Nick’s Garden: the clock is ticking

Nick Leech asks whether we should call time on traditional annual bedding displays


Sandwiched at the eastern end of the Corniche between a hotel, maternity hospital and road works for the Middle East’s longest tunnel sits the Abu Dhabi floral clock, perched on its own an artificial alp and surrounded by bemused pedestrians, glacial boulders and a lush, green manicured lawn. Amidst beds of massed groundcover planting large, white, stencilled letters celebrate a temporal and horticultural special relationship between the cities of Abu Dhabi and Geneva, home to one of the world’s most famous floral timepieces. When it entered the world of horticultural horology in 2002, Abu Dhabi joined an old and venerable club that includes the city of Edinburgh, Niagara Falls, Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch and the city of Kiev in the Ukraine, where Europe’s largest example was recently reconstructed using 4,000 tonnes of soil and 50,000 bedding plants.

The imaginative use of bedding plants in municipal floral displays has long been a symbol of civic pride however, though the sweeping hands and (presumably Swiss) mechanism of Abu Dhabi’s clock manage perfect accuracy, for many gardeners this kind of achievement represents a dubious distinction whose time has firmly passed. At a time when gardeners and city governments world-wide are being forced to consider wider issues like climate change, biodiversity and the loss of species and habitat, the use of massed formal bedding schemes that are constantly maintained and replaced twice a year is on the wane, partly because of the enormous associated financial costs but also because of deep-rooted concerns over their environmental impact and sustainability.

For many, bedding and bedding schemes are the horticultural equivalent of fast food, representing an outmoded, purely decorative approach to gardening that only reinforces the notion that plants are little more than disposable consumer items to be thrown away when they are no longer needed. The production of bedding plants also raises serious concerns. Because it is a low-cost, mass-market product, bedding results from industrial processes with a large carbon footprint that are driven by cost and economies of scale. These include the use of chemical fertilisers and pest-control, oil and gas (which are used to heat the greenhouses when bedding is grown in temperate climates) and the use of peat in growing media.

Peat is made of decomposed plant debris. It forms when plant debris accumulates faster than it can be broken down in cool, waterlogged conditions, where the lack of oxygen and low temperatures limit the rate at which micro-organisms can degrade plant material. In the bogs where peat is made these layers of plant material can be many metres deep and those at the bottom can even be thousands of years old. Such places are important sites for wildlife and are unique habitats which support a fascinating variety of birds, invertebrates and plants which thrive in these low-nutrient ecosystems. This means that the extraction of peat involves the destruction of non-renewable resources that have taken many hundreds of years to develop. In the UK alone, over 94% of the estimated 69,700ha of peat bogs have been damaged or destroyed with most of the devastation occurring in the last 60 years, when peat was extracted for use as a planting medium, soil improver and mulch by both gardening professional s and amateurs alike.

If this wasn’t enough to put the final nail in bedding’s petunia-clad coffin, the raft of new guidance recently published by Abu Dhabi’s Urban Planning Council just might. In Estidama, Abu Dhabi has a set of world-class sustainable development guidelines that will soon dictate the design of the Emirates streets, squares, parks and public spaces while producing a new horticultural aesthetic dictated primarily by local concerns over water use. With the reduction of Abu Dhabi’s carbon footprint, the conservation of energy and more intelligent use of resources as some of the scheme’s fundamental aims, it looks likely that the hands on the Abu Dhabi floral clock might soon be reaching a permanent and terminal midnight. While this should be welcomed from an environmental perspective, I for one would be a little sad to see the city lose yet another local landmark that helps to provide its special character and unique sense of place. Like the recently demolished poster of Sheikh Zayed that used to stand on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, the floral clock represents a folk memory of a gentler past that might soon be erased by the relentless juggernaut of the city’s redevelopment.

There is however, a middle way. Imagine Abu Dhabi’s parks in ten year’s time, post-Estidama and now planted not with petunias and begonias but with drought-tolerant, native Arabian species that really would provide the city with a unique sense of character and place. In this scenario, the hands of Abu Dhabi’s floral clock need not stop at midnight but could continue ticking, instead, toward a brighter and more sustainable future.


  1. Great article NIck.
    Time to put this practice of potted colour to bed then aye?
    I’m curious here in Hamilton NZ, with some of the median plantings through the city’s roads – coloured beet and all manor of floral-like brassica hybrids. Who knows – is this a precursor to the 2for1 drive-in supermarket experience, certainly feels like I’m trapped behind a slow trolley in the fruit and vege section of my local PAK’n SAVE – grab a bunch of silver beet whilst giving way to your right at the next roundabout – with the vigour of some of these plants the thought has crossed my mind – but for the likely lead accumulation?

    1. Thanks very much, I really appreciate it. I think there’s a huge amount to be said for urban food production, but I only thinks it makes sense if it’s precisely that, planting for food. When you consider what plants are actually capable of as green infrastructure in an urban environment – mitigating the urban heat island effect, cleaning the air, providing habitat, producing food, SUDS, contributing to our daily quality of life – then their true vaue becomes apparent. You would hope that this would also lead to a greater appreciation for plants and landscape amongst civic authorities and the wider public, but that’s another story….

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