Sejal Nagjee, the gardening guru with an eye for open space

UAE residents tend to underutilise their gardens, says landscape designer Sejal Nagjee. Here are a few tips to help take full advantage of your outdoor spaces.

Sejal Nagjee. Courtesy of Milestone
Powered by automated translation

It's not quite the answer I was expecting. I ask Sejal Nagjee, founder and chief designer of the Dubai-based Milestone Gardens and Interiors, about her career so far. "I used to be a professional table tennis player," she answers. "I played table tennis for India for 17 years."

It was only once she retired from the sport in her early thirties that Nagjee developed a taste for design. "I took a sabbatical, which was a very torturous period for me because I didn't know who I was, what to do and how to pass the time if I wasn't connected to sport anymore. So I just started taking some classes."

She enrolled in an interior design course - and hated it. "My mum was a fine artist and my sister is an interior and graphic designer so I had a huge passion for the subject. I had read a lot about it so when I joined the course I found it to be very basic," she recalls.

Next, she took a course in Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. "I started taking exams with the Ohara School of Ikebana in Japan and ended up studying the subject for seven years. I also studied bonsai for four years. Along with that, I launched a company called Pure Joy in Mumbai and started manufacturing floral artefacts."

Nagjee then spent time in London honing her business skills and studying western floral art, but it is the simple, sculptural forms of Ikebana that have turned out to be her true passion.

"Ikebana is a very minimal art and works with very few materials. You might just have three flowers and two leaves and two twigs and a holder and a tray. So how do you put those minimal materials together in a very sculptural form?

"With western floral art, you will put a lot of different kinds of flowers and colours together. I like simplicity, minimalism and space. I don't like things that are overly done, so Ikebana really appealed to me."

And how about those irksome bonsai trees? I wonder if Nagjee, who has studied the Japanese art form for four years,  has any fail-safe tips for keeping them alive? "Bonsais require special training and care," she says. "It takes years of experience to work with bonsai. You have to keep removing the soil, repotting and fertilising regularly. It has to be your hobby. It can't be your gardener's hobby."

In 2003, Nagjee and her family moved to the UAE. She started out in floristry but always wanted to be more than a "simple florist who sells a bouquet for Dh50 and that's that". So she began working with big hotels, creating statement floral arrangements for their public areas, and founded Milestone.

The company has since evolved to offer a full-service offering, with a landscape division that also designs and builds swimming pools, water features, hardscapes, exterior lighting and irrigation systems. There is also a carpentry factory that makes gazebos, pergolas, outdoor fencing and outdoor decking, an interiors division and an accessories unit that sells fresh and artificial plants.

With more than 300 residential projects under her belt, Nagjee says that, in her experience, people in the UAE tend to underutilise their outdoor spaces. "Here, gardens are huge, so to minimise on costs, people end up putting in a huge amount of grass. They feel like they've spent a lot of money on their interiors, so they try to save on the garden."

Instead of introducing seating areas, shade structures and water features, people opt for a large grassy expanse that ends up being "a moneymaking machine for the municipality, which is reflected every month in your DEWA bill".

Instead, Nagjee recommends that garden owners dedicate at least 60 per cent of their outdoor space to "hardscaping", which could include pools, seating and barbecue areas, and play areas for children.

"When you have that hardscaping, you start to utilise your garden properly, which means you are not paying for a chunk of land that never gets used."

It is also important to consider the relationship between your interiors and exteriors, says Nagjee, who often finds herself in homes where there is a tangible disconnect between indoor and outdoor spaces.

"You should connect colour schemes and styles. Think about which doors lead out where and what you will you see from certain windows. If you love standing in the kitchen and looking out, there's no point putting an ugly shed right outside the kitchen window. This extends to room layouts. What's your view from the sofa, for example?"

Plant selection is also important when it comes to creating an attractive, sustainable garden. Don't be lured by the transient beauty of seasonal flowers, Nagjee warns. "A lot of people are enchanted by seasonal flowers because they think they make their gardens look pretty. But there are so many plants that are perennial, and I feel like a garden looks nice when it is green and colourful throughout the year. Only use seasonal flowers to enhance certain pots."

For fragrant flowers, Nagjee recommends gardenia or various types of jasmine; if you're looking for colourful flowers, opt for bougainvillaea, ixora or canna.

Ultimately, with any garden, a little forward planning can go a long way, Nagjee maintains. Even if you cannot afford to introduce all of the features that you want in one go, create a design that is adaptable and will allow you to add elements as you go along.

"Ask yourself, 'How else can I utilise my garden'. If you have a garden, use it tactically. Otherwise, why bother living in a villa; you can live in an apartment and save yourself a lot of money."