Mistletoe gathered from oak trees was utilised by the ancient hunters of Northern Europe to mark the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, when fires were lit to banish the darkness. The Romans also celebrated a winter festival by decorating their homes with greenery, a tradition that has endured as it was adapted and incorporated into religious and secular celebrations. Holly, ivy and evergreen fir trees were cut and brought inside at the point in the year when the plants of Northern Europe would be mostly dormant and laying in wait of the warming rays of spring.
In the Middle East, however, the winter months are a time of growth and abundance in the garden, and represent the peak of the growing season. The reopening of the seasonal farmers’ markets across the UAE is testament to this. It is a point of celebration that there are now more than 50 farms in the UAE that have organic certification and are producing fruit, herbs and vegetables in response to local demand from those who seek information and clarity about the provenance of their food.
Initiatives such as the Ripe Market have grown from strength to strength this year, reflecting shifting attitudes towards the way we buy and consume food. The market has launched a presence in a number of new locations, including Zabeel Park and Al Barsha Pond Park in Dubai, and Mushrif Park and the St Regis Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, as well as pop-up events at the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club (taking place on January 7, February 4 and March 3), and at Jones the Grocer in Al Raha Gardens in Abu Dhabi every Monday.
For those who don’t want to venture too far but are still looking for organic food and vegetables, a growing number of UAE-based farms are now offering delivery services, including Greenheart Organic Farms and Organic Oasis, which will bring fresh, in-season products directly to your door.
Of course, the UAE’s organic farmers face a very specific set of challenges, but “the more you are clever, the more you will survive,” observes Abdalla Al Owais of Modern Organic Farm, reflecting on the particular issues that are inherent to growing organic vegetables in the soil and climate here.
It was with this thought in mind that Laura Allais-Maré founded the Balcony and Urban Gardening Group, known as BUGGS. The group's Facebook membership has risen to almost 4,000 this year. Its page provides a platform for members to share tips, ask for advice and post pictures on all matters garden and growing related.
Allais-Maré realised that social media provided an ideal forum for those with an interest in growing and gardening, and an opportunity to share best practice and experience with those who were looking for a little support for their green fingers and thumbs.
Continuing the theme of sharing knowledge, Slow Food Dubai – led by Allais-Maré – has run a series of well-attended gardening workshops through the year, which have included making your own organic pesticides, the principles of companion planting and soil mixes for planting. The next workshop will take place in January and will focus on organic composting.
The Urban Garden at Time Hotel in Tecom, another Slow Food Dubai initiative, was founded this year to support and educate those with an interest in growing fruit and vegetables sustainably, and creating food forests. A dedicated group of volunteers has been tending the garden since the start of the season, cultivating seeds in the nursery, planting out and watering it twice-a-day to get it established. Their hard work means that, already, the crops on-site include seven varieties of basil, two types of garlic, nine types of lettuce, bitter gourd, curry leaf plants, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, two types of cucumber, okra, aubergine, pomegranate, morning glory, broccoli, rocket, radish, lemongrass, dill, papaya, capsicum, avocado, courgette, beans, bok choi and gem squash.
The latest addition to the garden is a rescued colony of bees, cut from a tree in a Jumeirah garden (branch and all), which was taken to the Urban Garden in a large cardboard box last month and introduced to the hive there. The bees have already taken to their new home and are busy pollinating the various plants of the Urban Garden.
Yemeni honey magnate Riath Hamed, founder of Balqees Honey, reflects on the huge importance bees play in ecosystems and planting schemes everywhere. “You need bees and insects, you can’t get plants to self-pollinate. If these unbelievably important creatures are not being looked after, there are obviously going to be dire consequences to the environment and globally”.
Fortunately, for the time being at least, he believes that local bee colonies are thriving – unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world – which is good news for local honey production, and Hamed, as he embarks on a project to farm honey in an area of Sidr trees in Abu Dhabi.
Just as the UAE’s gardening scene is evolving on a micro-level, so too is it developing on a macro-level. This is particularly evident at Masdar City, which is being developed in response to Estidama, the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council sustainability initiative, and entails planning around landscape architecture, rather than buildings – a key change in approach from the traditional model for urban development.
A large nursery for native and indigenous plants is being developed at the Masdar site in preparation for the planting requirements of the city to come. Incorporating native plants within planting plans will support sustainability with regards to water consumption, as well as introducing new elements into the landscape aesthetic of the Emirates.
Landscape architect Cracknell has also introduced a new style of planting to the UAE’s urban landscape, with the award-winning scheme at The Beach at JBR, where it deployed specimen planting of olive trees as well as Washingtonia palms. The project is an excellent example of how thoughtfully planned outdoor space can influence human behaviour, and encourage people to spend more time outdoors. Cracknell is currently working on the delivery of a project along Dubai Creek, opposite the embassies on Al Seef Road, which it is hoped will be similarly successful in connecting people in the urban landscape.
Another big win for local landscape design this year was the awarding of a silver-gilt medal to designer Kamelia bin Zaal at the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show for her first show garden, "The Beauty of Islam". Zaal is the first Emirati to show a garden at this prestigious event. Much of her work hinges on a simple belief: the importance of connecting with nature. “A garden makes a huge difference to anyone’s life,” she says. “It’s soul enriching. We wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t exist, without plants.”
Britain's ambassador to the UAE, Philip Parham, also reflected on the importance of green space as he took a stroll around the lush and established grounds of the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi, which are regularly used for entertaining, events and perhaps even a little garden diplomacy. “The thing about a garden is that it is a place where you feel, to some extent, that you are creating things. It is building connections, networks and relationships in an environment which is conducive to doing those things.”
But for us, the idea that planting and gardens facilitate relationships and community is perhaps best illustrated in the otherwise-stark surroundings of the industrial area of Al Quoz 2, at Al Showaib Real Estate’s Farhan Camp. Here, Ifzuraham Abdulrashid, a supervisor, tends a garden that is the very definition of an oasis. The streets are abundant with plants of all kinds; grape vines, banana trees, mangoes, lemons and pomegranates flourish, while paint pots and water tanks have been repurposed as planters. This garden project has brought together men from all backgrounds and nationalities for the simple pleasure of planting and watching things grow. It’s a fitting metaphor for how green spaces are emerging and impacting lives across the UAE’s desert landscape.