Landscaping firms face a bright and ‘green’ future across Dubai

In order to maintain the image of luxury long after the cranes have gone, landscaping contractors are getting ready for a green-fingered boom. With projects nearing completion and high-flying deals up for grabs, Zoe Naylor finds out why the grass is most definitely greener in Dubai.

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  December 17, 2005

completed projects and beautification schemes bring contractors running in looking for slice of the action|~|100prod200.gif|~|Zabeel Park: Dubai’s newest green development is an important illustration of how landscaping services are much-needed across the Middle East.|~|Creating lush and verdant landscapes in the arid, inhospitable climate of the Gulf was never going to be an easy task. Apart from cacti and palm trees, few indigenous species can withstand the blistering heat, low rainfall and salt-laden winds that blow along the Arabian Gulf. But with more of the region’s construction projects edging towards completion, landscape designers and contractors are having to find new ways to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in the bid to go green. “There are plants that are adapted to growing in this type of environment,” says Paul Cracknell, director of Dubai-based landscape architects, Al Khatib Cracknell. “But they’re generally low-growing desert-type species with small canopies, which are not particularly useful for creating Western-style recreational parks that require an extensive and diverse flora and fauna including grass, shade trees and flowering shrubs.” One way to achieve the desired landscaping effect is to create microclimates that provide a combination of shade and shelter from the elements. The trick is to create shade by using nurse species of plants that ‘nurse’ the tenderer, less hardy plants underneath them. By using more tolerant shrubs to reduce the wind, less hardy plants can survive as they are protected from the harsh winds and direct sunlight. Atomised irrigation is another method of outdoor climatic control, and involves spraying water into the air. As the water evaporates, it reduces the ambient temperature so certain plants can survive a lot better. “Every plant is different, so it’s important to understand which plants will survive under which conditions,” explains Cracknell. “Over the last 10 years we’ve evolved a palette of plants suited to this region that originally was some 50 species, and is now between 350 and 500 species.” In terms of planting, he says it’s a case of continually trying new species. “You can make an educated guess in terms of what plants you think will grow well, but until you actually put them in the ground, you can never be sure,” he adds. According to Cracknell, some of the most challenging projects come in the form of the region’s beachfront resort hotels, which require a very high level of amenity landscaping: “They need to be very attractive and diverse in terms of planting, but they’re in very harsh locations right by the sea.” Al Khatib Cracknell has landscaped many beachfront projects in Dubai including Jumeirah Beach Resort, Wild Wadi and the Burj Al Arab. The firm is currently working on landscaping the Palm Jumeirah. “As well as the issues of salt-laden high winds, beachfront projects often have monolithic high buildings nearby which create wind currents and eddying.” To counter this, wind studies are carried out to determine where best to place certain landscaping features, such as planting trees to break up the wind flow. Turf also poses a particular challenge to the region’s landscape designers — especially when it comes to selecting turf suitable for the region’s ever-growing number of golf courses. Traditionally Bermuda grass and hybrid varieties of it were used, but most of the amenity grass here now is paspallum, a salt-tolerant grass that can grow in twice the salinity of seawater. Soil — or the lack of it — can be another tricky area. Rather than using very expensive imports of peat and seaweed for additives, a cheaper option is using the local clean-washed sand along with wadi sand that has high clay content and forms a better soil mix. Locally generated compost can then be added along with slow release chemical fertilisers. “There is a continual evolution in terms of soil additives as well as new developments in water auditing — monitoring the amount of irrigation water that’s put into the ground so you give the plant exactly what it needs,” says Cracknell. Strange as it may sound, over-watering is often an issue in this part of the world. “One of the biggest problems I’ve found here is over-watering or incorrect watering, as opposed to not enough water,” says Jim Hynes, general manager of Fitco Industry’s irrigation division. “There’s a lot of water wasted here through inefficient irrigation techniques.” Hynes believes one of the reasons for this water wastage is a reluctance to try out new techniques. “Landscape irrigation is quite conservative here in the Middle East — people are not very interested in trying out new ideas and ultimately the client’s paying the price in terms of water usage. If you over-water or water incorrectly, the landscape doesn’t respond well and requires additional maintenance.” There is a range of computer-based systems available to ensure irrigation is precisely controlled, such as WIDC (Windows Irrigation Data Controller). This central satellite control system is loaded with software and connected to a phone line or radio transmitter out to a network of controllers in the field. “WIDC can handle up to 999 controllers; each of these can handle up to 48 stations; and each station handles up to 20 valves — so that’s just under 1 million valves,” explains Hynes. This provides the system with very large control capabilities (up to several cities) from a single software location. Normal irrigation controllers in the field distribute a certain quantity of water — the application rate is calculated and the controller is then set by time. But this method doesn’t take into account changes in watering requirements — one day the plants may need 10 mm of water, but the next day may be humid and the day after that could be windy and dry. To get around this inflexible system of irrigation programming, Fitco offers a hi-tech system that waters in conjunction with an evapro-transpiration sensor. “This measures the moisture taken up into the atmosphere from a plant, so when we program our controllers we’re able to run in parallel with the weather conditions on any particular day,” says Hynes. It’s not just the region’s climate and topography that influences trends in the landscaping market — the new property laws in Dubai and Abu Dhabi are having a noticeable impact on the domestic landscaping sector. According to Bruce Pedersen, general manager at Dubai Garden Centre, the domestic side of their business has really picked since the new leasehold laws were introduced. “We’re booked up months in advance and aren’t taking any work until March or April next year,” he says. Pedersen says the laws have prompted a lot of people to spend a lot of money on their gardens: “There’s no set industry amount of how much to spend on your garden in relation to the value of your property here,” he explains. “In the UK, for instance, you don’t spend more than 10% on your garden, but here there’s no average figure because the industry is so new.” Today’s landscape designers and contractors employ a range of hi-tech applications to help create and maintain the desired effects. Tensiometres, wind tunnel studies and computer-aided irrigation are all used in a bid to keep up with the demand for landscaping roads, hotels and office tower developments. But while the region’s commercial landscaping market is already in full swing, the domestic sector looks poised to take off thanks to the new leasehold laws — proving that this is not a place to let the grass grow under your feet.||**||

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