January 24, 2022

The big interview: Kamelia Bin Zaal


Pro Landscaper Gulf interviews the first Emirati to design a show garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. We ask Kamelia Bin Zaal, Creative Director at Al Barari, about her career in garden design, how she got involved with the prestigious London event and why she’s planning for a greener future in her home country.

How did you get into garden design?

I grew up watching my father, who was always in the garden. He loves flowers and the sense of peace a garden can give. I worked in the government for four years and while I enjoyed it, I felt as if something was missing. At the time my father was planning the concept of Al Barari, a plant nursery, maybe a horticultural school, and it was this conversation that made me think of garden design. Within one month I was in the UK at the Inchbald School of Design studying garden design.

I returned to Dubai, inspired to create intuitive and stylised outdoor living spaces. I began my career as a freelance garden designer working on residential villas until I established my own landscape architectural practice, Second Nature, in 2006, working on both large commercial and unique residential projects. Later I formed an association with my family’s property development company, Al Barari, where Second Nature, now part of Green Works, created the lush botanic surrounds and themed gardens that the address has become recognised for. As a result of my passion for greenery and in-depth knowledge of the company, I have simultaneously managed the Al Barari brand and overseen the landscape design of the project. I have served as the Creative Director at Al Barari Firm Management LLC for the past seven years.

What garden design training have you had?

I have a diploma in garden design from the Inchbald School of Design in London.

How long have you been in the industry?

I have been designing private gardens and landscapes in the UAE for the past 11 years.

How does your company operate?

We integrated Second Nature into Green Works, Al Barari’s green arm. Green Works is the Middle East’s largest privately owned nursery. It produces plants for the Al Barari project while also working in landscape maintenance.

Do you outsource the construction of your gardens?

For projects inside Al Barari I work solely with our plant nursery Green Works and Sustainable Builders, the construction company at Al Barari, to integrate both hard and soft landscaping for the gardens. Otherwise, for outside projects I work with only a few contractors, Terra Verde being one of them. It maintains the high quality and professionalism that I wish for all my clients and my gardens.


What type of projects do you work on?

I am focused purely on high-end, private villa design. At Al Barari, I oversee the overall landscape design at the development, and meet clients for landscaping private villas within Al Barari. Currently I am designing an Islamicinspired show garden, sponsored by Al Barari, for the 2015 RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and a project on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi.

Do you take on any international work? If so, where?

With my company Second Nature, we have developed projects within the wider region, however now I currently only work in the UAE.

How did you get involved with the RHS Chelsea Flower Show in the UK?

I was judging last year at the Dubai International Garden Design Competition and was fortunate enough to meet David Dodd from The Outdoor Room and Jo Thompson, a landscape and garden designer from the UK. David has built a lot of award-winning show gardens and Jo has designed award-winning show gardens. As it was their first time in the UAE I brought them to Al Barari. After seeing everything, they suggested I put in a design for Chelsea – so I did. Although it was my dream to participate I never considered it because of the calibre of all the designers that take part every year. I am grateful for meeting them both as they gave me the confidence to push myself and go for it. I submitted a contemporary Islamic garden design, The Beauty of Islam, for the show-garden category, and was lucky enough to be picked.

What’s the message from your show garden?

I aim to share the positives of our religion and culture, to show we also celebrate peace, diversity and harmony as all religions do. With so much negativity in the media and the world today this was an opportunity to share these values with the public through a garden design.

How are you choosing the plants for your Chelsea Garden?

The variety in plant species were chosen to illustrate how far Islam and Arab culture has touched so many other cultures and vice versa, especially through trade, most famously through the spice route which spread, by sea and over land from the Indian Ocean, Far East, India, the Arabian Gulf, and Red Sea and by land on to Europe. We are using species such as jasmine, rosemary, orange, pomegranate, garlic, olive and cardamom. The garden will also feature Nannorrhops arabica, which is a species native to the Arabian Peninsula.

How is the relationship with the team at The Outdoor Room working?

I am very lucky to be collaborating with such an experienced and award-winning team. This is my first ever show garden so I am grateful to have a mentor in David Dodd. We work very well together and his input is invaluable. As you know the quality and beauty of the plants is also crucial, so having the help and experience of Kelways nursery and Caroline and Louise from Garden Makers has been pivotal.

What are you aiming to achieve with your design at Chelsea?

I am hoping to produce a garden that resonates with the public and will have a positive effect on people’s perception of Islam. It is a chance to show that Islam – and Arabic culture – is like many other religions and cultures. It’s a way of life and we share the same values and morals as many other religions and cultures. The Chelsea Flower Show is the ideal platform to showcase my garden.

Also, it’s been a dream to be part of the world’s most famous flower show. It is the pinnacle of horticultural and landscape design excellence and will reach far more people than any other competition. I will have the opportunity to be tested professionally alongside some of the world’s leading garden designers. I look forward to learning from them.


Would you like to see more designers from the Gulf region designing internationally?

When it comes to representing the UAE at Chelsea in 2015, I have a sense of responsibility and hope that my garden will be something that not only resonates with the British public but will also have an effect at home in the UAE. I would like to encourage more Emiratis to join the landscaping industry. I’m proud that my country gives such positive opportunities. There’s no holding women back in our culture and I hope the garden is a symbol for other Emirati women and girls to strive, work hard and really to think that they can achieve anything.

What is your favourite personal project?

Every garden I have completed is a wonderful memory, but I’m proud of the Contemporary Garden in Al Barari. It was recently featured in Garden Design Close Up, by Emma Reuss, a book featuring 100 projects from around the world. The most meaningful personally and professionally is, of course, The Beauty of Islam.

Do you think there is a true understanding of the value of domestic gardens in the UAE?

Over the years, the UAE has increasingly focused on the importance of greenery with the introduction of the Abu Dhabi International Flower and Garden Exhibition, Dubai Municipality Outdoor Design Build & Supply trade show, Dubai Miracle Garden and the Dubai International Garden Competition. Their popularity shows that people realise the importance of green areas.

Historically, Bedouins have always appreciated the importance of the oasis as fundamental to our survival so it is only natural that we have a high regard and understanding for the abundance a garden can provide.

What inspires you?

Interior design, architecture and natural landscapes. I love to travel and push myself physically, having climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. The bare landscape as you ascend Mount Kilimanjaro is breathtaking and I loved the few clusters of succulents that broke up the barren environment. In Borneo, the lush forests and beautiful trees with wild orchids just growing on them were astounding.

What are your ambitions for the future?

To leave behind a green legacy whether that’s through the development of the Al Barari community or by making people happy through designing gardens in which they can enjoy life.

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