Some of the loveliest gardens in the world have been created in deserts. Some modern landscape designers have a tendency to believe that everything should be natural and blend in with the background. In their view desert landscaping should consist of reproducing the desert, in the same way as a cottage garden design is attempting to reproduce nature's bounty in the fields and hedgerows. So one sees desert landscape gardens built behind walls and then filled with what, if the truth were told, is much the same landscape as is found outside, dry grasses and cactus, all no doubt very special and with lengthy Linnaean names, but is this really what one wants from a garden in the desert?
desert landscaping
How much more restful it would be if more modern landscape designers drew from the past and, above all, from the masters of desert garden design, the early garden designers of the Middle East, the masterminds behind the gardens of Islam. These desert gardens do of course depend on water being brought to them, either by oasis springs or by underground tunnels. The great gardens of Persia were fed by tunnels bringing meltwater from snow-covered mountains hundreds of miles away. Persian miniatures and Persian garden carpets illustrate the pleasures of these gardens for modern garden enthusiasts. They show the garden in the middle of the desert as a place of romance and pleasure, enclosed and protected from the harsh and cruel rigours of the desert outside. These were the gardens of paradise. The very word is from Paradeisos – the hunting park of kings in the fertile crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates before the Arab conquest.

Many of the gardens still survive; the Court of the Myrtles in the Alhambra in Spain is the best preserved Muslim garden in Europe – an enclosed court with arches all round which are perfectly reflected in the water which fills the centre of the court.

The essential feature of the desert garden design, based on these early principles, is one of water and symmetry. The shape of the desert garden is square or rectangular. It is enclosed within walls and is divided into four by intersecting watercourses which represent the four rivers of life. At the central point of intersection there is either a central pool, also rectangular or square, or a pavilion built above the channels. The pavilion, for modern tastes, will have its roof supported on pillars, so that the pavilion itself is shaded but open on all sides to receive the breezes.

In many parts of Persia, in modern Iran in particular, the water runs along channels paved with turquoise tiles - breathtakingly beautiful. But the water channels in a desert garden are functional as well as being decorative. They are edged with pathways of stone, or even marble if there is a good local source, and flowerbeds, which are periodically flooded for irrigation, are sunk below the path level. The flooding of the beds in a desert landscape can also be seen daily in the tiny mud-walled fields beside the Nile, where the most wonderful vegetables are flooded regularly by water pumped from the great river.

It is quite possible to adapt the water and symmetry themes in designing a desert garden. Rather than four water channels, a single broad canal can be the central focal point, as a green lawn would be in a more conventional garden. The edges of the canal can be given a contemporary look by using a local cut stone such as limestone or slate with a polished edge. The geometric feel of the paradise gardens of the desert can be intensified by regular, closely clipped topiary, small pyramids and cubes of box hedging.

The desert garden must have trees. Plane trees for deep shade, as the Emperor Babur planted them in his garden in Afghanistan more than 500 years ago. Orange trees and lemon trees for dappled shade and for their scent and their beauty. Cypress trees to mark the corners and to be landmarks from afar.

This is, of course, the feeling of the oasis – for days you cross the desert with no shade at all and then you see ahead trees and running water – in the desert, that is a garden.