Rob Hardaway, or "Mr Green Fingers" as he is known to his friends and neighbours, first arrived in Dubai from the UK in 1999. Faced with the classic expat dilemma of having an uncertain future and living in rented accommodation, he curtailed his early horticultural ambitions. "I lived in a villa in Jumeirah for four years, but was never sure if I was going to stay there or not, and because of that I did limited amounts with the garden."
When he moved to his current 818-square-metre plot in Dubai's Arabian Ranches, however, Hardaway started gardening in earnest and, over the last six years he has transformed an empty, barren patch of sand and builder's rubble into the garden that is now his pride and joy. There is a deck area for entertaining, a pond for his koi carp and ficus and palm trees that provide much-needed shade. There is even an artificial hill. "It was the first thing I wanted to do," Hardaway explains. "It gave the garden an immediate feature."
When it came to plant selection, Hardaway was helped by looking at local municipality planting schemes, and by his family. "My sister was a great help. She's a qualified horticulturist, and has a good understanding of trees and plants and what they need. I also had some labour to give me a hand, but other than that I made all the decisions myself."
For Hardaway, one of the most important things to establish was just how much sunlight each part of his new garden would receive. "You can come up with fabulous designs for a garden, but it really all depends on what will grow and what won't." To establish just this, Hardaway spent time observing the way the sun moved around his house before he planted anything.
"It was a case of watching the garden to see where the sun came across the house, and to see where I got most sunshine and where I got virtually none at all. I wanted to create as much shade as possible around the fishpond so that when the summer months come the water doesn't get too hot. That helped me decide where to put the grass, the trees and bushes."
In spite of his efforts, Hardaway admits that it is only in the last six months that the garden has really come into its own, an improvement that coincides with the installation of a new "fertigation" system.
Fertigation is a technique that uses irrigation systems to fertilise plants and soils at the same time as it provides them with water. It does this by dissolving fertiliser solution into the irrigation mainline so that you feed while you irrigate. It's a system that's tried and tested in the hydroponics and agricultural industries and is also employed on golf courses, where large areas of delicate turf require regular feeding. But when it comes to smaller landscapes and domestic gardens in the UAE, Hardaway is definitely an early adopter.
He first discovered fertigation while listening to an interview with James Waters, the managing director of a company called Associated Response, on a Dubai radio station. Waters is responsible for bringing the EZ-Flo fertigation system to the Middle East and has been working hard to raise awareness of the product as well as the wider benefits of fertigation in general.
"Fertigation has been proven to be the most efficient way of feeding any landscape," says Waters. "It's also more sustainable, particularly if you use an organic fertiliser, because it allows you to use less water and fewer chemicals."
Nonetheless, Waters is the first to admit that raising awareness and getting the system introduced into domestic and amenity landscapes is an uphill task. "We're seeing directives aimed at local farmers to look at more sustainable and more efficient growing and irrigation techniques, but there doesn't seem to be anything similar for the landscape industry," he says. "It's only when you see directives like these that you see action, and fertigation is the logical next step if you are serious about sustainability."
When Hardaway speaks about the impact that fertigation has had on his garden, he does so with the zeal of a convert. "Fertilising a garden is one of the most difficult things to keep on top of, but we've seen a huge difference, particularly in the grass. The growth that I've seen so far this season is about 300 per cent over what I've seen previously."
Hardaway is also keen to point out that the benefits can be seen below ground in the vital root zone of his shrubs and grass. "Once we fitted the fertigation system, we lifted some of the grass and found that the roots were about [15cm] longer than they had been previously."
This helps to make his turf more drought-tolerant because deeper roots are more able to seek moisture in the damper, cooler zone below the soil surface.
In turn, this also helps to reduce the amount of water that Hardaway's garden requires. "I was able to reduce the amount of water I actually need because the plants become more drought-resistant. I've probably reduced my water bill by 25 per cent."
For Hardaway, the other attraction of fertigation is the fact that it puts him in complete control of the feeding process because nothing is left to chance. "I know that I can fill it up for a period of six weeks, and you can leave it and you know that your garden is being fed for the whole time. If my plants are being fertilised for the whole time, they're going to be much stronger and healthier."
Fertigation also helps to cut costs by reducing the amount of fertiliser that's required, despite the fact that the system is introducing microscopic amounts into the irrigation mainline continuously. Fertilising becomes a matter of little and often, rather than a monthly or six-weekly lurch between "feast" and "famine".
Delivering too much nitrogen to the plant in the feast portion of the cycle increases the succulence of the grass and its demand for water. This has encouraged Hardaway to experiment further. "One of the things I'm still struggling with is when and how often to water. You can read a lot of information and everybody contradicts everybody else. Now the plants have got deeper roots, I'm going to try to get a deeper average coverage of water across the garden, and experiment with only one watering a day."
For more on the EZ-Flo system, visit www.ezflofertilizing.com