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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 19 August 2018

Outdoor design: Shedding light on sustainable desert gardens

The requirement for large volumes of water demanded by almost every planting scheme begs the question: can any garden in the desert be considered “sustainable”?
Courtesy Global Light & Power
Courtesy Global Light & Power

Sustainability is a ­buzzword that has been used in design in recent years, and none more so than landscaping. Given our natural desert environment, our landscapes should be beacons of sustainable design, yet the requirement for large volumes of water demanded by almost every planting scheme begs the question: can any garden in the desert be considered “sustainable”? Humans have always created gardens, reflecting a fundamental urge to tame nature and create beautiful, productive landscapes, so rather than resign ourselves to living in a barren dust bowl, let’s look at practical ways to make our gardens less of a strain on natural resources.

One of the most obvious ways is to be smarter about what we plant and how many plants we use. If we rein in the desire to create lush jungles, can our gardens still be beautiful? Yes, but what other elements should we employ to achieve this?

Because of scorching daytime temperatures, long working hours and relatively early sunsets, people in the UAE are more likely to experience their gardens after dark, therefore lighting plays a crucial role.

With the right low-energy LED fixtures, lighting can become a fantastically sustainable element in garden design – not only by minimising the amount of power used for illumination but also by enhancing textures, shapes and silhouettes, creating a captivating nightscape without the need for a lot of thirsty plants. For example, a small Ganesh statue (pictured above) becomes a stunning feature at night. Lit from both sides, it casts a fascinating shadow that draws the eye and creates a unique focal point.

Plants can also be lit from interesting angles to cast shapes and silhouettes on walls, which is especially true of the spiky, architectural plants that we traditionally associate with ­desert-style planting. There’s no need to go overboard with the number of fixtures, either. Consider what’s actually a feature of the landscape, as well as which areas need to be lit brightly and which don’t need so much lighting, before deciding where to place the lights.

Any plant, object or structure with an interesting shape or texture can be lit to create a mini art installation. Direct the shadow onto a textured or coloured surface for more variation or use light cast through moving water for an enchanting, rippling wave effect.

Old ghaf trees provide an opportunity for the ultimate sustainable lighting feature. The native ghaf has a tap root that goes to the water table (meaning that the tree does not require irrigation) and has a weeping, sculptural branch structure with grey/green foliage. This tree looks great lit from below to highlight the interesting forms of the trunk and branches or side lit to accentuate the soft foliage.

Aside from the gorgeous effects and low power consumption, let’s also remember another huge benefit of LED lighting – good-quality fixtures last for about 10 years without maintenance or lamp changing. Therefore, all these wonderful sustainable lighting features can remain interference-free, while the plants or materials naturally grow, age and change texture and colour. This is the beauty of using natural materials, and one of the driving forces behind the concept of sustainable design. Combine this with intelligent plant selection and the tiny power consumption of LED, and you have the potential for the ultimate sustainable desert landscape.

Jane Aldersley is a landscape lighting specialist working exclusively with LED lighting. She has been working within the UAE landscape industry since 2007.

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