardener” because, unlike so many others, I’ve never experienced the joys and frustrations that come with caring for your own patch. That is until now. What inspires me about my new-found neighbours is that they’ve made their private passions public in a way that is entirely unpretentious and, in doing so, they’ve created a culture and community that’s often absent from the more manicured lawns of Abu Dhabi.

My garden-to-be is a small urban plot with no room to spare for a pool or Jacuzzi. My aim is to create a garden that’s true to the lessons I’ve learnt from a decade in horticulture, and the principles I try to sow in my daily life as a landscape architect helping to build this city In this column I’ll share my experiences – and all of the do’s and don’ts I learn along the way. Please don’t be alarmed, I won’t be calling for hair shirts all round – and I promise this column won’t become like a sentence at some horticultural boot camp. Gardening should always be a pleasure and never a chore and my aim to achieve a healthy balance between the needs of my plants and the far more pressing and vocal demands of family and work.

Over the coming weeks I hope Nick’s Garden will become a forum to share our knowledge and experiences as you too embark on the creation of your own gardens – and perhaps write in or add comments to the columns as they appear on The National’s website. You’ll soon discover that it’s not difficult to gain a basic knowledge of gardening and, very soon, nothing beyond the limitations of your health, time and imagination should be holding you back.

In the next column, I’ll be starting from the ground up: what I had to consider before even buying that first plant. Unfortunately, I cannot guarantee success and the only certainty I can offer is this: the success of our gardens will directly reflect the amount of time and effort we choose to invest in them. In short, the gardens we create are the gardens we deserve. I’ll admit to a few nerves but, after all these years, I’m finally looking forward to creating my own garden. The only question is, will you join me?

This article originally featured in The National, Abu Dhabi.

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