Working with nature

The buzz for sustainability is driving up demand for more 'eco landscaping'. COD looks at what this means and how it can be applied to the Middle East.

The Date Palm
The Date Palm

The buzz for sustainability is driving up demand for more 'eco landscaping'. COD looks at what this means and how it can be applied to the Middle East.

The number of new outdoor projects under way has created huge demand for landscaping services in the region, but the flip side of this is it has also put the spotlight on how environmentally friendly the region's landscaping may be - or may not be.

Ecological landscaping is a method, but also a philosophy.

There are no specific guidelines in the Middle East on ecological landscaping as yet, although the UAE is adapting the US LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) guidelines to the region.

Despite this, ecological landscaping, or eco landscaping as it is more commonly known, looks set to become a big regional trend in the next few years as developers increasingly seek any which way they can to demonstrate their green credentials.

What is ecological landscaping?

Ecological landscaping, according to the US-based Ecological Landscaping Association (ELA), is a method of designing, building and maintaining landscapes that considers the ecology of a site and creates spaces that enhance the surrounding environment.

"Ecological landscaping is a method, but also a philosophy," explains Kathy Sargent-O'Neill, board member of the ELA. "It's a design, installation and maintenance that is guarded by the natural ecosystem."

"An ecological landscaper is someone who would look at a site and would determine for a particular soil that is present on the site and for the wind and sun how that affects the site, what kind of things are growing there naturally and what other kinds of ornamental plants versus natives would have similar characteristics. And they would try to incorporate a design or maintenance or installation of a landscape that would work well in that site."

Right plant, right place

Putting the right plant in the right place is a key aspect of ecological landscaping, she adds. "You have to look at if this plant is going to behave itself and not do harm to the natural landscape."

Choosing plants that are appropriate to the local climate is particularly important.

For the Middle East, for example, it is important to choose plants that are naturally drought tolerant, such as plants that are thick leaved, which tend to be able to tolerate drier conditions.

Indigenous or native plants are the best suited to the desert environment, flower production engineer with the Dubai Municipality Hana Al Zarooni said at a presentation on indigenous plants during the recent International Plants Expo Middle East in Dubai.

"Indigenous plants have low water consumption and prevent desertification," she said, adding that it is illegal to cut down many indigenous plants in Dubai.

You cannot put in a plant that has high maintenance. You need to put in plants that work together.

It's not just about bringing very beautiful plants.

There are many plants that [people] love in Europe and that look very nice, but when we use them here we have a bad result.

Attitudes towards plant selection are starting to change, with people now more keen to use local plants, she said.

"People come to us for advice," she said. "Before, many plants died. Now we give people lists and people more and more go for local plants in their projects."

Two of the best-known indigenous plants are the Date palm, known for its edible fruit, and the Ghaf tree.

Stephen Oehme, regional director at consultancy firm Hyder, agrees that there has been a shift in attitude.

"There has been this big thinking that you need to bring in plants from other places, but you can use a lot of native plants from here and they look fantastic," he says.

Nurturing the soil

Selecting native plants is only the start, however. Another aspect of eco landscaping is soil treatment.

This means not only adding composts and other things that will help to nourish the soil, but also not dumping a lot of chemicals and pesticides and fertilisers that are not natural into the soil.

"A lot of herbicides and some of the pesticides we put on the landscapes actually kill the good guys as well as the bad guys and so you have a dead soil, instead of a soil that is teeming with micro-organisms and bacteria and things like that," explains Sargent-O'Neill.

Ralf Stahl, managing partner of UAE company Zeoplant, says that interest in soil amendment products has shot up over the past few years.

The firm, which sells a water retaining soil amendment, claims that use of its product can reduce the amount of irrigation water required by as much as 50%, by reducing the percolation rate of the irrigation water in the soil.

"We mix the product into the soil, which is normally sand here and sand does not have any water holding capacity so once you irrigate, the water gets leached out very quickly. With our product we are increasing the soil quality and the soil structure," he says.

Treatment of soil is crucial to ecological landscaping, says the ELA's Sargent-O'Neill.

"If you don't have good soil, it's going to make it very difficult for a landscape to continue to be healthy. When it starts declining it gets into a vicious cycle because then you put more stuff on, you treat the symptoms, not the problems. Encouraging really healthy soil is key," she says.

Avoid water waste

Saving water is a crucial consideration for ecological landscapers in the Middle East region given the awkward coupling of scarce water supplies and clients' requests for lush greenery.

Approximately 12-15 litres of water are used per square metre for keeping green spaces green, meaning that there is a huge demand for new irrigation technologies and products.

The key is that ecological landscaping not only makes sense from an environmental perspective, but also from a business one.

Adding shade trees reduces the need for artificial air cooling systems, selecting native plants means lower maintenance costs, use of irrigation techniques equals lower water bills.

All of which makes eco landscaping not just good for the environment but good for business too.

Native plants include

Common Name - Latin Name

Date Palm - Phoenix dactylifera

Ghaf - Prosopis spicigera

Gum Tree - Acacia arabica

Umbrella thorn - Acacia tortilis

Tamarisk - Tamarix

Arabian toothbrush - Salvadora persica

Sea Pursaline - Sesevium portulacastrum

Salam - Acacia ehrenbergiana

Sweet acacia - Acacia fanesiana

Snow bush - Aerva javanica

Salin bush - Atriplex

Mangrove - Avicennia marina

Showerka - Boerhavia elegans choisy

Arta - Calligonum comosum

She Oak - Casuarina equisetifolia

Dhaffa - Cometes surattensis

Faghi - Convolvulucs virgortus

Purple hop-bush - Dodonaea viscose

Wild Fig - Ficus salicifolia

Ramth - Hamada elegans

Broom brush - Leptadenia pyrotechnica

Lead tree - Leucaena leucocephala

Christmas Berry - Lycium shawii

Horse radish tree - Moringa oleifera

Oleander - Nerium oleander

Thamam - Panicum turgidum

Manila tamarind - Pithcellobium dulce

Purslane - Porulaca oleracea

Bladder dock - Rumex vesicarius

Athel tamarisk - Tamarix aphylla

Rohida tree - Tecomella undulata

Christ Thorn - Zizyphus spina- christi

Source: Dubai Municipality

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