Step into Dubai Garden Centre on Sheikh Zayed Road on any Friday or Saturday morning and it’s clear from the lack of elbow room that plenty of Dubai’s residents are blessed with green fingers. However, thanks to the harsh summer climate and lack of rain, gardening in the UAE is an art, and one that only really blossoms from November until late March (the folk at Dubai Garden Centre tell us their custom peaks during this time too). Want to spruce up your window box or overhaul your shrubbery? Now is the perfect time. Here we meet keen gardeners and experts to gather as many tips as possible, as well as find out how to make sure your patch of green is sustainable. Whether you’re in an apartment or a behemoth villa, there is advice here for you.
The green-fingered guru
Local gardening pro Nehme Moujaess on how to green your outdoor space, no matter what the size.
When it comes to gardening and keeping plants, it’s never one-size-fits-all, especially in Dubai: only a lucky few have gardens, most people have balconies, and some simply prefer to keep indoor plants. So what kind of foliage should you opt for? ‘It has to be a heat-tolerant plant that can survive the Gulf climate,’ explains 42-year-old Lebanese expat Nehme Moujaess, managing director of Dubai landscape gardening firm TerraVerde. Unsurprisingly, he recommends palms as a safe bet for gardens, but warns that certain palm species can’t tolerate Dubai’s hot, dry climate, so advises consulting a professional landscaper before buying.
To add colour, he recommends bougainvillea. ‘Smaller plants such as phoenix or gardenias work in shaded areas, but they won’t survive in the sun. Ficus plants also work well on balconies,’ he explains, adding that most species of cactus are perfect in any situation here. ‘Cacti require the absolute minimum amount of care – they’re the toughest plants and can take care of themselves in this weather. They’re not that attractive, but God created this plant for these weather conditions! In Europe you see dark green conifers because you have water, whereas here we have light plants, and it’s all related to the climatic conditions – they’ve adapted over thousands of years.’
Starting from scratch sounds expensive – but does it need to be? ‘You need to do your research,’ says Moujaess. ‘You could waste money spraying for an insect that doesn’t exist, or buying plants that die.’ If you’re feeling thrifty, hit the nurseries just off Al Awir Road, where plant prices start at Dhs4, rising to more than Dhs6,000 for specially imported 150-year-old Lebanese olive trees.
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Perfect plants to grow in Dubai right now
Horticulture expert Anne Love, author of Gardening in the UAE and Oman, give us her top options for the garden and the home.
Best for indoor blooms: Orchids
‘These grow really well at temperatures of between 18°C and 24°C, which is often the indoor temperature in Dubai houses. They don’t mind the low light levels from tinted windows and are very easy to look after: they simply need to be kept moist. Plunge the pot into a bowl of water for 15 minutes or so, then drain and put back in the outer pot. Use orchid feed or very diluted fertiliser in the spring, when they should flower, then keep them moist for the rest of the year. They can be put outside in the shade during winter, but need to be indoors over summer. They come in lovely colours, from white through to pink, mauve and red. The most common (and probably the easiest to nurture) is the Moth Orchid Phalanopsis.’
Best for shady homes: Caladium
‘Also called “elephants’ ears”, this plant has huge, brightly coloured leaves – hence the name. There are three common colours: pink and green; dark red and green; or green and white. They love shade and humidity and grow quickly, so feed them frequently with plant food to produce new leaves. If the plant gets too big, the tuber can be dug up and divided into separate pots. Caladium will also grow outdoors in the shade during the winter months.’
Best for lazy gardeners: Dieffenbacchia
‘This really hardy indoor plant is seen everywhere. It has large leaves rising from a strong upright stem. There are dozens of different colours: leaves have splashes of white or yellow on a green background. It is amazingly drought resistant, but regular watering and feeding is advised for the best results.’
Surprisingly, there are dozens of plants that can be grown outside in Dubai. The only species that don’t do so well are plants that need a cool night-time temperature, such as sweet peas or plants from California or
South Africa. Dubai Municipality uses lots of petunias and zinnias, which are very reliable and produce wonderful winter displays. Other plants to consider are:
Best for rock gardens: Alyssum
‘This small trailing plant comes in shades of white, pink and mauve, and is often found in north Africa and the Mediterranean. It has a long flowering period and is very easy to grow from seed, which is available in Dubai.’
Best for balcony pots: Coleus
‘Renowned for its wonderful coloured leaves, it is best grown in part or full shade, and flourishes in a pot.’
Best for covering fences: Ipomoea group (Morning Glory)
‘This is an annual, meaning it grows for just one year, and is a great climber for a pot or open ground. The large seeds germinate quickly and easily. There are several different types: one of the best is Ipomoea Tricolour, which is a heavenly blue shade and has sky-coloured petals that flower throughout the day (unlike most morning glory, hence the name). Another option is Ipomea Alba, which flowers at night and has scented white flowers: it looks great in a pot on the patio where you can enjoy the fragrance.’
A full range or winter annuals can be found in Anne Love’s book, Gardening in Oman and the UAE, available at Dubai Garden Centre and Magrudys, Dhs80.
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Horticulturalist Anne Love reveals how to make your garden as environmentally friendly as possible.
Don’t damage a natural ecosystem in a bid to create your own, more aesthetically pleasing one: it’s vital to be responsible when planning or tweaking your garden. We spoke to 58-year-old Brit Anne Love, author of Gardening in Oman and the UAE, for her six key tips on how to make your Dubai garden as ‘green’ as possible.
1 Don’t grow grass. ‘This is the thirstiest ground cover possible – all other plants and ground cover are measured against it. Use pebbles, artificial grass or less thirsty ground cover such as lantana – the white, yellow and purple varieties are “low growing”. Other ground cover options are alternanthera, sesuvium or tradescantia.’
2 Grow low-maintenance plants. ‘One of the easiest native plants to grow is the desert rose, also known as “adenium”.’
3 Make your own compost. ‘The one thing you need for composting is heat, and that’s in plentiful supply here. For the easiest method, buy some wire mesh and make a tube. On the outside, attach some plastic to keep the moisture in – compost bags don’t disintegrate as quickly as bin liners. Now pile up all your leaves and other green matter, making sure it’s moist, then place it in the tube and cover it to preserve moisture. Wait two weeks, all the while adding new material and giving the contents a hose down. Then lift the tube up to release the decomposting material, and use a fork to shovel it back into the tube. This mixes it all up and adds air, which speeds up the composting process.’
4 Place pebbles around the base of plants. ‘This protects their roots from the heat and preserves moisture.’
5 Install a drip irrigation system. ‘It may seem like an inconvenience at first, but this system will ultimately be 30 per cent less wasteful than hand watering.’
6 Design a desert garden. ‘Why not just forget about trying to create a traditional European or Asian garden in the Middle East, and embrace the natural landscape? Create your own desert garden using boulders, rocks and a few native plants.’ Try the prickly pear cactus, palms and aloe vera.
What they are, and what to do
There’s no point getting stressed about cockroaches and the like – these are the kind of creepy crawlies you should expect to see in the garden throughout the year. ‘The most dangerous pest in the Gulf now is the red palm weevil, which is infesting the red palm trees,’ explains Nehme Moujaess from landscaping group TerraVerde. ‘This is becoming very dangerous. It makes holes in the palm, then the palm dies.’ So how to put an end to this savage rampage? ‘There are many ways, either by injection or putting serum in the plant, but you need to contact a specialist.’ Try Benchmark Pest Control (www.pestprouae.com,
04 235 5937).
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