After Morocco: Re-thinking the Garden
Time to come clean: The Jasmine Garden privileges a European concept of gardening over what might be truly appropriate for the local environment. The house, a new build, was delivered complete with a nascent lawn and the odd tree or yucca along the perimeter fence, plus an irrigation system. So the model was assumed, if not set.
Without reflecting too much, I planned herbaceous borders, fruit trees, and herb and kitchen gardens.
The borders are quite unusual in Egypt, and the kitchen garden with its five raised beds almost unheard of. Apart from that, the garden is conventional – by English standards!
Plus – there’s an underlying assumption that water for irrigation is plentiful. In theory, it is. Or, rather, it has been. But it’s an open question if that will remain true for much longer. So, is there another way to garden?
Morocco has opened new horizons. In the southwest, around Taroudant, exceptional gardens have succeeded in an arid environment. Beautifully designed, richly planted, and full of life, they are a surprise – and an inspiration.
Most are the work of French duo Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurieres, who began by designing gardens, then moved on to houses – creating a complete living space, I guess. They lived in Morocco for years and, although now based in Mexico, they still own property, and spend time, there.
Travelling from California to Madagascar, Mexico to Yemen, Ossart and Maurieres learned best practice for cultivating land in challenging conditions of infrequent rainfall, scarce water and periods of drought. They collected seeds and cuttings to try out in the new gardens and, later on, in their nursery in the High Atlas Mountains. And they experimented, with some failures, many successes, and a rich experience along the way.
Their work is as incredible as it is brave: Beautiful, luxuriant gardens that marry Middle Eastern themes – water channels and pools, multiple courtyards, palms and olives – with new and inspiring features such as sunken gardens and dense planting of species from across the world. A touch of old Morocco appears in places – pavilions by pools and climbers trained up palm trees, like this double floribunda Rosa Banksia:
So how do they do it?
In their book “Eloge de l’Aridite” (perhaps best translated as: “In Praise of an Arid Environment”), they outline the ways to create a “steppe” garden beginning with careful preparation of the site by clearing out all weeds; construction of defining features, such as walls and pathways, water cisterns, pools and fountains; and planting the land with a view to creating a thriving green space.
Water is an outstanding feature of many of their designs:
The basins and channels tend to be shaded – to reduce evaporation – and water is replenished via a closed circuit system from a cistern beneath.
Some irrigation is unavoidable, especially when plants are young to establish root systems. Later, all but the most tender are watered infrequently, but thoroughly, rather as farmers cultivating terraced hillsides would do. In periods of drought, adapted plants simply rest, they explain, but they rarely die. One good watering, or downpour, will soon revive them.
Their choice of plants is fascinating.
Structure, form, colour:
Taller trees and dominant plants go in first, to help form the overall structure of the garden and provide shade for other plants that thrive in arid conditions but do not tolerate harsh sunlight . Then smaller shrubs – note the agaves interplanted with grasses above. Colour is added by flowering succulents, herbs, and roses that tolerate a dry climate, such as R. Iceberg, seen here in two contrasting gardens:
Among the most wonderful features, to my mind, of Ossart and Maurieres’ work are the sunken gardens, serendipitously constructed in the deep excavations left by digging out soil for the “rammed earth” walls of houses built using traditional materials.
Cool, lush greenery beneath a canopy of banana trees… trailing Morning Glory (Ipomoea acuminata), succulents and palms galore… The sunken garden becomes another world, a dream complete with its own micro-climate!
So could this be a model for New Cairo? Why not? I’m thinking about a water feature; replacing part of the lawn with a really deep border of dense planting traversed by gravel pathways makes good sense. It would mean exchanging colour for a more sober palette of greens, but that’s okay – and I can play around with the colours of foliage. It’s a thought…. and a temptation… and I might get carried away. A sunken garden, however? Dream on!
Eloge de l’Aridite: Un autre jardin est possible – Ossart & Maurieres with photography by Marie Taillefer, pub. by plume de carotte: