Nick's Garden The capital's roadsides feature aesthetically appealing, low-maintenance plants – and contain untapped potential.
Capital's roadside gardens showcase year-round sustainable beauty
Regular readers of this column will have noticed that over the past 14 months several themes have emerged. These include: the need for more sustainable gardening; the benefits of using plant species adapted to local climatic conditions; the shortcomings of local growers in providing only what the market asks for and not what it needs, and the efforts of pioneering individuals and organisations who have tried to make a difference to the local horticultural scene.
To give loyal readers a break and a treat, this week's column comes with both a soundtrack (please start humming Bing Crosby's 1945 hit, Ac-cen-tchu-ate the Positive) and a promise: I will try my best to make it constructive and rant-free.
With this in mind, I'd like to draw your attention to the major new roadside planting schemes that have started to appear around Abu Dhabi, particularly on Saadiyat Island and the area around Al Bandar and Al Raha Beach.
These schemes are a boon to local gardeners who struggle to identify readily available plants that will be hardy, low(ish) maintenance and that will provide interest and colour year-round. Not only can commuters inspect them each day from the comfort of their cars, but the planting is also executed on a scale that allows it to be appreciated when one is travelling at speed: in single-species blocks that successfully highlight the particular qualities of each species by presenting them en masse.
The kinetic effects of Pennisetum setaceum (fountain grass) as it billows in the wind are apparent to passing traffic, and young trees are planted in such a way that even their supporting stakes become a positive, abstract feature in the overall scheme. Dark lilac flowers of the Mexican wild petunia (Ruellia tweediana) appear like mounds of Provençal lavender, creating a delightful, painterly effect with the cerise, peach and pink bracts of low, closely clipped Bougainvillaea hedges, while fields of Agave punctuate bands of cream, grey, and russet-coloured gravel like heraldic fleur-de-lis.
The use of decorative gravel mulch is particularly important because it allows the development of larger shapes and forms that would normally be filled with high-maintenance bedding plants and turf. Not only does this strategy prevent the spread of wind-blown sand, it also helps to reduce evaporation and cools the soil while cutting the amount of labour required and, ultimately, cost.
Like their less sustainable counterparts elsewhere in the region, where thirsty tropical plants, turf and annual bedding still feature heavily, Abu Dhabi's new roadsides can provide inspiration and many important lessons for car-bound gardeners. That they do so with plant and landscape materials that are readily available from local souqs, nurseries and garden centres may be of benefit to readers of this column, but surely misses the point when it comes to understanding what these spaces represent when viewed from the broader perspective.
Given that these spaces are little more than beautified gaps between highways and overpasses, this may sound like over-the-top aesthetic preciousness. However, as soon as the Louvre, Guggenheim and other institutions open, the world's cultural and media elites will be making the journey from the airport to Saadiyat. Every aesthetic decision will be judged with the utmost scrutiny, and foreign media, who already find it difficult to look beyond tired clichés when discussing the UAE, will stop at nothing to find instances where Abu Dhabi has failed to live up to its international ambitions.
Viewed from this perspective, roadside planting schemes become nothing less than a living advertisement for the values of Brand Abu Dhabi. The treatment of the road from the airport to Saadiyat becomes a grand processional route that will communicate important messages about the capital's cultural, environmental and social aspirations. Too much irrigation will be seen as evidence of environmental illiteracy, too high a level of maintenance will smack of cheap labour, and the kind of large-scale domestic planting schemes that are currently being used will, I'm afraid, betoken a lack of vision and imagination.
Of course, in certain sections of the press, Abu Dhabi will be damned whatever it does but this shouldn't stop the city from being ambitious. For example, I can think of no better spaces to showcase the native flora of the UAE or to display the capital's sustainable credentials in a way that is both aesthetically appealing and technically innovative.
On an island with some of the world's greatest cultural institutions, where some of the world's greatest artists will be creating site-specific installations of unprecedented scale, it seems odd that nobody has approached the roadside areas with equal ambition.
If this sounds fanciful, it's an approach that's already been successfully adopted in other major cities. In Melbourne, Australia, designers have created several major roadside installations that are now recognised as being important works of landscape art and architecture in their own right, while in London, the much-derided elevated section of the A40 is now home to a leisure centre, climbing wall, artists' studios, stable and urban farm.
Unfortunately, the UAE's roadside planting schemes are still informed by a "city beautiful" aesthetic in which greening and beautification are the main goals. The real potential of these invaluable and overlooked urban spaces is largely left unexplored. Only when the capital's roadside areas have become successful sites for art installations, nature reserves, energy generation, food production, employment, education and leisure will they be the kind of critic-proof, low-level background evidence that Abu Dhabi will need to prove its cultural and environmental bona fides once the world's cognoscenti descend.
After all, in the media world of clichés, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Did you notice that Bing had stopped singing? I do apologise; I must be ranting.
Garden buy: Cox & Cox candle lanterns
We love these brilliant fire-retardant paper bags, punched with a star-shaped graphic. They create a lovely soft glow and look stunning lined along a terrace, path or dotted around the garden.
Place a tea light inside (we use Ikea's larger, longer-lasting Glimma) and weigh down with a bit of rice or sand to prevent the lantern blowing over.
Cox & Cox will post purchases (depending on number/weight) to the UAE for a flat rate of Dh272, so it's worth filling up your basket with a few more items from their range of outdoor decorative items and gardening products. £9.50 (Dh58) for a pack of 10, www.coxandcox.co.uk