Have you always had the proverbial green fingers?
No, but growing up I’ve always been surrounded by nature. I was constantly in the garden spending time with my grandfather who’d potter around, tending his tomatoes or shrubs and my father watering flowers. It must have rubbed off. My mum’s Scottish, so living in the green English countryside of Cambridge has also influenced me — I’d go on long walks with my maternal grandfather to nature reserves and woodlands.
What were you doing before you became a landscape gardener?
I worked in Dubai Government for four years across various departments. I loved every minute of it but I wasn’t using my creativity and felt something was missing. At the time, conversations with my father about what he was working on and his visions of starting plant nurseries, a horticultural college and even garden design courses planted the seed of the idea, pardon the pun, to become a garden designer. My father loves plants but he actually was against my career move since I was doing well at my government job. But now he’s very proud of me.
Tell us about the genesis of Al Barari, how did it come about as a concept?
It was my father Zaal Mohammed Bin Zaal’s vision — he’s a property developer. He believed there must be other families like ours that travel a lot and want beautiful homes set in beautiful landscapes, while creating a sense of community and giving people a space to connect together, especially now that our city is so fast paced and modern.
What inspired you to submit your award-winning The Beauty of Islam garden at the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show?
The Shaikh Zayed Mosque was my main design inspiration but the main reason was the negativity from the western world towards Arabs and Muslims at the time and it upset me that the behaviour of a few had tarnished the whole of the Islamic world. I felt creating an Islamic garden is an opportunity to show the world the true, peaceful essence of Islam in a way that could be understood by all because gardens are transcendent.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Designing [happy and relaxing] spaces for them to live in while making the world more green every day. It doesn’t really get much better than that, especially when you are a true hippy spirit of the earth like me. It is one of the most satisfying jobs to have. No client or design is the same; nothing about the job is cookie cutter. Gardening is a true passion of the heart, like composing art — I never follow planting plans, I fill the space and design with colour and texture. Bringing people happiness is ultimately what I’m doing and that’s the most satisfying part.
What are some of your favourite plants?
I love Dianella Variegated, it’s a [grey-green leafy] groundcover with a beautiful form and is lovely when it flowers. I love the Bismarckia nobilis, a palm — it’s simply one of the most majestic specimen I know. I also love all types of jasmine because of the fragrance. I am an advocate for using indigenous plants as water scarcity is something that concerns me a lot.
Where do you find inspiration?
I can find inspiration from different things. It can be a conversation with another creative person, a piece of jewellery, or piece of art. Sometime, inspiration comes from simply being surrounded by nature. In general though, architecture and interiors often have an influence on my work.
Also read: Do you want to be an architect?
What is the purpose and function of a garden in a residential space?
It really depends on who you are as a person or a family and how you live. You might be a quiet individual who reads a lot and likes golf and so you might create a quiet reading space in the garden and add a putting green. Or you may be a family that loves to entertain, in which case you may want an outdoor dining and entertainment area. Gardens are about personalities and translating them into an outdoor space.
Do gardens have the ability to transport you to a different time and place?
Yes, you certainly never feel like you are in the middle of the desert in Al Barari. You feel like you could be somewhere more tropical and lush. If you’re an Emirati family who loves travelling to Japan and so have a Japanese style garden at home. For me, it’s about the emotions a garden evokes and its energy.
Besides gardens, what else offers you peace and quiet?
Trekking is my escape. There is something magical and addictive about reaching the top of a mountain — I don’t know whether it’s the physical and mental relief or just pure connectivity to nature at that altitude surrounded by clouds. I trek with Gulf For Good every other year and love that it takes me to a country I’ve never been to, introduces me to new people and challenges me to train hard, all as part of a charitable cause.
What’s it like to work with your family on Al Barari?
Working with family can be one of the hardest things and most rewarding at the same time but we have found a great balance as we are all good at totally different things – my father is the visionary creative, my mother is an interior designer so she influences the architecture and finishes, my younger brother got his degree in Sustainable Development so he’s great at operations and my sister who is now heading up the team is a developer.
What are some of your favourite gardens around the world and why?
Alhambra in Granada, Spain, is one of the beautiful Islamic Gardens. I love it for its incredible details in the architecture. It’s delicate and soul filling.