Applying Permaculture Design To a Dryland Corporate Garden

Karen Noon
Monday, 4th April 2016

Karen Noon explains how she designed and implemented a permaculture inspired garden at the Etihad Airways offices in Abu Dhabi, using native plants and water management systems.

After receiving an invitation to meet with the Head of Sustainability at Etihad Airways in early June 2014, I put forward a suggestion for a low water, low maintenance garden border to be created at their Head office in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. To my delight the suggestion was positively received.

Their gardens and borders were managed by an outside contractor and were both water and labour intensive. Most border plants were temperate climate annuals such as petunia and marigolds that had to be replaced every few months. The rest of the gardens were laid to lawn with a few cycads and date palms which are commonly seen throughout Abu Dhabi.

I suggested a short proposal document outlining the concept which then got signed off by the CEO, and a draft budget was agreed. I was half way through my Diploma in Applied Permaculture and so I decided to include the design in my portfolio, and therefore had the opportunity to document the design and the process.


The design framework I selected for this project was OBREDIM = Observe, Boundaries, Resources, Evaluate, Design, Implement, Maintain. This framework could be applied holistically to all the practical tasks needed for the project. A summarised version of the design process I went through is given in this article:


Land and Climate – Despite its location on the edge of the desert, the UAE actually straddles the Tropic of Cancer. Most regions on the Tropic of Cancer experience two distinct seasons: an extremely hot summer with temperatures often reaching 45°C (113°F), and a warm winter of around 22°C (71°F). Most land on or near the Tropic of Cancer is part of the Sahara Desert, whereas to the east the climate is monsoonal with short wet seasons.

Services – Given that this bed was situated in a prominent area of a large corporate complex, careful consideration needed to be given to the following when considering planting schemes: 

Underground garage complex directly below the bed.

Water cooling pipes in the vicinity.

Concrete and geo-textile surface – issues with water seepage and roots.

Electrical cabling and water pipes.

Health and Safety – As this space was situated in a high traffic flow area of a large company, I needed to ensure that there were no health and safety issues with regards to the plants. For instance, any trees or shrubs that have high pollen that could cause allergic reactions and hayfever had to be avoided. Any plants close to the border edges should not be poisonous to humans or potentially cause irritation, also plants with large thorns should not be considered.

Cultural aspects – Due to the multicultural diversity of the company, consideration had to be given to the cultural sensitivities both individually and for the corporation themselves. For instance, the border design had to be in keeping with what the Visual Communication team would deem acceptable as a showcase border. The aim was to incorporate as many indigenous plants as possible and especially those with local significance. 

Weather – I set up a weather station in the border and collected data from this for a period of five months from October 2014 – February 2015.

Some of the interesting data gathered was:

Highest Temp: 46°C 

Lowest Temp: 11°C

Highest Heat Index: 51°C 

Highest Humidity: 99% 

Lowest Humidity: 10% 


The area that was set aside was an existing border bed situated in the courtyard area behind Head Office reception and café, facing towards the staff car park and visitor’s entrance. The bed was minimalistic, laid to lawn with two cycads on either end.

The border was surrounded on two sides by paving and the bottom section was a grassed border. The glass fronted five storey head office building enclosed the courtyard on two sides, at the far end there was stone paving with a one story visitor reception building. The head office building itself did provide some protection from the wind, and the building in front afforded some shade in the early morning. The area was in shade for most of the morning during the winter.

The non physical boundaries for this design were mainly around corporate governance and brand image. 


Resources available were:

Staff from the landscaping company, volunteers from the company, tools that were stored on site by contractor, water lines into the bed, finances to purchase plants and accessories.

Resources required were: a weather station, labour, sand and compost, mulch, plants, irrigation system, recycled items, approval from head office on installation requirements and dates, building plans.


The Permaculture tools used to evaluate the findings was the PASTE (Plants, Animals, Structures, Tools, Events) analysis tool and I also conducted an initial SWOC (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Challenges) analysis. I took into account permaculture principles and ethics, ensuring these formed the fundamentals of the design itself.

The conclusions I drew from these evaluations were as follows:

Although the area was in itself very challenging, with the right planting we could create a demonstration border that would be water efficient and low maintenance, by using climate appropriate plants that also had a practical purpose. Recycled items could be sourced onsite and incorporated in the border showing on site examples of how a company could rethink their ‘waste’.

I put forward the idea of starting up a compost area using all onsite green waste. Coffee grounds from two onsite catering areas could be added to the compost. This suggestion was taken up and onsite composting was started in mid 2014.


In order to clarify for myself what was needed in the area I looked at functions that were needed together with what systems could be created and then got down to what elements where needed to fulfil the function. Following this process the components could be pulled together i.e. the desired planting list.

After considering all the points I came up with three design options which were presented to the client and they selected one design. Once the design was approved the work started on sourcing all the elements and components of the design. 


The design

The idea was to create some added height and interest within the border, which would be achieved by creating a tyre wall and a layered area for planting. Another way to incorporate recycled onsite items was with the use of glass wine bottles that were recycled from Etihad flights and these would be used to create a ‘dry river bed’ effect, that would flow from the small low level water feature.

The water feature was added to create a small microclimate, it was not going to be a ‘flowing fountain’ but merely water gurgling over pipes that were also going to be sourced onsite. The water would flow down into a reservoir and be pumped back up again.

I encountered difficulties in finding a company that would install the water feature the way I had envisaged and at a reasonable cost, so we decided that we would try and do as much of this as we could ourselves. The first step was to source a suitable solar pump for the water feature, which we finally had to ship from Europe, and the second step was to build a water reservoir or holding tank for the pump and to fit the pipes we had sourced. Fortunately we found someone in the Engineering department at the company that was keen to be involved in creating a sustainable garden and was willing to put this all together for us, at no additional costs, after I provided him with plans of what we wanted.


The water holding tank

The planting list: Most of the plants were perennial, many plants had medicinal uses, some of plants were edible (as fodder or for human consumption), and some of the plants were indigenous to the region.


Once all the key elements were in place and we had obtained final approval from the Executive, a week in mid April 2015 was identified for implementation.

The hard landscaping work was started by the gardening contractors after the removal of the turf and one cycad (which we reused elsewhere). The final part of their work was to lay down the irrigation pipes, so we could start planting.

By the end of that week all hard landscaping was complete and a working party of company volunteers arrived very early on the Friday morning. We had a very busy but fun morning ‘planting out’ over 800 wine bottles and nearly 300 plants.

The Saturday afternoon we returned to finish off the ‘bottle river’ and plant the remaining plants. As the water feature was still being tested, we left the hole for the reservoir to be fitted later in the week.


Once the planting was completed, drip nozzles were added and irrigation piping was buried, we added a layer of Seramis (PH neutral clay granules) on the top of the bed as a mulch.

After the water reservoir and solar pump was fully tested we were able to install the water feature, adding a layer of geotextile over the top, followed by Wadi pebbles as final cover.  

The final touch to the garden was the installation of the signage. Tall steel numbered spikes were placed next to each planting group that correlated with the numbers and explanation on the board.


The response to the garden has been overwhelmingly positive, with staff from diverse backgrounds and cultures showing keen interest in the climate appropriate plants and the use of recycled items. Since implementing the first garden we had subsequently been able to thin out alot of the plants and replant them in a second border thus creating a second sustainable garden.

Further resources

Interested in a Permaculture Design Course? See our courses page for info:

Permaculture Design: A Step-by-step Guide


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