Planting Design in the Middle-East

Planting design in the Middle-East

The other side of work I undertake in the Middle-East region is planting design, for creating new landscapes always brings me a special joy.  When they are in public spaces, I love the chance it gives to interact (albeit remotely) with many people in place, over time and hopefully, enhance their experience of that place.  In the public realm, what that place is, is being questioned and challenged in the light of urbanisation and climate change.  Ecology and environment are driving design as never before.

I am about to start working on a collaborative project in Saudi Arabia.  It will involve the specification of many trees, shrubs and groundcovers and  I get to find out just how many locally-sourced big specimens I can find that are of acceptable quality.  Much of this will come down to the application of formative pruning in  the nursery and I’ll be on the lookout for the best available in the region.  I suspect I’ll be sourcing a lot from neigbouring UAE, simply because of familiarity of sources.  Quality remains a challenge, though.

Excess Irrigation in a Dubai housing area
Excess Irrigation in a Dubai housing area

My most pressing concern I have is how to improve on irrigation  techniques, which are traditionally massed  surface drip lines onto marginally improved sand.  This is inefficient and wasteful and I shall be looking at the use of moisture retention mediums and sub-surface irrigation.  I believe most watering of landscapes in arid climates could be cut by half, just by more efficient application and retention, in the right place.  The picture above shows  typical wastage in a Dubai suburban landscape.

Whilst urban planting requires urban plants, I will also be looking at the use of more climate-adaptive species, which I think is important in an era of climate crisis; the Middle-East is going to struggle to cope with every degree of temperature increase.  The use of more desert-adapted planting is not new, and not applicable everywhere but I believe there is much scope for experimentation and new thinking.

The power and the beauty
The power and the beauty

For me, planting design is about building communities, layering types of plants together in harmonious associations that fit.  I don’t mind grouping plants together that come from different geographical regions, but they have to come from a similar ecological niche.  Such design is so much more than just nice foliage contrasts and I believe the results can be subtle, but profound.

Landscape must, of course, fit our purpose but I believe we tend to pursue this end to the exclusion of everything else.  Nature is the basis of landscape, and so too is ecology, ecosystem and planet.  We should not divorce our landscapes from this reality; rather, they should always seek to remind us of these connections.  So yes, in town centres and urban streets, we have our eco-bling landscapes; vibrant places, exotic, heady, purfumed, exciting.  Nature at it’s most unbelievably flamboyant (cue pic: delonix, the flamboyant tree).  Elsewhere, we need more grounded landscapes, more real, more connected to place.

Delonix regia, the flamboyant tree
Delonix regia, the flamboyant tree

I love this tree, it is everything I have described above, pure eco-bling.  Yet it is not appropriate everywhere and because it has become a part of the standard landscape palette, I belive it is overused, and used in places where other species would be more appropriate.   I think there are many trees and shrubs that could be used in the region that haven’t been tried yet, from East Africa, for example.  The climate there may be less harsh and more varied but it is not so remote or different as that of some exotics imported from sub-tropical climates (the Delonix mentioned above is from Madagascar, again not too dissimilar).

I think planting design in the Middle-East faces a whole new range of challenges and opportunities.  The changing climate will force new thinking, to match the new development and the new understanding that is emerging of our intimate relationship with nature.  I’m hoping to contribute towards that new expression and understanding.

Pruning of Broadleaf Trees in the UAE

Split branch in mature ghaf, fallen int its neighbour

I have said elsewhere that the landscapes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi are growing (no pun intended) at an extraordinary rate and that the knowledge and skills needed to care for the landscapes as they mature are not keeping pace.  This is especially true when it comes to trees.

Palm trees are familiar to the region as a crop tree; they are tough, easy to move without too much worry and of simple form which does not necessitate any complex pruning.  Broadleaf trees however, demand more than the crude lopping they are so often subject to, especially in urban spaces where there are issues of health and safety.  Bad pruning, but also lack of pruning can lead to dangerous conditions.

The following two pictures show dangers from no pruning care taken:

Delonix split branch
Lack of awareness – split Delonix branch over public path. Here, lack of any pruning leads to a potential danger to the public.
Years of neglect for these trees
A fallen Albizia tangled into a Ficus – caused by years of neglect

Often a tree’s lifespan and health are determined even before they are planted on a site. Many problems come from lack of formative pruning right at the nursery stage and roots may be damaged during lifting or potting on.

Poor care at the nursery stage has caused significant damage
Poor care at the nursery stage has caused significant damage. The tree may never regain its health or vigour.
Lack of care and attention in the nursery has damaged these trees for life
Lack of care and attention in the nursery has damaged these trees; pruning to correct poor shape is easy if done when very young, difficult to correct in trees like these (removing one of the co-dominant stems in the left picture will unbalance the tree, leaving it will ensure future failure). Such faults left in the tree, however,  may be impossible to alter as it matures.  It doesn’t need training to know that you remove tree-ties before they get trapped.

So many trees are off to a poor start before they are even planted but once they are, environmental factors will kick in.  How well they are planted and irrigated will effect their health.  Assuming they survive and grow (and the average life-span of a UK planted urban tree is less than 10 years) then they have to cope with the occasional pruning that they are given and the damage that this may cause.

We have to understand that trees never heal.  They survive damage by a process of isolation, or compartmentalisation, whereby cells surrounding damage isolate this area from the remaining areas of the tree.  Unfortunately, bad pruning tends to rip right through these natural defenses, opening up the tree to infection and decay.  Key to this is understanding the correct and   way to place cuts.  Here’s how you DON’T do it:

Stubs with tears on a Delonix caused by incorrect pruning methods
Stubs with tears on a Delonix caused by incorrect pruning methods. Tears have ripped through the collar.
Incorrect pruning has torn through the collar and the natural defense mechanism of this ghaf
Incorrect pruning has torn through the collar and the natural defense mechanism of this ghaf
These may "only" be damas trees (and best not planted) but this is still a terrible abuse
These may “only” be damas trees (and best not planted) but this is still a terrible abuse. Excuse the poor photo, snapped in Abu Dhabi.

All these abuses and bad practices can be seen anywhere in the world, even in the UK which has a thriving profession of arboriculture.  Trees in hot climates are critical, however, to the health of people and the city overall.  As the landscapes of our modern cities and mega-cities continue to grow, and the effects of climate change become more severe, we need to look after our trees – everywhere – to a much higher standard than our current levels.

Trees deserve our respect – and our thoughtful care.  More, they deserve active and knowledgeable management and the correct level of arboricultural skill and care to ensure they thrive and serve us, and our built environments, as best they can.  The more we give, the more we get back.