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Nick’s garden: Towards a more natural landscape

By Nick Leech  www.thenational.ae

I remember my first evening in Abu Dhabi as if it were yesterday. It was a hot, humid Ramadan night and as I stepped from the plane I had only the very vaguest idea of the place I would soon call home. As I was driven to my hotel along deceptively hushed and deserted roads my gardener’s eye was immediately caught by the immaculate lawns, stately palms and drifts of uncannily perfect petunias.

Ghaf trees grow slowly but their shade is unmatched. Alia Jeiroudi for the National

Ghaf trees grow slowly but their shade is unmatched. Alia Jeiroudi for the National

As I began to settle in, it wasn’t very long before my surprise at the city’s fecundity was overtaken by an uneasy awe at the effort expended on maintaining its plenitude. Here was a lesson in what’s possible when the will, water, money and manpower are all incalculable. The improbable result is a desert in bloom. The cost: the world’s largest, heaviest ecological footprint according to the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2008.

Happily, the last few years have also seen a quiet revolution take place in Abu Dhabi’s corridors of power with the introduction of Plan Abu Dhabi 2030, Estidama and new guidelines for the design of Abu Dhabi’s streets and public spaces and it shouldn’t be long before we see the city’s characteristic greenness take a decidedly environmental turn. As somebody with a professional commitment to sustainable development, I’m pleased to work in a city that’s taking green issues so seriously. As a gardener, I’m excited by the potentially radical horticultural and aesthetic changes these wider shifts might bring, changes that might best be summed up by the term ‘xeriscaping’.

Xeriscaping is very much in fashion with politicians, planners and landscape architects alike. It involves gardening in a way that reduces the need for irrigation while conserving water, and its principles affect everything from the choices we make in planning, designing and maintaining our gardens to preparing our soils and selecting our plants.

As always, the key to choosing the right plant is a matter of working with nature and of taking the lesson of ‘right plant, right place’ to its logical conclusion. Rather than using water-hungry plants or those that remind us of home, we should look for species that are well-suited to the UAE’s harsh climate. Not only will this save water and maintenance in the long-run, it should also mean that the plants we choose for our gardens will stand a far higher chance of survival and success.

Ideally, my garden would be populated entirely by plants native to the UAE. The result would be an environment that encouraged and supported local wildlife while being entirely unique, as evocative and as much a product of this place as any wadi or oasis. Unfortunately, of the 400 or so plant species native to the Emirates, I’ve found less than 20 that are readily available from commercial nurseries. Luckily, this small list includes such gems as the Fountain Grass (Pennisetum divisum), Miswak or Toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica), ubiquitous and highly poisonous Oleander (Nerium oleander) as well as such evocative trees as the Arabian Acacia (Acacia arabica), Sidr (Zizyphus spina-christi) and Samr (Acacia tortilis) and evergreen Ghaf (Prosopis cineraria).

Commonly planted as a street tree in Abu Dhabi, the Ghaf will also be familiar to anybody who has driven the roads to Al Ain where majestic specimens can be seen growing straight from the desert sand which, in order to survive such harsh conditions, the Ghaf can send its roots down over 30 metres to reach available groundwater. Despite its centrality to the local environment and culture, wild Ghaf trees are actually under threat and there has recently been a campaign to have them protected and officially recognised as the UAE’s national emblem (
(www.savetheghaftree.org/index.html). From a distance, the canopies of Ghaf look dusty and heavy but once sat under you soon realise that the gentle, dappled shade they cast simply cannot be bettered. I would recommend planting Ghaf in any garden that had space. Unfortunately, Ghaf are very slow growing so a tree planted now might best be considered as a gift to posterity.

Although the market for native plants is still in its infancy, gardeners can play a powerful role as consumers in changing the landscape by demanding new plants when we visit the garden centre. Desert Group, the growers behind the Dubai Garden Centre, have already started to introduce new, non-native drought tolerant species like the Desert Broom (Baccharis sarothroides) and a wider palette of non-native, low-water species are also widely readily available. These include such garden favourites as the Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), Bougainvillaea, Aloe vera, Olive tree (Olea europaea), Beach Hibiscus (Hibiscus tiliaceus), Frangipani (Plumeria obtusa), Yucca, Agave and Texas Ranger (Leucophyllum frutescens).

It’s in the desert homes of the latter species in the American south-west that the xeriscaping movement really developed. There, thanks to the enthusiasm of keen gardeners and professionals alike, a unique new aesthetic has developed that works with native flora and celebrates the local landscape.


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