Dubai gardens competition showcases inspiring outdoor spaces

The winners of Emaar's sixth annual garden contest revealed some of the best-kept yards in the emirate. Selina Denman takes a look at three of the winners.

Best Variety and Creative Garden - Emirates Hills // Graeme Oliver. Antonie Robertson / The National
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Best Variety and Creative Garden - Emirates Hills // Graeme Oliver

Whether he's on the golf course or driving around town, Graeme Oliver is always on the lookout for new ideas to implement in his garden.

"You can learn a lot on the golf course," he says. "I always talk to the guys doing the work there. When they're doing things to the grass, like slitting or cutting it, you should come home and do the same. Likewise, when you're driving around the roundabouts, you should look at what flowers they are putting in. You need to watch and learn."

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An engineer with Emirates, Graeme is in the process of converting his long-standing love of gardening into a possible second career. He is currently doing a long-distance learning course in landscaping design and once he retires, hopes to take on professional projects.

For the time being, however, he is focusing on his own garden in the Meadows. A constant work in progress, the garden has undergone countless transformations since Graeme moved into his home seven years ago. "My friends jokingly ask me, 'what version are you on now, 46 or 47?'"

Since starting his course, Graeme has used his garden as a test bed for the concepts he is studying. A raised bed at the front of the house and a pond at the back are particularly striking by-products of courses he has already completed.

"One of the projects was to build a pond and then grow plants in it. It was very difficult because the water has to be just right and the soil has to be just right."

Graeme introduced Nymphaea lotus, or the Egyptian white water lily, into the pond and complemented it with a simple fountain and a small wooden bridge.

"The bridge was an afterthought. I had the pond all made and the rocks were all done and I thought, 'What final touch will make it that little bit better?' I went down to the old boatyard on the Creek and showed someone a picture of what I wanted and asked if they could make it for me," Graeme explains.

Another striking feature is a towering Tabebuia Argentina tree, nicknamed "mother's tree" in honour of Graeme's mother who was visiting when it was being planted. A wooden bench circles the trunk of the tree, creating a welcome seating area in the centre of the garden.

In last year's Emirates in Bloom garden competition, Graeme was criticised for not having enough colour in his garden, so this was a focus area this year. He introduced frangipani, thuya and flame trees, along with desert roses, exora plants, various types of palms and low lying flowers that would add colour and character to the space. Around the perimetre, a thick, slow growing hedge acts a sound barrier, as well as a home for nesting birds. "This garden is great for wildlife," says Graeme.

With half of his garden now complete, Graeme's project for this year is the other half. And after that, he'll probably get to work on versions 48 and 49.

"A garden is never finished," he says. "It's always a work in progress."

Best Large Garden - Emirates Hills // Harvey & Leonorah Boulter

Having lived in Hong Kong for 17 years before moving to Dubai, Harvey and Leonorah Boulter were keen to create a tropical feel in the garden of their new Emirates Hills home.

"We lived in Hong Kong which is very tropical, and surrounded by mountains and greenery. When we moved to Dubai, which is a desert landscape, we wanted to create a little piece of the tropics here," says Leonorah. "We wanted to create a 'forest' part of the garden that was lush and green, so when you walked out into the garden, you felt like you were in a tropical environment."

The garden was envisaged as an extension of the house, Leonorah explains. "Every part of the house walks out on to the garden and our windows are specially designed so you always see greenery. Inside becomes outside and vice versa. Bringing nature closer is very important for one's well-being," she says.

The couple worked with American designer Melissa Greenauer on the concept for the garden, and then with Jeff Hicks of the Dubai-based Desert Group on the implementation.

Overgrown and abundant, this is a garden where jasmine plants scale walls, bird nests abound and paths disappear into the foliage. A 2,000-year-old olive tree towers over a stone seating area complete with a fire pit. There is also a day-bed area dominated by an oversized wooden bench that Leonorah acquired in Bali 20 years ago. In order to create a forest-like effect, the team adopted large, mature trees from Dubai-based construction projects that were being discontinued - giving the trees a second lease on life.

"We also have a bit of a fragrant garden going on. I was very set on growing our own herbs and spices and veggies. Who would have thought that you could actually grow your own lemons or papayas here? But with a bit of love and TLC, you can."

The most important parts of the garden, however, are the countless features designed specifically for the Boulters' three children, Armand, seven, and four-year-old twins Lucas and Samara. There is a four-tier wooden tree house, a fully air-conditioned dollhouse, a large sandpit and an oak tree with a tyre attached to it.

"We wanted to create a garden where our kids could play," says Leonorah.

At the heart of the garden is a large resort-style swimming pool that is split into two. "There's the kiddies pool which is only about a metre deep and then the deeper pool which is for adults. I'm not much of a sun-tanning person but I love to sit outside and listen to the birds. We have really tried to encourage birds and wildlife," says Leonorah.

"This is a really family-orientated garden that gives everybody a bit of pleasure."

A strong believer in feng shui, Leonorah hired an expert to make sure that the ancient Chinese system's principles were incorporated into the garden, as well as the house. For example, wind chimes were introduced into "dead" parts of the garden, while slow-moving water was introduced in other areas. "I think a garden reflects how healthy one's inner being is," Leonorah concludes."If you are happy and you can exude happiness and love, your garden does well."

Best Large Garden - Arabian Ranches // Jackie Daair

When Jackie Daair and her husband moved into their new house in Dubai's Arabian Ranches nearly two years ago, they had a clear idea of what they wanted their garden to look like.

"The house looks a bit Spanish, with a lot of arches and things, so we wanted something that was in keeping with the style of the house," Jackie says. "We love the gardens that you see in Andalusia, especially in places like the Alhambra. That was the type of thing we were aiming for."

Both keen gardeners, the couple had always wanted a house with a large outdoor space, and were happy to be able to finally put some of their landscaping ideas into practice. They enlisted the help of Hennessey, a Dubai-based building, fit-out and landscaping company.

"When we bought the house it was completely bare. It was brand new so it was just sand. It obviously needed a lot of work so we got a contractor in," Jackie explains. "We had a good idea of what we wanted, so we told Hennessey and they drew up some drawings and made some suggestions."

Jackie's research into the Alhambra introduced her to the idea of geometric, Islamic-style gardens developed around a central water feature.

"It's very common to have a water feature and four pathways, which is meant to represent the four rivers of life. So that's what we wanted."

As a result, in the centre of the Daairs' front garden, water spills out of a large bronze bowl set within a square pool.

Four pathways lead away from the pool, carving the garden up into four distinct areas. In each of these areas, silver conocarpus trees mingle with bougainvillaea and Indian jasmine.

Offering fitting symmetry, the back garden is also anchored by a water feature - a long rectangular reflecting pool that perfectly encapsulates the Moorish feel that the Daairs were aiming for. "The community swimming pool is located right next door to the house so we didn't want to put a swimming pool in here; we were much more interested in the garden."

Instead of a swimming pool, the Daairs opted for a Jacuzzi, which they placed at the edge of the garden so it would look over the Arabian Ranches golf course. The house backs directly on to the course and Hennessey was careful to ensure that views of it remained largely unobstructed.

The garden is also home to a citrus grove, a collection of eight orange, lemon and grapefruit trees. Elsewhere, olive trees add to the Andalusian theme.

"We were trying to avoid having too standard an approach," Jackie concludes.

"We deliberately didn't put too many palm trees in. We wanted it to look more Mediterranean than Arabic, really."

The winners

Best large garden

Arabian Ranches: Jackie Daair

Emirates Hills: Leonorah and Harvey Boulter

Best small garden

Arabian Ranches: Siobhan O'Reilly

Emirates Hills: Shidrukh Rouhani

Best variety and creative garden

Arabian Ranches: Lars Schoyen

Emirates Hills: Graeme Oliver