UAE gardening guide: What to plant and when, from native trees to house plants

Following the seasons helps you create your own green oasis indoors or outdoors

Hibiscus grandiflorus shrubs can be planted even during the warm UAE spring. Getty Images
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Getting into gardening can feel a little overwhelming for novices, with so many things to learn and myriad plant names and terminology to navigate. There’s also the UAE climate to take into account before you can go green-fingered.

Globally, most gardening calendars follow the four seasons – spring, summer, autumn and winter – however, the more subtle seasonal changes in the UAE require a different approach when it comes to cultivating and caring for plants and flowers.

There’s also the matter of space. Whether you live in an apartment or villa, have a garden, balcony or window box, there are plenty of options for creating your own green oasis, big or small, featuring a mix of local indigenous plants and imports.

Speaking to local experts, this guide delves into everything you need to know, from composting to the best times of year to plant, plus effective soil care and native species to choose.

Gardening year-round in the UAE

Taking the weather into consideration is crucial when it comes to considering planting time, species and care, with different plants more suited to certain times of the year.

“In the spring months, there is an array of plants, trees, shrubs and ground cover that work best,” says Rana Ismail, managing partner at Napata Home Gardening & Swimming Pool Services. “The date palm and neem tree are my choices during these months. For shrubs and ground cover, I tend towards Hibiscus grandiflorus and wild petunias, respectively.”

Experts suggest avoiding outdoor planting during June, July and August, which Prity Bhattacharya, owner of Nirvana Gardening Dubai calls “the worst times for any outdoor plantings”, but to wait until the first week of October. “Many nurseries start planting vegetable seeds as early as the first week of August, with other outdoor plantings starting by the first week of October.

“The best time to plant is in winter when the weather is cooler and less hostile,” agrees Will Bennett, founder of Wilden Design. “Plant from October to March for the best results when plants are in a lower state of stress and partially dormant during winter.

“This means they’re using fewer resources for growth, repair or evapotranspiration and are therefore more likely to succeed the bumpy ride from nursery to garden. That said, it is possible to plant throughout the year if you use the right species, mostly natives,” says Bennett.

When it comes to indoor plants, planning is a little simpler, but humidity levels and air conditioning need to be taken into consideration.

“Indoor plants in the UAE are affected by seasons, though the changes might be less pronounced compared to outdoor environments,” says gardening enthusiast Anita Chua, who runs the @urbanjunglehuset Instagram account. “UAE weather is characterised by hot summers and mild to cool winters, which can affect indoor conditions, particularly temperature and humidity that are crucial for plant health.”

Plant care during the summer months

With so much of the UAE year given over to higher temperatures, additional care should be taken when it comes to looking after plants during the hottest months.

“Some plants flourish and their performance improves in one season over another, while the performance of other plants declines to the lowest levels and may enter a state of dormancy,” says Ismail. “The difference in water requirement between winter and summer will be determined by other factors associated with the plant such as type, size and age.”

If you don’t want to watch your garden wilt and die in the summer months, experts suggest measures from introducing shading to not being tempted to overwater.

“For certain plants that are summer sun-sensitive, it's better to put up a shade net or put them under tree shade if available to protect them from direct sun,” says Bhattacharya who regularly posts advice in the Plants Club UAE Facebook group. “The most important factors during summer are plant nutrition and watering. Most plants die here due to overwatering in summer. Too much water doesn't save them from the heat, instead they suffer from root rot. Thus, watering plants just enough when the topsoil feels dry, helps maintain the plant's vigour.”

When it comes to sowing seeds for fruits and vegetable plants, Abu Dhabi-based gardening enthusiast, Harly Sabater reiterates that being aware of the seasons is vital. “Summer is fast approaching and we have a lot of plants that can thrive in the UAE heat such as bougainvillea, elephant bush, desert rose, oleander, olives, asparagus ferns and more.

“Seed sowing usually starts before the cooler months begin if you want to focus on edibles such as vegetables to take advantage of the milder temperature during the growing and flowering phase. Visit the Ministry of Climate Change & Environment website to download a comprehensive guide for vegetable gardening,” says Sabater.

Which native species to choose

The region is awash with native plants and flowers, as well as flora that has been introduced over the years. Unsurprisingly, indigenous species are easier to take care of and hardier during extreme weather.

The date palm, flame tree, acacia, oleander, bougainvillea and aloe vera are just a few that are native to the region and can be found growing wild as well as in cultivated landscapes.

“My favourite native plant is definitely the desert rose because of the bright-coloured flowers and thick trunk that sometimes looks like a full-grown tree,” says Sabater. “It is also low maintenance and can tolerate the desert heat making it an ideal outdoor plant.”

The national tree of the UAE, the ghaf is a favourite for large-scale landscaping projects and home gardens alike thanks to its tolerance to drought. However, Bhattacharya recommends eschewing another of the region’s most recognisable trees, the date palm, when it comes to the home garden.

“They get infected easily by grubs that eat the inside of the tree as well as the roots, such that one day the tree can just fall off,” she says. “It also needs more water on a regular basis compared to others, generally, all palm trees do. It is a high maintenance tree from a cleaning and cutting perspective and will keep shooting smaller palms from the ground or on the trunk of the tree, which can be hazardous.”

For the garden, Bennett suggests dodonea, leptadenia, Encelia farinose and acacia trees. “The default should be native plants,” he says. “It’s staggering that we still see most landscapes and gardens adorned with tropical foliage that can only survive on life-support machines.

“Leptadenia is a true native and has a great Bedouin history for helping make fires. It’s a wild, tall, woody bush that can easily be two or three metres in diameter making it great for bigger gardens or adventurous gardeners who love to be immersed. Many natives thrive in low water and poor soil conditions, so if you’re a low-impact gardener or into sustainable living, you’ll love natives even more.”

Caring for indoor plants in the UAE

You’d be forgiven for thinking that indoor plant care is the same the world over, given that the plants are tucked up inside and not being exposed to the elements. However, caring for indoor plants in the UAE comes with its own set of challenges.

“Since the indoor humidity levels are generally low in the UAE, particularly when air conditioning is used in the summer, many indoor plants, especially tropical varieties, require higher humidity,” says Chua. “Humidity can be increased by using humidifiers, placing water trays near heating or cooling systems, or grouping plants together.”

For plants that can thrive in the continual blast of the air conditioning as well as the winter months, Chua suggests the snake plant and ZZ (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) plant.

“The snake plant is known for its air-purifying qualities and very low-maintenance needs and is excellent for the consistent indoor conditions of the UAE,” she says. “Plus, it tolerates low light and irregular watering, making it ideal for busy or forgetful plant owners. ZZ requires minimal water and prefers indirect light, suiting the often sun-shielded interiors of homes and offices.”

Beginners might want to begin with indoor plants before moving on to care for a window box or outdoor garden. “Easy indoor plants include spider plant, dieffenbachia, peace lily, snake plant, ZZ plant, dracaena and schefflera,” says Sabater.

When selecting indoor plants and deciding on their placement, it's essential to consider lighting, as different plant species have varying light requirements, meaning you should take into consideration the direction nearby windows face.

“South-facing windows provide the most light and are ideal for plants that require bright, direct sunlight such as cacti, succulents and some flowering plants,” says Chua. “East-facing windows offer direct, bright morning sunlight, which is excellent for plants that need moderate light, such as ferns, African violets and orchids.”

Geraniums and begonias will benefit from the stronger evening light from west-facing windows, while the lack of light from north-facing ones are suitable for lowlight species such as snake plants, pothos and peace lilies.

“Indoor gardening is often considered easier than outdoor gardening because it allows for more controlled environment conditions, protecting plants from extreme weather especially in the UAE and pests,” adds Chua. “However, it can be more challenging in terms of ensuring adequate light and air circulation.”

Soil quality, fertiliser and watering

Given how high the mercury can climb in the summer months, it’s important to understand that the searing heat does not necessarily mean plants need more water. Additionally, natural organic fertilisers aren’t negatively affected by the heat the way chemical fertilisers are, which can burn plant roots during the summer.

“Since we live in a desert country, there is practically no soil here,” says Bhattacharya. “We amend sand for our gardening in addition to the ready-made garden soil, which is 80 to 90 per cent cocopeat or peat moss. None of these is fertile on its own, therefore soil amendment is a must.”

Organic fertilisers such as dung or manure are high in nitrogen that helps plants to grow. Liquid humus is another natural option, which stimulates growth and conditions the soil and is especially effective for sandy landscapes.

One of the easiest ways to add nutrients to garden soil is with compost created from household waste. Used coffee grounds, eggshells, pasta, tea bags, fruit and vegetable peelings and scraps and even dryer lint can be composted to benefit your plants.

“Avoid common mistakes such as raking away all leaves and organic matter; these play a vital role in locking in moisture within the soil, decomposing to add nutrients, shading out competitive undesired plants, and creating habitats for insects, small mammals and microorganisms,” says Bennett.

“Many gardens in the UAE are built on, or left with, a lot of construction waste – old concrete, timber, plastic and trash are commonplace. A low-impact approach is to work with this soil rather than against it, and it’s possible to create low-nutrient but high-impact gardens by choosing plants that can be seen growing in rocky conditions such as wadi slopes and mountain tops. Plants such as rhazya, echinops, capparis and dodonea can perform well in these soils.”

To lock in water during the hot months, mulching can help keep soil temperature low. This involves spreading a light, organic material, such as woodchips over the topsoil.

For indoor plants, Chua says: “Ensure pots have good drainage and water only when the topsoil feels dry. Water should reach the roots, so ensure it runs through the drainage holes at the bottom of the pot.”

Updated: May 05, 2024, 4:09 AM