x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Designer Living: Grant James's flexible, durable outdoor space

The Dubai-based landscape architect shows us around his family-friendly garden and offers tips on what to plant.

Choose plants with large leaves if they will be near a pool, Grant says, and avoid overplanting. Satish Kumar / The National
Choose plants with large leaves if they will be near a pool, Grant says, and avoid overplanting. Satish Kumar / The National

Where do you live and how long have you lived there?

I've lived in a villa in The Springs for six years. I bought it so I obviously do more with it than if I was renting.

What was the garden like when you first moved in?

I was the first person to live in this house so when I moved in the garden was just sand and interlock, which is your normal concrete paver. The standard Emirates Living/Emaar handover is just brown sand, so I think it's very important to check the soil quality before you start working on your garden.

What's your background?

I'm South African. My training was all in Sun City and the Lost City in South Africa. I was there for two years and then I went to Mauritius for four years and worked on the Sol Kerzner hotels there. Then I came here for the One & Only resort, before moving on to the Madinat and Bab Al Shams. Then I shifted to golf, which is my real passion. I worked on the Jumeirah Golf Estates and then the Tiger Woods project.

Where's a good place to start when you are designing a garden from scratch?

With the exterior eating and seating area. Make sure you put enough space around your eating and seating area. Design it so that your chairs can be pulled all the way out without them ending up on the grass. Next you have to look at your screening.

We had an idea of where we wanted our lawn to be. We put it straight in front of the house so we can sit in the kitchen and I can watch my son playing in the grass.

Have you made any major changes to the garden?

We created an extension by cutting through the boundary wall and raising the outer wall, and that's become our storage space. I also recently put in a pool. Because of my little boy, I've created a very shallow area with only 25cm of water. I've created a rounder, smoother edge and used a natural finish instead of tiles. The full bottom is one level at 1.2m. It's really a plunge pool. If we want to do laps we can go to the community pool.

Where are the best places to shop for garden furniture?

Dubai Garden Centre is good. A lot of our furniture is from there. Parasol and Home Centre also have good stuff.

Are there any materials that should be avoided altogether?

For furniture, I would stay away from wicker and steel because of the heat. Also wrought iron and other materials that you would use in Europe might not work here unless you have an extremely good shade structure.

What kinds of plants would you recommend?

Definitely plumeria, or frangipani. Ours have been in for six years. I chose to use the obtusa species because it's got the rounder leaf. It's durable, it flowers pretty much all year round, it gives you a very dense canopy and it is very low maintenance. It doesn't drop a lot of leaves and if it does, it's a huge leaf so it's easier to pick up. Particularly next to pools, you want to use a tree with big leaves.

Figs are good but I wouldn't put them next to a pool. I have a fig tree at the back. I have jasmine and olive - I've put mine in a pot. I would also recommend the Tabebuia argentea, which has yellow flowers. A lot of people use flame trees but I think they are a bit messy.

Is there anything that you tried to introduce but didn't work?

I tried to import some trees from Mauritius but they didn't survive the summer.

What are the most common gardening mistakes in this part of the world?

I think people overplant. They don't give their plants their true space. People are impatient. It's probably because they only rent for a year or so, so they want an immediate screen.

I believe that homeowners should be responsible for the gardens (rather than tenants). There's also a huge need for a proper maintenance company that will offer full services for your outdoor areas.

What are your top tips for local gardeners?

Use durable fabrics. They have to be able to handle the sun. We've had our outdoor seat coverings for five years.

Don't take shortcuts on paving. Concrete pavers get extremely hot in the summer. They are also very rough if kids fall on them. And because they don't have a concrete base, ants will come up through them. Ideally you want to put down something more permanent or use a material that isn't as rigid and rough. I used polished antique-finished travertine.

If it's your permanent home, don't take shortcuts. Plan your garden, and give it space and time to grow. And buy quality plants.