Cultivating creativity

The first ever Dubai International Garden Competition was held at the Venue in Downtown Dubai and attracted designers, judges and exhibitors from all around the world for the event.

A view of the Pearl Garden by Terraverde at the Dubai International Graden Competition in Dubai. The entry was judged Best in Show. Ravindranath K / The National
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Minimalist and maximalist, tropical and arid, water-wise and environmentally carefree, there was a garden to suit every taste at the first-ever Dubai International Garden Competition (DIGC), which ended on Sunday.

There were very few surprises, but Dubai did what it does best by building 13 show gardens in just five days. The Dubai Miracle Garden ran true to form with a floral car, floral hearts and an irrigating clown, while the designers from Toscana Landscaping & Pools attempted to push the boundaries of the UAE’s limited planting palette by including lesser known varieties of already established plants. A delicate, flowering acacia tree and an unusual, fruiting jatropha particularly caught the eye; it was just a shame that neither were labelled to aid visitors with their identification.

The event certainly lived up to its name, attracting designers, judges and exhibitors from as far afield as India, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom. Billed as Dubai’s answer to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show, the DIGC took shape at The Venue, a vacant lot in Downtown Dubai overlooked by the world’s tallest tower.

“If we can create the Burj Khalifa, which is one of the best buildings in the world, then we want to show people that we can create one of the best garden shows as well,” Nadeem Abbas, the director of Purelife Events, the competition organiser, told me. “What it has taken the Chelsea Flower Show 100 years to achieve, we want to achieve in five.”

On the show’s opening morning, Abbas’s remarks seemed like hubris as temperatures topped 38°C and the competition site remained stubbornly visitor-free. One exhibitor even took pity on the security team, issuing a pastel-coloured paper parasol to each of the guards, while all but the most competitive — or those with the few stands and gardens that were blessed with shade — withdrew to nearby cafes while the judging team made their way slowly and systematically around the competition’s 13 show gardens.

The winning gardens in seven categories were not announced until the end of the penultimate day, but the assembled judging panel was a formidable one, including: the Italian landscape architect Elisabetta Sari and four-time Chelsea Flower show medallist Jo Thompson, who focused on design, while Kamelia Zaal, the creative landscape director of Dubai-based Al Barari Firm Management, and Muhammad Jayyoussi, Emaar’s manager for soft landscape and irrigation, provided local expertise. They were joined by Phil Evans, a UK-based horticultural publisher, journalist and pundit, and David Dodd, a member of the RHS Chelsea Flower Show garden selection panel and an expert in garden construction who has won 15 medals for RHS show gardens throughout his illustrious career.

“There was a clear outright winner for each garden category — large, medium and small — it was simply a matter of choosing the garden with the highest score,” explained Emirati judge Kamelia Zaal. “But when it came to best in show, the decision was really close. The judges felt that Terraverde’s Pearl Garden was the best — and it should certainly set the benchmark for the future — but we also really liked the fusion of Islamic and Zen gardening in the Zen Garden by Al Meamar Landscapes, which was completed on a fraction of the budget. We were so impressed with it; we thought it was beautiful.”

Both competitors approached the competition in a very different way — visually and conceptually they were polar opposites — but each resulted in garden design that displayed an intelligence that appealed to the judges. So much so that both gardens received two prizes: Terraverde’s Pearl Garden was awarded Best Large Garden and Best Garden in Show, while Al Meamar’s Zen Garden won Best Small Garden and a special commendation award from the judging panel.

Terraverde’s managing director and lead designer, Nehme Moujaess, set out to impress with a large, lush garden that was densely planted with exotic palms and bamboo, while Al Meamar Landscape’s Fouad Ahmed created an almost plant-free gravel garden that emphasised ease of construction, maintenance and use.

Moujaess admitted that the effect of his garden, rather than its budget, was his prime consideration. “We worked for two months on this garden and the whole company was involved, from labourers to directors. All of the main structures were prepared in our warehouses. We customised the water features so that all of the pumps, the internal finishes, and everything was already done in one unit that could be lifted into place by crane.” Moujaess explained: “What we wanted to tell the judges is that in Dubai, the impossible becomes possible.”

Even with all the off-site preparation, it still took 14 Terraverde employees more than 1,400 hours to build the garden on site. In contrast, Al Meamar Landscape’s Zen Garden was produced under very different circumstances. “I was given our plot two days before the competition started,” explained Ahmed, an architect from Toronto who has been working in Dubai for the past five years. “I sketched the design on a piece of paper on the organiser’s desk. He really liked it, and he asked me to give it a shot. We had a constrained site and a limited budget so we wanted to do everything we could do to stand out.”

“I’m really overly fussy about construction and plant quality. I can’t help but spot faults,” explains UK-based judge Dodd, who is building three gardens at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. “However, bearing in mind that the competitors have only had five days to turn their gardens around, the quality here is much higher than I expected. Some of the designs were let down by the quality of construction, but I think that was mostly a matter of the time constraint.”

Thompson, who has experience of garden competitions in Japan and Europe as well as the UK, was equally impressed with the standard of many of the gardens at the DIGC.

“I haven’t seen that level of design and build very often in a foreign show. It wasn’t all about the people who had spent the money were going to win a prize. What was good about the selection was that there was a real range of gardens and a lot of the gardens had huge interest for people at the show.”

The 2,800 people who visited the show over the four days were all invited to vote for a People’s Choice Garden. For Lebanese housewives Nasrine Dirany and Shaden Saleh, there was only one obvious and immediate winner. “There are some very nice gardens here, but I chose the Terraverde garden,” Dirany admitted. “I love the concept and the finishes. It feels like a resort.”

Saleh agreed with her friend’s decision but for her, inspiration came from the various planting schemes on display.

“If you see the plants outside, you don’t see them in the way you see them here, working in harmony. I use my garden for entertaining, for barbecues and for special occasions, and the thing that I like about this show is that, even if you rent your house, it shows you that it’s possible to do something nice with your garden even on an acceptable budget.”

Purelife’s Abbas is already looking ahead to next year’s show.

“We need a better location that’s more accessible to the public. We’re also planning to run the 2015 competition in January to coincide with the Dubai Shopping Festival and hope to make it four times bigger, with a floral competition as well as a garden competition and exhibits by plant growers.”

Judge Dodd is equally optimistic.

“I’m really interested to see how landscaping in Dubai develops from this show. The future looks really promising and I think the show will grow from strength to strength. It will certainly attract more and more international attention as Dubai heads towards Expo. I certainly think the talent is certainly here; it just needs polishing.”