x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Inside Abu Dhabi's first garden centre

Together with a new farmer's market and award-winning coffee, Desert Garden Centre is transforming Khalifa Park on weekends.

Customers shop for fresh plants and garden supplies at the Desert Garden Centre last weekend. Ravindranath K / The National
Customers shop for fresh plants and garden supplies at the Desert Garden Centre last weekend. Ravindranath K / The National

In a city that prides itself on being green, nothing testifies to the power of plants so eloquently as ringing cash tills, heavily laden shopping trolleys and a packed car park. These were the unexpected sights and sounds during a visit to Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Park last weekend.

The streets of the local Al Matar neighbourhood normally greet you with an almost post-apocalyptic emptiness, but even at 9.30 on a Friday morning, the capital's green fingered and curious had turned out in force, tempted by the prospect of a new farmer's market, award-winning coffee and the capital's first proper garden centre. The seasonal, locally grown organic vegetable boxes came from Ripe, a new Dubai-based business that already hosts a market at the Dubai Garden Centre each Saturday. The freshly ground coffee from Raw Coffee Company, a family-run boutique roastery whose fair trade blends are sold through a cafe that's also based at the Dubai Garden Centre.

Unsurprisingly given the team sheet so far, Abu Dhabi's new Desert Garden Centre also comes courtesy of the Dubai Garden Centre and its parent company, the Dubai horticultural giant that is Desert Group.

Even if the cast of characters and business model are already well tested in Dubai, their arrival in Abu Dhabi is a welcome first and their effect on this particular corner of Khalifa Park is difficult to overestimate. When I arrived it seemed that the proceeding excitement and anticipation on Abu Dhabi's online chat rooms and message boards was well justified. A steady stream of people were walking from the busy car park toward the garden centre, and a small flotilla of trolleys laden with plants, bags of compost and oversized containers was being wheeled in the opposite direction as nursery employees helped shoppers back to their cars. Once I'd paid my dirham to enter Khalifa Park, I saw it had been transformed into part plant nursery, part street market and part playground. It was wholly un-Abu Dhabi.

Up until now, shopping in the capital has taken place almost exclusively indoors, so to be able to shop, eat, drink and meet friends in the sunshine while being surrounded by plants rather than the usual roster of all-too-familiar international brands felt like a regular weekend ritual in the making. Danny Powell, the general manager of the Desert and Dubai garden centres, has spent a professional lifetime trying to achieve this general sense of well-being and lifestyle. "We're trying to make people happy in the nicest possible way because we see everybody as a potential customer."

Powell, a New Zealander, is a Middle East veteran who was bitten early by the horticultural bug. "I started growing radishes when I was five or six. They're one of those plants that allow you to put the seed in the ground and 28 days later you're eating them. It was probably my first gardening lesson and I immediately enjoyed it."

After working with interior landscapes in London in the early 1980s, he spent 20 years setting up garden centres in Saudi Arabia before moving to Dubai five years ago. Powell is now, the face of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai garden centres; his caricature appears on every sign, price tag, shopping bag and advertisement. This actually makes meeting the face behind the cartoon something of a surprise, but when presented with the opportunity, I feel obliged to raise the issue that always seems to crop up whenever local gardeners discuss the Dubai Garden Centre: price. It's not an unexpected question.

"Price may have been an issue historically, and it's hard to get rid of a reputation like that, but I think that's something that's in the past. I often speak to people who tell me that they stopped shopping at the Dubai Garden Centre because it was terribly expensive, but I always tell them to come again and when they do come back they find that we're actually very competitive."

Powell is also keen to stress the quality and local credentials of his outdoor stock. "Just take a look at our gardenia; I'm particularly proud of those. They're of such high quality we could easily export them to Europe."

Shoppers at the Desert Garden Centre seem delighted, surprised and downright relieved. For Jane and Matthew Benniston, the centre means that they can now shop locally: "One of the problems we've found since being in the UAE is that it's always a problem to simply do things yourself, to be able to buy the equipment you need, whether it's for DIY or gardening."

A quest for decent compost and a tomato growing addiction originally took them to Dubai Garden Centre, but now they can walk to the Abu Dhabi garden centre from their home in nearby Al Maqta Village.

Tomatoes originally appealed to Matthew's desire to get involved. "If you want to grow stuff, get your fingers dirty and remain interested, then you really have to grow things from seed. Otherwise you're just watering something you've bought from a shop that looks pretty."

James and Sue Rix came to the park to support a friend selling handmade jewellery at the farmer's market, but are leaving with a box of organic vegetables and the firm intention to return. "We normally only shop for seasonal bedding plants at Mina Port, but you don't get much information there and it always feels like they're just telling you whatever you want to hear. The staff here seem much more knowledgeable."

Powell should be pleased with such comments. Some of his Abu Dhabi team are old-timers from the Desert Garden Centre, some have worked for him before elsewhere, and the new recruits spent three months training in Dubai before making the switch to Abu Dhabi.

When I ask about the weekend's takings, Powell is understandably coy, but it's clear from a morning's observation that the latest addition to Abu Dhabi's horticultural scene is doing something right.

Ask Nick

While recently walking along the Abu Dhabi Corniche, I saw a plant with silvery-grey leaves growing as an attractive hedge. What is it and would it be suitable for my own garden?

There are several species used as hedging along the Corniche, but only two that have glaucous, silver-grey leaves and both of which are North American in origin. Leucophyllum frutescens (Texas Ranger) is normally grown as a low hedge, while Conocarpus erectus var. sericeus (Silver Buttonwood) is usually grown as a taller barrier in situations where privacy is a concern. Both are excellent plants for local conditions, but Conocarpus pollen can be a concern for people who suffer from allergies. I would check with your neighbours before using this plant as a hedge in a domestic garden setting.