Dubai’s new Greenworks nursery: a breath of fresh air for serious gardeners

The nursery at the heart of the Al Barari development in Nad Al Sheba is now open to the general public, offering serious gardeners access to world-class plants and horticultural expertise.

Antonie Robertson / The National

If you love plants, the first thing you’ll notice as you drive off Emirates Road into the luxurious Al Barari residential development in the royal enclave of Nad Al Sheba is a subtle but very clever piece of theatre.

The broad brush, mass plantings of fountain grass, tradescantia, canna and petunias that define Dubai’s roadsides have been rejected in favour of a denser planting scheme that is softer, calmer, more painterly and romantic. As silver Bismarkia palms act as a foil for the gentle pinks and pale yellows of oleander, bougainvillaea, dwarf Poinciana and tecoma, you’re left in no doubt that you have entered a different kind of place. By the time you arrive at Greenworks, the UAE’s newest retail and wholesale nursery and landscape business, you’re eager to see more.

The vision of the Emirati entrepreneur Zaal Mohammed Zaal and the product of several Zaal family businesses, Al Barari, which means “wilderness” in Arabic, is an exclusive Dh15 billion development and residential community composed of 189 multimillion dirham villas surrounded by more than 16 kilometres of naturally landscaped lakes, streams and cascades, 34 themed gardens and more than four million plants. Until recently, the estate was decidedly private – the Zaal family all live there – but thanks to Greenworks and The Farm, a self-styled eco-friendly restaurant and grocery, the public can now experience a piece of the exclusive Al Barari lifestyle.

When it comes to urban development, plants and landscape are normally treated as an afterthought, but at Al Barari, the nursery was the first thing to be established. Kamelia Zaal, the youngest daughter of the family, a garden designer and the creative director of landscape for Al Barari, explains: “Al Barari was actually born out of plants; it wasn’t out of the villas. The initial concept was to start a nursery and develop plant production because my father’s heart is in plants. The development then became what it is today, 80 per cent landscape and only 20 per cent built up.”

Like so many of the decisions made by Zaal Mohammed Zaal, the idea that the nursery should form the core of Al Barari was born of his own personal passion, but it also made profound business sense. Not only did an in-house nursery afford the design team at Al Barari complete control over the range and quality of the plants they wanted to use, but it also resulted in huge cost savings and allowed Greenworks to build a body of experience and expertise, for which the Al Barari estate is the best advert.

“It’s the care and detail that’s gone into the development of Al Barari that’s given us the confidence to go out into the market. Greenworks started off as a nursery, then went into maintenance on the Al Barari estate, but now it’s become a turnkey,” Kamelia explains. “It will design your garden, build it, maintain it and supply the plants. The idea is to make life easier for clients.”

That moment has finally arrived and Greenworks is now making overtures to retail and wholesale clients alike. The pristine shade canopies, meticulous labelling and outstanding levels of plant care and hygiene at Greenworks immediately set the business apart, and it’s clear that this is a company run by people who really care and know about plants. This may actually come as a disappointment to some – there are no diversions for the casual gardener here – but for serious gardeners Greenworks’s informative and no-nonsense approach to selling plants will come as a welcome relief.

The scale of the Greenworks operation is difficult to comprehend even when you see it. As I drive round the wholesale growing area with Henry Raven, the general manager of Greenworks, I repeatedly have to ask him to stop so that we can peer along seemingly endless aisles of plants. Behind the 1,800 square metres of retail nursery, there’s a further 17 hectares of wholesale growing and plant storage space, most of which is under cover to keep the plants in pristine condition throughout the year. These include enormous 700-year-old olive trees, fields of tropical trees and shrubs and several paddocks of pristine lawn that are kept for the moment when they’ll be turned into rolls of turf.

Antonie Robertson/The National

With the maintenance operation at Al Barari, there’s no shortage of organic matter on site, but Greenworks also receives deliveries of green waste from external landscape contractors, often measured in hundreds of tonnes, and converts all of this into invaluable compost that’s used either as potting compost, mulch or as a soil improver on the Al Barari estate. The idea is that the estate and the business become a closed loop in which nothing is wasted.

Over the past four years, the nursery has supplied more than four million plants to Al Barari. Over the past decade Greenworks has experimented with more than 1,800 different plant species to test for suitability in the UAE. From that list, a tried and tested planting palette of more than 700 species has been developed that Raven can now supply to the general market with confidence.

“We’re now experienced enough to grow for Al Barari, and what we want are plants of quality that can be planted out without risk. This is Mr Zaal’s nursery, and these are his plants and we won’t let a plant leave our nursery if it isn’t going to survive. If something’s going to die or look awful, then it’s no good for Al Barari or our customers.”

The difference between the no-frills, no-nonsense practicality of Raven, the Greenworks nursery and Al Barari’s other new public offering, The Farm, could not be more profound. If Greenworks represents horticulture at its most businesslike, The Farm bears the same relation to agriculture as Marie Antoinette’s Le Petit Hameau did at Versailles. Muck and mud are noticeable only by their absence, and the only animals you are likely to see are the numerous small birds and dragonflies that emerge from the bountiful undergrowth.

A symphony in silver, taupe and white, The Farm boasts farm-fresh, ethically sourced produce surrounded by lush lawns, shaded eating and shisha areas, and a cantilevered terrace that overlooks a large freshwater pool and cascade. Although the formula may be familiar – similar produce has been available in Dubai for some time now – it is unusual is to see it served up in such serene and sophisticated surroundings.

Greenworks and The Farm may seem like unlikely stablemates, but both come from the vision of Kamelia’s father. Remarkably, their launch only marks the completion of the first phase of the wider Al Barari development. Phase two is set to include more residences and retail, a luxury spa and even a boutique hotel. Once all of this is completed, The Farm is expected to act as a hub for the estate’s social life, no doubt drawing the attention of the green-fingered and well-manicured alike.

The Greenworks sales area is open from 9am to 5pm, six days a week. For more information, contact 050 453 2760. The Greenworks office is open six days a week, from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Contact 04 374 4544

This article originally appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi

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