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Inside Abu Dhabi's first Garden Centre

In a city that prides itself on being green, nothing testifies to the power of plants so eloquently as ringing cash tills, heavily laden shopping trolleys and a packed car park. These were the unexpected sights and sounds during a visit to Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Park last weekend.

The streets of the local Al Matar neighbourhood normally greet you with an almost post-apocalyptic emptiness, but even at 9.30 on a Friday morning, the capital's green fingered and curious had turned out in force, tempted by the prospect of a new farmer's market, award-winning coffee and the capital's first proper garden centre. The seasonal, locally grown organic vegetable boxes came from Ripe, a new Dubai-based business that already hosts a market at the Dubai Garden Centre each Saturday. The freshly ground coffee from Raw Coffee Company, a family-run boutique roastery whose fair trade blends are sold through a cafe that's also based at the Dubai Garden Centre.

Unsurprisingly given the team sheet so far, Abu Dhabi's new Desert Garden Centre also comes courtesy of the Dubai Garden Centre and its parent company, the Dubai horticultural giant that is Desert Group.

Even if the cast of characters and business model are already well tested in Dubai, their arrival in Abu Dhabi is a welcome first and their effect on this particular corner of Khalifa Park is difficult to overestimate. When I arrived it seemed that the proceeding excitement and anticipation on Abu Dhabi's online chat rooms and message boards was well justified.

Up until now, shopping in the capital has taken place almost exclusively indoors, so to be able to shop, eat, drink and meet friends in the sunshine while being surrounded by plants rather than the usual roster of all-too-familiar international brands felt like a regular weekend ritual in the making. Danny Powell, the general manager of the Desert and Dubai garden centres, has spent a professional lifetime trying to achieve this general sense of well-being and lifestyle. "We're trying to make people happy in the nicest possible way because we see everybody as a potential customer."

Powell, a New Zealander, is a Middle East veteran who was bitten early by the horticultural bug. "I started growing radishes when I was five or six. They're one of those plants that allow you to put the seed in the ground and 28 days later you're eating them. It was probably my first gardening lesson and I immediately enjoyed it."

After working with interior landscapes in London in the early 1980s, he spent 20 years setting up garden centres in Saudi Arabia before moving to Dubai five years ago. Powell is now, the face of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai garden centres; his caricature appears on every sign, price tag, shopping bag and advertisement. This actually makes meeting the face behind the cartoon something of a surprise, but when presented with the opportunity, I feel obliged to raise the issue that always seems to crop up whenever local gardeners discuss the Dubai Garden Centre: price. It's not an unexpected question.

"Price may have been an issue historically, and it's hard to get rid of a reputation like that, but I think that's something that's in the past. I often speak to people who tell me that they stopped shopping at the Dubai Garden Centre because it was terribly expensive, but I always tell them to come again and when they do come back they find that we're actually very competitive."

Powell is also keen to stress the quality and local credentials of his outdoor stock. "Just take a look at our gardenia; I'm particularly proud of those. They're of such high quality we could easily export them to Europe."

Source: Nick Leech - The National
http://www.thenational.ae/lifestyle/house-home/inside-abu-dhabis-first-garden-centre

24 November 2011
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