From rooting for desert plants to embracing sustainability, global landscaping trends are changing how gardeners in the UAE approach their patch of green.
Grounds for style: gardening trends in the UAE
Every May the gardening world focuses on London for the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show, as much as a showcase of emerging trends as Milan Design Week and the Paris catwalk shows are in their respective fields.
Come January, many of those concepts pop up again in the onslaught of predictions made for the year ahead - and garden enthusiasts the world over lap them up. Yet, given that reconfiguring a garden involves far trickier logistics - and greater expense - than chasing a new heel shape or paint shade, are annual trends really viable in the world of garden design?
"The ideas that come out of Chelsea are very conceptual," says the British landscape architect Christopher Bradley-Hole, a three-time Best of Show winner (twice for his gardens sponsored by Sheikh Zayed, the late President of the UAE). "I don't think people start tearing up their gardens just because they've been inspired by clipped box hedges. I see trends as more of a movement or mood change that starts slowly then gains momentum."
Bradley-Hole says that he identified the last big mood change a decade ago - at the turn of the millennium - when there was a swing away from the chocolate box-pretty Arts and Crafts-style garden to a naturalistic, wilder look. "I think it was a lot to do with ease. People became keener to get out more into their gardens, and hiring experienced staff to tend complicated designs became a luxury most couldn't afford. Now that look has moved on from being simply untamed to having more of an aesthetic, more of a designed image [of wildness]."
Despite Sheikh Zayed's much-documented passion for horticulture, we haven't exactly become a nation of hands-on gardeners in the UAE. The lack of real choice or variety of suitable shrubs and flowers in the nurseries and garden centres, a summer climate that makes a day spent pottering outdoors nigh on impossible (although the winter climate is perfect) and the abundance of affordable labour to water the bougainvillaea preclude gardening's presence on the hobby list of most residents - even those who claim to have been green-fingered in their home country.
"Gardening used to take up a lot of my free time when I lived in the UK but I just don't get the same pleasure tending it here, let alone chasing trends," admits Euan McBride, a civil engineer who has tamed a few "jungles of gardens" and installed his own irrigation system and water features in past homes. "I thought I might change when we bought our own house in Dubai but I still content myself with the same basic shrubs and annuals as everyone and I'm not as bothered as I should be that our gardener - I use the term loosely - obviously has no clue."
That's not to say there aren't any gardeners here with a passion for their work. After lovingly tending the substantial grounds of the old Jebel Ali Sailing Club before its closure, Moideen Kutty set up his own gardening business with a friend who is an expert in irrigation. "There are a lot of people who call themselves gardeners but have no real knowledge and interest in their work," he says. Even being in the trade he gets frustrated by the lack of choice at the UAE wholesalers, and often brings a few seeds back from his visits home to Kerala, which he'll use to help cultivate clients' gardens. Not surprisingly, Kutty has garnered a loyal band of clients - many whom have a genuine interest in their gardens - even striking out into "edible" gardening (a big trend at the last Chelsea Flower Show, where a show garden called Credit Munch had tomatoes and strawberries mingling happily with heuchera and sweet peas).
"I have a lot of clients asking me about growing fruit and vegetables and most are happy to incorporate food crops somewhere into their regular garden, rather than having a dedicated patch, especially because most are so seasonal," says the landscape architect Jane Aldersley of Dubai-based Plantorama. However, even the keenest of those clients is happy to leave the hard work to Aldersley and her team.
"It's extremely hard work taking on your own garden projects here - and I'm not just saying that because of my job," she stresses. "It really does mean full-time commitment and, because of all the research, planning, sourcing from suppliers, co-ordination, dealing with the language barriers, it can be incredibly frustrating and time-consuming." Therefore, when it comes to anything more testing than planting a few tubs of pansies, many homeowners turn to professional landscape designers.
According to John Wigham, a director of Cracknell Landscape Architects, most clients know exactly what they want - and are willing to pay for it. "I have been stretched here as a designer more so than working anywhere else. Many of the clients we work with are inspired and, generally, in terms of materials, they want the best - even something as simple as an outdoor light. If it's not at the top end of the market, they're not interested."
Are the high-net worth clients Cracknell works with locked on to international landscaping trends? "Yes, the are - but they'll generally pick up on a certain theme like Brazilian or Zen and want the whole project based on it, rather than a hotchpotch of what's currently fashionable." Aldersley feels that in this part of the world strong ideas are emerging that focus on viewing the garden from indoors: "It's an important consideration when you think that, for about half of the year here, the garden is something you just look at from inside the house." In terms of a trend that is adaptable and accessible, she points to the "Balinese tropical/modern look" - it incorporates clean lines and a combination of textures like decking and stone. "Features such as reflecting pools and lots of accessorising - lanterns and daybeds - also play their part."
"There's certainly been a shift from the first generation of clients here, who wanted OTT landscaping and exuberant plantings," says Wigham. "It was a case of 'Look what we've done; we can landscape the desert'. Then people became very well-travelled and educated and went more for a reserved look with simple materials." Now, he says, the challenge is one that unites the landscaping world globally - that of sustainability versus pure aesthetics: "And in landscaping here we face great difficulties: there are only about five plants that are indigenous to this climate - and unfortunately they look like barbed wire." It's a look that his corporate clients are tending to go for it because it is expected of them, but residential clients still need a lot of persuading. "They'll take aesthetics over sustainability, without doubt," he says.
Aldersley feels that many clients are becoming aware that the best gardens are not only functional and beautiful, but also appropriate to their time and place in the world. "We find that many like the idea in theory but it becomes a hard sell when the same small and boring selection of desert plants is available in the nurseries." She would love to see the development of an innovative breeding programme for UAE native plants, as well as those from neighbouring countries, to make them better suited to domestic use. "There are also fascinating and beautiful desert plants from the US, Mexico, Africa, Australia, and so on, which would be just amazing if we could use them here. Hopefully someone can find a way around the biosecurity and importation issues, and it will start to happen."
Bradley-Hole believes that the people who can put aside their prejudices and embrace desert plants are the real trendsetters. And he should know: his 2003 garden for Chelsea was the ultimate desert garden: "I understand that it has its challenges in this part of the world but the native garden is a real global trend that is very much happening." One direction that designers and clients are united in embracing is that of the diminishing lawn. It certainly appears to be taking hold in the UAE, albeit brought on by the cost of water consumption rather than for altruistic or stylistic reasons. "Many of our clients want a small lawn or even no lawn these days," says Aldersley. "I also think that large swimming pools are falling out of favour for the same reason; many people put them in, then find they don't use them enough to justify the expense."
There is, however, a solution for those who do crave tradition - especially the green sculpted forms of traditional Italianate style: Novello, a design company based in Brescia that is also opening an office in Abu Dhabi, insists that its form of landscaping can be achieved in the desert in an economically and environmentally sympathetic way. "The true challenge [for designers] is to offer a landscape that improves people's quality of life; the garden has to make your life better, to mitigate the climate, to be cosy," says Kenda Novello. Her company's patented three-dimensional structures called Quinte Storiche aim to do that by acting like living topiary walls. Constructed of natural materials (usually wood) and embedded with irrigation and lighting systems, they are covered in mature, sturdy, climbing plants to add instant drama and interest to an outdoor setting. "For a project in Abu Dhabi we created a series of outdoor 'rooms' with the structures, in which the client can enjoy the garden as multi-sensory experience," explains Novello. "The strength of Quinte Storiche permits their use as a support for shades, awning and other decorative objects like hanging vases and so on, making them multifunctional as well as decorative."
The Novello look is not a million miles from another 2010 global trend - the Green wall. "Vertical gardening", as it's also known, is currently a big story in commercial landscaping - championed by the French designer Patrick Blanc's Le Mur Végétal (plant wall.) The soilless gardens - planted in layers of PVC and felt on metal frames and attached to load-bearing walls - allow landscapers to bring plants into the most unexpected, and smallest, of places. "It's not big here yet but once the hospitality industry embraces vertical gardening it will inevitably trickle down to residential projects," says Wigham. "But I do think it's one trend we'll look back on and ask 'what was that all about?'"