Gardening isn’t the most likely of pastimes in the dry, barren Middle East, yet as Anne Love shows in her new book, Gardening in the UAE and Oman, the region is actually well suited to green-fingered pursuits – as long as you have the know-how.
What struck Anne when she first arrived in the region in the late ’80s was that no one seemed to know the names of the plants or how to take care of them. She looked for a book about gardening written specifically for this region and found there weren’t any. ‘I was writing a gardening column for local magazine Oman Today, and somebody suggested I should keep all my articles and use them like a book. It made me think: Why don’t I actually write a book?’
Anne’s background in horticulture stems from her UK school days. ‘I went to a small school run by two ladies; one was a fantastic gardener, so the school had lovely gardens and the building itself always had plants, bulbs and seeds growing indoors,’ she explains. ‘To this day I can remember a border of beautiful flowers and thinking they were wonderful.’ She was so inspired that she undertook a course in bio-geography at Newcastle University, followed by an MSc in agriculture. After moving from the UK to Oman, she started to look for ways to apply her passion in a different environment.
Anne’s first book, Gardening in Oman and the Gulf, was published in 1995, but she and her family left Oman before she could oversee its distribution. By the time she returned to the region, in 2008, the book had gone out of print, so she set about writing a new one. ‘Things have changed a lot in 15 years,’ she says. ‘Before, most of the garden plants came from India. Now they come from all over the world: Thailand, Australia, North and South America. Also, now, new [digital] technology allows the inclusion of lots of pictures, so the new book has more than 250 photographs.’
Needless to say, gardening here is wildly different to back in the UK – the temperature and seasonal differences being two major factors affecting what can and cannot be grown. For Anne, however, this is what makes gardening here so rewarding. She says that in spite of the heat and poor soil, plants can still thrive. ‘One of the biggest challenges here is that you need to feed your plants regularly. The sandy soil has zero nutrients, and what little it does have is washed through. But during the winter, the annuals you can grow are a joy. Just look at the roundabouts and grass verges – petunias, zinnias, vinca and many more all flourish. Even if you have space for only one pot, you can have a gorgeous plant with minimum effort, which will flower for months at a time.’ Anne says that ‘climbers’ also grow well here – her particular favourite being the orange trumpet-flowered climber Campsis, which she says will cover a four-storey house in a few years. What’s more, it flowers pretty much all summer, when other plants are subdued by the heat.
We ask Anne about the much-publicised water shortages in the UAE, with many residential complexes not having enough water for pools, let alone gardens – is there a way to care for a garden without using a disproportionate amount of water? ‘Grass is the most thirsty plant of all,’ says Anne. ‘So not having a lawn is a big saving. Irrigating effectively and efficiently, by using irrigation pipes and drippers, is another huge saving. Hand-watering is really wasteful – even the biggest trees require less water than two cycles of a washing machine, and other plants use far less than washing your car daily.’
But what Anne ultimately hopes to express in her book is that gardening is a great way to feel at home in a transient expat culture. ‘You may not [want to] invest in local property, but you can invest in the outdoor space – it makes you feel more in touch with the country in which you are living.’
Gardening in the UAE and Oman is available at Dubai Garden Centre, Borders, Magrudy’s and Spinneys. Contact Anne directly at email@example.com.