x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Time for UAE gardeners to think beyond plants

Local gardeners are well placed to take native species and develop a new aesthetic that might just change the landscape design industry.

The landscape architect Martha Schwartz arranged bagels in her garden in 1979, quipping that they didn't need watering. Courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners
The landscape architect Martha Schwartz arranged bagels in her garden in 1979, quipping that they didn't need watering. Courtesy of Martha Schwartz Partners

I will never forget my first formal lesson in garden design. The tutor showed the class a slide show of gardens and quotes from their designers, each of which embodied wildly different definitions of what a garden is, could and should be.

The assembly of budding designers, who desperately wanted to appear sophisticated in front of their tutor, made appreciative noises, but many were unable to disguise their disdain for one image in particular, of the very first garden created by the London-based, American landscape architect Martha Schwartz.

Schwartz started her career in 1979 by decorating her front yard in Boston with bright purple gravel and neat rows of bagels. The bagel, she quipped, was the perfect gardening material because you didn't need to water it, and it did well in the shade.

Since the creation of her bagel garden, Schwartz has become one of the world's most celebrated landscape architects, but her work still divides opinion, even within the design profession. Gardening and garden design have experienced something of a renaissance, enjoying a profile and popularity not seen since the 18th and 19th centuries. Garden makeover programmes now dominate television schedules in North America and Europe, glossy garden titles take up ever increasing space on newsstands and garden design courses have become a favourite among ladies who lunch and those seeking a career change.

Given this mania for all things horticultural, what international trends are emerging in garden design to inspire gardeners here in the UAE?

With its extreme weather conditions, limited palette of available ornamental plants and large, transient population, the UAE remains largely unaffected by international trends in garden design, but thiscould be about to change. More and more designers have identified a broader set of issues that are set to transform gardens in the near future. Most vocal among these is Andrew Wilson, a British designer, author, chief assessor for the Royal Horticultural Society and director of the London College of Garden Design.

One of the key shifts Wilson identifies is a move away from the plant-focused aesthetic that has dominated garden design for the past 300 years: "I refer to it… as the 'horticultural hijack'. Because of our old empire, we travelled the world, found all sorts of amazing plants, brought them back to the UK and they would grow. This richness of planting developed the horticultural sense of what a garden should be."

For Wilson, the contemporary alternative is to take notice of issues such as climate change, which make the plant-focused approach to gardens increasingly unsustainable, and to go back to the future, to a time when the experiences and sensations experienced in a garden were as important as its plants.

"If you went back to Renaissance gardens, they were all about fun, enjoyment, entertainment, the sensory experience of a garden, and I think that's what gardens are going back to being."

Wilson is in illustrious company. In a 2008 debate with the architect Will Alsop, Schwartz also called for designers to understand the bigger picture. "Everybody loves gardens, but they don't understand the issues of the wider landscape. The romantic notion of what landscape is gets completely in the way… We need to do everything we can to reverse the great environmental damage that we've done and create spaces of great beauty and meaning."

For Anne Wareham, a UK gardener, journalist and author of The Bad Tempered Gardener, the contemporary garden should be set free from the grip of "plantaholics", and be transformed into a space governed by ideas, debate and by deeper forms of artistic expression.

Wilson is just as convinced about the need for gardeners and garden designers to lift their heads from the minutiae of horticulture: "What garden designers have to do is to confront this sense of a garden as an exciting, sensory experience of outdoor space, rather than it being a gardening experience or a horticultural experience or a collecting experience. Many gardens are actually just a collection of 'stuff' really… from a design perspective that flies in the face of everything that design is about in terms of coherence and structure and some kind of order."

If spaces based on conceptual principles, sustainability, an experiential sense of the garden and elegant contemporary design are the future, there is no reason why designers and gardeners in the UAE cannot join this international process of change straightaway, even with the limitations of the local market and challenging climatic conditions. Functional, experiential elements such as lighting, swimming pools, water features, barbecues and jacuzzis already tend to dominate designed gardens in the UAE. The secret now is to rebalance this emphasis with a more environmentally sensitive approach and to move beyond the cliched stylistic tropes of the Islamic, Mediterranean and jungle garden.

Twenty-five years ago, gardeners in the American Southwest faced a similar set of challenges to the ones that we do now. The market was dominated by thirsty, exotic plants unsuited to local conditions, water reserves were dwindling and declining in quality, and unsustainable water treatment was on the rise. The response was a shift in gardening and irrigation practices that culminated in a move away from the use of colourful and exotic annuals, biennials and short-lived perennials towards the development of a new, distinctive plant palette based on previously uncultivated and unloved local species.

The result was xeriscaping, a system of gardening, irrigation and landscape design that minimises water use. As well as providing the American Southwest with its own, distinctive gardening style, it helped to create a garden philosophy, industry and aesthetic that is now being used in arid regions across the world, including the UAE.

When the next generation of Abu Dhabi's landscapes, parks and open spaces starts to emerge, guided by sustainable principles, it will become clear that these wider issues have already been influencing design in the public realm for quite some time. Now it is time for private gardeners in the UAE to take these lessons on board, to transform the local market through their purchasing power and, in doing so, create a truly contemporary style of native gardening that will make as distinctive a contribution to the gardening world as its classical Islamic predecessor.

Ask Nick

I've been watering my shaded outdoor pots (mainly frangipani, jasmine and gardenia) every day throughout the summer, but as the temperatures have started to cool a little, I've noticed that the soil in some of them is not drying out as quickly as it was. Is it now time to adjust my schedule, and how often should I water them?

Yes, now is the time to consider adjusting your irrigation regimen. You will still need to water daily for a while, but use significantly less water.

Judge the amount of water required by performing this simple exercise an hour after watering your plants: push a metal rod into the compost. It should slide easily through moist compost but will be almost impossible to push through if it is dry. Then water your plants until you can easily slide the probe to a depth (in this instance) of 400mm. If your plants are not in pots this deep, consider transplanting them.