Meet the man leading a desert garden revolution in Dubai

Will Bennett from WILDEN Design shares his Mudon garden and eco-design philosophy

WILDEN in mudon
Will in his Mudon garden

In most gardens in the UAE, the fight against the natural climate has been fought so gallantly that it’s easy to forget we’re living in a desert. Cloaked in verdant greenery, our gardens’ sandy foundations have been covered with rolls of emerald turf that require daily watering in order to prevent them from turning burnt-yellow under the hot sun. But here to flip the switch on that narrative by encouraging people to embrace the natural environment,is British landscape architect Will Bennett. 

“When you think of the dunes and windswept plains, you probably think there’s no life out there, but that’s actually not true,” says Will, owner of sustainable landscaping service WILDEN Design. “There is so much life underneath the sand, so many seeds waiting to germinate. They just need the right conditions to grow.” Speaking poetically about the potential for arid plants, Will explains, “The plants you see in the desert are hanging on to life, but when you bring them into a garden, give them a bit of water and some love they get bigger, greener and more beautiful. The same plant will look completely different in your garden than how it does in the desert. That’s because in the desert they’re surviving, whereas in your garden, they’re thriving.” 

Sprouted during the lockdown of last year, WILDEN Design specialises in planting desert gardens that are easy to maintain, kind on the pocket, and sustainable. “I want to show people that with a small budget you can create something really exciting by using local plants and harnessing biodiversity,” the architect explains. Using locally-sourced materials, Will designs gardens that maximise space and require minimal watering. 

WILDEN desert garden Dubai
The view from above

Naturally, his own garden in Mudon is a visual representation of all that he stands for. “It was completely inspired by the desert and its natural resources. The gravel is a mix of beige, grey and brown stone from the Al Hajar mountains,” he explains. “Then all the plants are essentially native or arid-adapted plants, so they don’t need much water. In terms of species, “we’ve got agaves, that a lot of people will recognise as desert succulents. There’s also desert cotton, which grows wild in the UAE. It’s really cool, the Bedouins used to use the flowers of it to stuff the saddles for camels. So you know, there’s a lot of narratives tied up in this garden. For me, it’s much more than just a garden. It’s a way of showing people how you can design with nature in the desert,” Will enthuses. 

The garden, though small, has two areas for socialising – a raised deck and sunken fire-pit. “In a tiny space like this, the design has got to work really hard for you because you’re very limited,” Will explains. “Having two levels in a small garden makes it feel a lot bigger and gives it a richer experience. You’ve got two very different areas: one is at a higher-level for barbecues and dining, and the other is like the fire pit and chill zone. So, in what is really a little garden, you get this actually quite interesting experience as you move around it.” 

WILDEN Mudon Garden
Will’s garden might be low in maintenance, but it’s high in style

The plants require so little maintenance that Will is hesitant to admit he hasn’t done much pruning of the space since he planted it in November 2020, but this just stands as a testament to the philosophy behind WILDEN Design. “I always advise people to embrace the wilderness, and to let things grow into their natural shape. I’m not into cutting trees into lollipops, or spherical shapes, you know. It’s much cooler to let them do their own thing,” he says. And his approach goes beyond superficial styling, “If you were to stand here and observe the garden for five minutes, you’d see loads of birds come in. It’s full of wildlife. But you only get that when you’ve let nature just grow as it wants.” 

Will, who grew up in Manchester, was working in commercial design before he started with residential projects last year, though it was his mum who initially inspired his love of nature through tending to her garden. “I’ve inherited the love of plants from her,” he explains, “now my passion is for bringing nature to people’s backdoors, because that’s where you can have the most profound affect, I think. If I can teach that love of plants to people, then perhaps they’ll go on to appreciate nature in the same sort of way,” Will says hopefully.

While WILDEN Design has been operating for less than a year, and thriving during that time, Will feels as if he is battling against preconceived ideas. “Desert gardens come with a lot of stigma,” he says. “People say, ‘well, why would I want the desert in my garden?’ But if you see places around the world where they’ve worked with arid conditions really well – the drier parts of Australia, Arizona, and of course, Palm Springs – they’re well-advanced in terms of their design aesthetic and working with the plants they’ve got. Here, the market just isn’t mature yet. There are only a few designers working with desert plants and materials. But I think there will soon be a culture around this – we’re just at the beginning now.” 

There are several types of plants that thrive in the dry, hot weather

Looking ahead to the future of more natural gardens in the UAE, Will explains, “My dream is that we’ll design a set of spaces that can be replicated over big developments so that nature moves through, like a corridor, creating a physical and philosophical link between the gardens.”  Planting the way, we predict that Will’s sustainable, affordable and no-fuss approach is on the cusp of something big. Much like a seed from under the dunes that’s been embedded into the perfect environment for life, perhaps the future of our gardens will  grow into something green and sandy. 

Brushing the cobwebs, or sand, from your outdoor space ahead of the winter? Find more UAE garden inspiration here

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