What future for gardening in the UAE?


As UAE gardeners start to embrace the idea of more sustainable landscapes, what might a new, locally distinctive gardening aesthetic look like?

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A thing of the past? Municipal planting schemes in Dubai. Randi Sokoloff/The National

As anyone who has ever listened to a gardening phone-in will know, gardeners are a funny breed. Ask the same question of fifty, or even five, and you’re likely to receive as many subtly nuanced but very different answers in return.

Armed with a question as loaded as the likely future of gardening in the UAE, I expect to be met with as many questions as answers and so I set out to interview everybody I could think of – private gardeners, landscape designers, environmental experts and even government planners – who has an interest in the horticultural future of the Emirates.

What I discover is truly surprising; not so much in the predictions that emerge but in the fact that among so many disparate voices there is actually a measure of unanimity. When it comes to the future of gardening and plants, and the open spaces around us, it would seem that three things are certain: first, that fundamental change is needed; second, that fundamental change is coming, and finally, that these changes would seem to be as complex as they are welcome.

Wilbert Arends, whom I meet shopping at Dubai Garden Centre, does not see much evidence of a sea-change in the region’s gardens and landscapes, but he is convinced of its necessity nonetheless. Like so many of his fellow shoppers, he is bewildered and in need of guidance as he looks for hardier replacements for the plants that died during his recent summer holiday. He is also not alone in feeling frustrated by the lack of information about appropriate plants and gardening techniques but still knows enough to realise that the future cannot lie in the lush tropical landscapes he regularly sees from his car window.

“If you look at what’s being done on some of the roundabouts and roadsides, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “Something has to change.” If the need for change is evident to a self-confessed gardening novice like Arends, it’s also recognised in the very heart of Dubai’s gardening establishment. Deena Motiwalla, a private gardener of immense experience and the driving force behind the long-running Dubai Gardening Group, is also altering her gardening habits in line with the changing climate. “In my 40 and a half years in Dubai this was the harshest summer I have ever experienced; so many of my plants were scorched.”

For many years Motiwalla nurtured a prize-winning garden where tropical orchids and temperate roses flourished, but times and the climate have changed and she now recommends drought-tolerant species such as bougainvillaea, oleander and desert rose to the gardeners who attend the group’s regular classes. When Anne Love, the author of the newly published book Gardening in Oman and the UAE, recently returned to live in Oman after an absence of several years, she noticed several changes in the horticultural scene and an increasingly varied and sophisticated local gardening market. Not only is there greater interest in native plants and other drought-tolerant species but also once-reliable tropical species such as Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia), Tropical Almond (Terminalia catappa) and portia tree (Thespesia populnea) are now struggling to cope with more challenging climatic conditions.

Love also praises the humble desert rose because, for her, it is an important but unfortunate exception – a widely available Arabian native that has also gone through the process of commercial cultivation. The widespread use of native desert plants is still a long way off and the benefits of Arabian plants will be fully evident only when more species have gone through the same process as the desert rose.

“Native species are not garden-friendly as a whole, whereas successful garden plant varieties are highly selected, crossbred cultivars. That same selection needs to happen with native species if they are to become more user-friendly,” says Love. In much the same way that the cause of native plant selection will be helped in Oman by the opening of a new 420-hectare botanic garden near Muscat, gardeners in the UAE are sure to be inspired by the work that is taking place at Al Ain Wildlife Park &. Resort (AWPR). Here there are plans for 900 hectares of desert display gardens, safari parks, educational and heritage centres, all designed to act as a showcase for the flora and fauna of the world’s desert regions. The scale and ambition of the project places AWPR at the cutting edge of low water-demand gardening in the region and, when its demonstration gardens open to the public, it will feel as if a giant world plant Expo has opened. The effect on local gardeners, designers and growers will surely be profound as the beauty and benefits of native and arid plant species finally become evident.

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Jamie Hilyard, plant hunter and landscape manager at the Al Ain Wildlife Park & Resort Jaime Puebla / The National

To stock his demonstration gardens, Hilyard has travelled the world finding plants and has developed an international network of contacts that stretches from South America and South Africa to California, Europe and the Far East. When it comes to finding plants for the UAE display garden, however, he has faced the same problem as any other would-be native species gardener here: most indigenous plants are simply unavailable.As we drive around AWPR’s plant acclimatisation areas, shade tunnels, testing and growing beds, I’m fascinated to learn some of the discoveries made by the resort’s landscape manager, Jamie Hilyard, and am surprised to hear that he has been struggling with the weather. Although many of the world’s deserts are as dry as Abu Dhabi’s their plants benefit from much cooler nights that supply vital moisture in the form of condensation. The plants in Al Ain experience no such luck. Some, previously unused to receiving unremitting heat and solar radiation, have had to be planted at exactly the same height and angle as they were grown at originally in order to prevent them from being scorched.

To help plug the horticultural gaps in the resort’s most important desert landscape, Hilyard has used every trick in the horticultural book, including experiments in growing from seed, outsourcing plant production to boutique growers and private enthusiasts, and by bringing in heavy lifting equipment for sourcing and salvaging the mature trees that will provide the botanic signature of the UAE World Desert.

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Lifting mature desert trees at the Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort

Iconic local trees such as ghaf (Prosopis cineraria), sidr (Zizyphus spina-christi) and samr (Acacia tortilis) can take decades to reach maturity in the desert and are available from local growers only as two-metre tall whips and saplings. Luckily for AWPR, its development site was full of mature specimens and Hilyard’s team was able to use cutting-edge lifting and relocation techniques to preserve the trees for future use.

Unfortunately for private desert gardeners, the opening of AWPR’s World Desert Gardens is still some years away. However, the desert gardening cause is likely to receive more immediate assistance from a raft of environmental, sustainability and planning legislation that has recently been developed in Abu Dhabi. Although programmes like Estidama and the municipality’s new landscape design guidelines are aimed primarily at developers, consultants and industry, there’s an expectation that these will eventually change the wider horticultural marketplace by ensuring that native and low water-demand plant species, intelligent irrigation systems and more environmentally friendly landscaping techniques are employed in Abu Dhabi’s parks and public spaces.

“The Urban Planning Council, Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment Agency are all pushing to change the way we think about landscape,” says Geoff Sanderson, a landscape architect and designer with more than 20 years’ experience in the region. The result, he believes, will be a slow trickle-down effect but several key issues will need to be resolved before the changes can really take root. “Traditionally there has been the desert and the oasis and nothing in between, but it’s possible to create oasis-like urban landscapes that use a lot less water. This requires the use of species that are better suited to the location, and the use of natural materials to improve the water-holding capacity of the soil. It also requires a change in people’s perceptions.”

It is this change in aesthetics, taste and fashion rather than in legislation, technology or botany that many believe to be the real key to the future of gardening here. Holley Chant, the director of corporate sustainability at the engineering consultancy KEO, takes up the theme: “There is still a tendency to find things beautiful that wouldn’t normally exist here. Until people start to find xeriscaping beautiful, real change is going to be a challenge. That will require a cultural shift.”

For both Sanderson and Chant the development of a more sophisticated domestic gardening market and better understanding of local issues are the vital missing pieces in the jigsaw. Chant believes that transforming the public’s understanding of sustainability and the way people use their private spaces is the ultimate challenge. “As a consultant following Estidama, I can tell a developer how to design more sustainable gardens in a development of 1,500 new villas, but achieving change in my own garden, as a tenant, is far more difficult.”

Many of those I spoke to regard the lack of widespread home ownership as another stumbling block on the road to developing an Arabian gardening aesthetic. As Chant asks, “How do you empower both local people and the people who do not have the vested interest of property ownership to make real change?” And so the likely future of gardening in the UAE comes full circle. While it’s clear that important legislative changes are taking place that will encourage local growers and nurseries to supply more drought-tolerant species, it’s ultimately up to domestic gardeners and the media to ensure that a two-tier aesthetic doesn’t develop, with the public realm dominated by a dry, desert aesthetic while private gardens continue to embrace the tropical, resource-hungry style of gardening that predominates now.

In the meantime, there are some basic techniques that private gardeners can use to reduce their water consumption and combat the elements. According to Hilyard, the grouping of plants together according to their irrigation requirements is key, as this will help to save water while giving the plants only as much irrigation as they actually need. Sanderson says shade is the key consideration when planning any UAE garden as it makes it habitable while helping to protect plants from the sun. Second, observation of local conditions, not habit, should guide plant selection, and a midsummer tour of your neighbourhood will tell you all you need to know about what thrives at the most trying time of year. Finally, Sanderson calls for common sense among gardeners who, he says, should be trying to work with local conditions and not against them.

By embracing basic techniques like these and demanding more from their plant suppliers, private gardeners elsewhere have helped to develop new and exciting plant palettes that communicate a truly distinctive sense of place. With developments like AWPR and Abu Dhabi’s Estidama, the emergence of a truly Arabian gardening aesthetic becomes a genuine possibility. But more is required from private gardeners if it is to become anything more than a shisha smoker’s pipe dream.

This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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