x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

If you need some inspiration, just take a look around

Landscaping at hotels and restaurants shows how experts tackle local gardening.

The landscaping at The Address hotel facing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is an example of gardening in a tight space.
The landscaping at The Address hotel facing the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is an example of gardening in a tight space.

After two years as a non-driver in the UAE I've come to recognise a particular look in the eyes of hotel security staff. It's a careful, studied but always polite stare that moves slowly from bemusement to pity after a short detour through suspicion - and it's a look with which I'm often greeted as I approach a hotel's vehicle-only entrance on foot. I always half-expect to turn around one day and see the guards slowly revolving their fingers at the sides of their heads: "loco" the gesture would read.

While my behaviour may be more than a little odd, the chance to walk through spaces that others normally only drive through is both a valuable learning experience and a bit of a busman's holiday. As a landscape architect who designs these spaces for a living, it's always interesting to see how other designers have tackled familiar problems. Luckily, the UAE is also blessed with many hotels whose grounds have been designed with budgets and an ambition that resorts (and landscape architects) in the rest of the world could only dream of. The very best are also maintained to a standard that one would normally associate with Royal Parks and botanic gardens elsewhere and, as such, they really deserve more than the cursory glance that they usually receive from the rear windows of passing taxis.

With the weather as it is, I wouldn't suggest that you all suddenly leap from your cars to embark on horticultural safaris the next time you're at a hotel. However, I'm sure that a more considered look at the landscape the next time you're at your favourite restaurant, bar or beach club will pay dividends for keen gardeners, not least by allowing you to see how the experts deal with those self-same issues that face so many of us in our gardens at home.

For the gardener who's keen to gain a better understanding of the way that different plant types can be combined to create a balanced, fully-realised planting scheme, the formal gardens that welcome visitors as they arrive at Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace provide some valuable lessons. Here date and foxtail palms (Wodyetia bifurcata) are teamed with spectacular, vermilion-flowered flame trees (Delonix regia) alongside the flowering bird of paradise shrub (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) while clipped bougainvillea and natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa) are used as flowering formal hedging. Admittedly, this is a very safe palette, representing nothing that cannot be seen just along the road on Abu Dhabi's Corniche.

However, the role that each plant plays and the way that they all fit together to make a coherent whole - palm with tree, shrub with hedge, bedding with groundcover - is clearly articulated in the planting design and very easy to understand. This is also the site of one of my favourite garden walks. The tree canopies and hedging that line the (very) quick trot from the security booth to the front helicopter pad combine to provide a verdant, widescreen frame for views across the grounds and this short avenue, enjoyed only by me and the security staff, always seems, on spring and autumn evenings, to be garlanded with birds, geckos and moths.

The landscape and terrace gardens at The Address in Downtown Dubai could not be more different. Whereas Emirates Palace speaks to those who wish to garden with a broader brush, The Address speaks to the gardener who is starved of space. Perched on a tight site next to Dubai Mall directly facing the Burj Khalifa, the landscape here is chic and urban and dominated by a muted and purposely limited palette of hard and soft landscape materials. Rather than passing through the landscape or viewing it from afar, you experience it here in a series of compact terraces in which there is little or no room for plants that do not know their place.

Slow-growing, architectural cycads are the order of the day and, whereas flower and colour were key considerations at Emirates Palace, form and texture guide the massing and use of plants at the The Address. Here sago palms from Okinawa (Cycas revoluta) are used as accent plants while cardboard cycads (Zamia furfuracea) are massed together as a kind of below-the-knee level groundcover. This is also home to one of my most favourite and unexpected plant combinations, mother-in-law's tongue (Sanseveria trifasciata) with purple hearts (Tradescantia pallida). Not a combination for the faint-hearted, the effect is rather like seeing gigantic spears of gherkin emerge from a plate of writhing red cabbage. The lesson is, I think, never to play it too straight and that, even in the most serious of spaces, a little bad taste can actually lift what might have been a fairly ordinary scheme into something that pops and really catches the eye. Bravo!