Al Barari’s lush gardens

Outside the Bromellia show home in Dubai, a property developer has achieved his lifelong dream of creating a lavish, sustainable garden in the desert.

Dubai, 7th October 2010.  The Bromellia garden in Al Barari villa.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)
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For Zaal Mohammed Zaal it has always been the gardens that surrounded his projects rather than the bricks and mortar that ignited his creative and emotional passions.
The property developer's lifelong dream was to plant an Eden-esque garden of a magnitude never attempted before in the locale – a dream that was realised with the development of Al Barari, a 1.3-million-square-metre oasis just a few kilometres from one of Dubai's bustling commercial and business sectors.
Of course there was an added housing component – in fact, one of the most luxurious collections of villas ever to come onto the local property market – but still, "the heart of the project is the garden", Zaal has always maintained.
Two and a half years after Al Barari's extensive landscaping was implemented – following years of experimentation to see how exactly "lush" can be properly, sustainably achieved in the arid desert – that vision is as incisive as ever and neatly embodied in the gardens of the development's sumptuous Bromellia show home, a flourishing, fertile idyll envisioned by Zaal, his daughter Kamelia and her team from Sustainable Earth, the landscaping company that has pioneered solutions to Al Barari's multiple visionary, technical and ecological challenges.
"The concept for the Bromellia was tranquillity," says Robert Rye, the senior landscaper with Sustainable Earth. "Our brief was to make it a retreat for the home's eventual residents and a haven for natural wildlife. Overall, there was to be a natural approach with nothing too formal."
The brief has been executed to perfection: it is the sounds of abundant bird life and flowing water that initially invite visitors into Bromellia's gardens – and even on the most scorching, steamy day there is the sense that this is a place to linger, to relax and to "be" rather than a space that is merely a transitory space to propel visitors and residents from outside to in.
"That duality of living both inside and outside was an intrinsic part of the project," explains Rye. "The Zaals were very insistent that the garden was to be very much entwined with the lifestyle of Barari so there are features that you simply wouldn't find elsewhere."
Like the two lavish sunken pavilions that beckon garden dwellers into hours of repose, their billowing muslin drapes and soft cushions affording quiet relaxation before or after a swim in the chilled swimming pool.
Given the opulence of Bromellia, the materials used in the landscaping of the pathways, pools and seating areas are surprisingly organic – rustic stone and wood in the main: "This garden is about a simple luxury," Rye explains. "Yes, it's very exclusive but it's a place for people to really live and enjoy without their spaces being too formal."
The garden's plantings, although seemingly placed with abandon, were central to the success of the space: "We tried to get away from the usual predictable trees and shrubs of the UAE and so brought a lot of plants from countries with a similar hot climate, such as India, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia," explains Rye. "We carried out around three years of tests before the garden was planted to see what would work and what wouldn't. It was trial and error but I'd say 80 per cent of what we tried was successful."
So, punctuating the green canopy of Bromellia's shady spaces are tabulia trees that bloom with stunning orange flowers all year round; shrubs such as Tacoma and lilac Vitex, planted to attract dragonflies, migrating birds and numerous winged visitors from the nearby Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary.
As gloriously as Bromellia's garden – and indeed the acres beyond – wallow with abundant vegetation, there is the niggling feeling that, given the UAE's reputation for environmental profligacy, this is just not a natural or sustainable state of affairs for a garden in the middle of the desert.
"You could say anything you do in the desert should not be sustainable but a lot of research went into water-saving and the re-circulation of the grey and black waters of the development," says Rye. "Eventually we will have 70 per cent total payback on our water usage with the remaining 30 per cent recyclable. In addition, all our green waste is taken to make into compost and wood made into mulch – we are simply as sustainable as we can be."
Given that Bromellia's residents can heave a sigh of relief that their garden isn't being too much of an environmental burden, they revel in the knowledge their home is simply designed to turn "inside out" when the weather permits – onto shady terraces, barbecue areas and the main pool. All the downstairs rooms feature bi-fold doors that allow the garden to simply become an extension of the house in the cooler months; some, like the master bathroom take this concept to the extreme. "We call the space that extends from the ground floor master bathroom the mashrabiya, since it is separated from the main garden by the Arabic wood-carved screens of the same name," says Rye.
This spa-like space houses an outdoor massage table, plunge pool-cum-Jacuzzi and a daybed where husband and wife can enjoy a little "us" time, away from hectic family life: it's a perfect example of that blurring of indoor/outdoor living and, according to Rye, a real selling point for Al Barari residents.
Should residents of Bromellia ever feel the need to stray beyond their boundary walls, there's a similar array of sensory delights in Al Barari's communal spaces. Here, they'll find almost seven kilometres of waterways, broken up by bridges, limpid pools and burbling brooks. Cosy seating areas complete with scatter cushions are tucked away just waiting to be discovered by a resident who simply wants to get away from it all for a few hours.
"It's not your average back yard," agrees Rye. But the gardens – both private and public – are what lie at the centre of the Al Barari ethos. "It's about making the most of the community. The garden is not just a space to use occasionally. It's a much bigger, and more important, part of life here than that."