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.

Irrigation of Native and Exotic Trees in Arid Climates

This article first appeared in Pro Landscaper Gulf.   It is based on tree consultancy work I have undertaken in Abu Dhabi in recent years.


Irrigation is taken as a necessity when landscaping in arid climates.  It is a view that I wouldn’t like to completely contradict, yet I have seen a fair bit of evidence that tells me many plantings, and trees especially, are over-watered.  Of equal importance is the fact that many of the irrigation methods are wasteful of water and sometimes damaging to the trees themselves.

 

Tree sprinkler damage

Lawn Watering with sprinklers is damaging the trunk of this Millingtonia

 

We have to discern the different needs of trees and understand that what is necessary for one species is overkill for another.  I particularly speak of natives verses exotics.  Ghaf and Sidr you will see growing wild and without irrigation but imported exotics need a regular supply.  I have seen Ghaf blown over in irrigated plantings, caused by shallow rooting from an easy water supply.

Bacterial wetrot in Delonix

Bacterial wetwood in Delonix regia caused by overwatering. It also reduces the flowering, for which these trees are famous.

How the water is put on is just as important; pop-up sprinklers in lawns can damage the trunks of trees, causing aerial rooting in species like palm or fig, discolouring bark and causing stress-induced rots to occur in others.  Exotics like the Flame tree (Delonix regia) get over-watered, causing a reduction in flowering and a susceptibility to bacterial wetwood (slime flux). Even drip irrigation is not ideal, as it applies the water at the surface and promotes shallow rooting.  Trees with shallow roots are vulnerable to drought and so dependent upon the irrigation supply – a vicious circle.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

Excess surface irrigation is wasteful.

In the UK, we are used to putting in a subterranean irrigation ring around trees, which gets water to the tree roots at a deeper level.  For watering established trees, perforated tubes can be utilised, inserted vertically throughout the root zone and either manually watered, or connected to standard irrigation systems.  Supplying water at a slightly deeper level means less water used and wasted. A word of warning though – most feeding roots occur in the top 300 – 500mm of soil, so watering too deeply can also be wasteful.

Tree roots growing along the line of irrigation pipes

Tree roots growing along the line of surface irrigation pipes

In coastal cities, problems can arise from a naturally high-level, saline water table.  Halophytes (salt tolerant plants) have evolved to cope with this, but for some imported species, salinity can be a problem.  You also have to be aware of the quality of the irrigation water itself, which if drawn from the ground, may have a high saline content. Get your water supply tested if you are unsure.

 

Ultimately, I believe that planting styles and expectations of “landscape” must change.  A more natural style, with more xeriscaping and use of natives or other arid loving plants from different parts of the world (but from similar conditions), will emerge.  More important, in my view, than using strictly native species, is building plant communities that function and thrive in place without much human care or maintenance.  As climate zones shift rapidly around the world, nature cannot keep up and it will be down to us to create landscapes that sit well in their altered environments, whether native or not.  I believe we can do this with considerably less use of irrigation.  The water we do use should then be grey water (from taps and sinks), which is a much better way to conserve processed water use.

Canopy of Delonix regia

Canopy of Delonix regia

The goal has to be minimal water use, natural, ecologically benign planting and urban environments which feed our biophilic needs for connection to nature.

Zizyphus spina-christi

Zizyphus spina-christi, crown of thorns tree. A native of the UAE