wild at heart
Twenty years in The making, italian writer Umberto Pasti’s moroccan hillside garden combines spectacular views with a carefully cultivated mass of indigenous Plants he has saved from extinction
Umberto Pasti is so passionate about preserving the native flora of northern Morocco, he has created a garden on a stony hillside above the sea south of Tangier. It is raining so hard when I arrive with the photographer that we slip and slide down the winding path to reach the little stone house. umberto comes out to greet us, stretches out his arms and hugs us as if we are long-lost friends. ‘You have brought the rain (from england),’ he exclaims. he tells us that they have not experienced proper rain in this northern tip of Morocco for three years. ‘The plants, the people, everyone needs this rain. We are so happy.’
umberto is originally from Milan and first came to Morocco 30 years ago, when he bought a house in Tangier. he has always been drawn to nature, especially wild flowers, so he began to create a garden there, filling it with plants that thrive in the region. ‘These garden plants didn’t speak to me as much as the wild flowers I had seen as a child, but I learned to love them,’ he says. ‘I became a gardener, and now I make gardens for other people, too.’
But lovely though his city garden is, umberto’s real passion is for the garden he has made in the countryside south of Tangier. Twenty years ago, he went for a long walk along this stretch of coast, climbing the stony hillside to look back down at the magnificent seascape. ‘I fell asleep under a fig tree and woke up knowing that I had to come and live here,’ he explains. ‘I knew I had to build a garden here.’ so with the help of a Moroccan friend, he set about trying to buy some land near the village of rohuna, a near-impossible venture due to baffling land divisions and ancient tribal laws, leading to negotiations with at least 20 different parties. any other foreigner would have given up at the first hurdle, but umberto persevered, determined to make the project work – and eventually he won. Working with a team of men from nearby villages, umberto started to carve a garden and a home out of the dusty hillside. ‘For hundreds of years, this was a charcoalmaking area, so all the trees had disappeared, the hills were bare and the soil was baked,’ says umberto. ‘People hadn’t given anything back to the soil, so we have had to transport hundreds of tons of topsoil and manure.’ Today, the garden is a paradise of shady trees, tangled greenery and jewel-like flowers that jostle together on terraces linked
by meandering stone walls. The same stone has been used to make the modest house that umberto lives in while he is here. Water, clearly a precious resource in this climate, has been brought into the garden by means of a 90-metre-deep borehole. ‘Before, the women in the village would have to walk five kilometres to the source to collect water – now they can come here to get it,’ says umberto. ‘I wanted to give something back to these people.’
umberto’s vision for the garden has been clear from the start. he wanted to fill it with the indigenous Moroccan plants that he could see disappearing from landscapes blighted by development. ‘When I first came to Morocco, plants and bulbs such as the wild Iris tingitana (Tangerian iris) were everywhere. You had to go only a few miles out of the city to see great fields of it. I was smitten.’ But then construction began to spread and great swathes of plants were destroyed. umberto’s mission was to save these irises and other plants from disappearing altogether, so he started visiting the building sites, literally snatching the bulbs from underneath the bulldozers and replanting them in his garden.
now, in the outer reaches of his garden, the Tangerian iris has found a safe haven. With statuesque purple-blue flowers
appearing in January and February, it is one of six Moroccan irises that can be found here, flowering in succession throughout the year. another iris, the I. juncea var.
numidica, was almost extinct when umberto spotted it growing by the side of the road. ‘I had been looking for it for years and there it was, almost lost in the middle of some roadworks.’ In addition to irises, thousands more Moroccan species can be found in umberto’s living museum of plants – from narcissi and fritillaries to meadow saffron. on the terraces near the house, he has allowed himself to wander from his original plan, planting non-indigenous species with the help of Belgian botanist Bernard dogimont. clusters of roses, spiky agaves and lilies, among hundreds of other plants, crowd the paths, a verdant jungle to get lost in. a consummate storyteller, umberto has woven tales around all the terraces: there are english, Italian, Portuguese and egyptian gardens – each attributed to an imaginary character. ‘The englishman, for example, is a melancholy drunk,’ says umberto. ‘I like taking a piece of reality and creating a fiction around it. By giving each part of the garden a story, it suddenly has a history – a fictional history, yes, but that doesn’t matter. I forget that it’s made up.’
as we wander round the garden after the rainstorm, everything is shiny and revived. umberto waves his arms around, exclaiming with glee, and tells us stories about his beloved plants. a‘ garden should be made with honesty and with love,’ he concludes. ‘For me, a garden is all about the plants and the people, more than it is about design and aesthetics. It is real.’
clockwise, from left a path leads through the shadow garden, with euphorbia ingens on either side; cosmos and dahlias create a haze of colour; the steeply sloping garden has been carved into a series of terraces and pathways; the rescued iris filifolia – one of the many threatened local species replanted in the garden; the main stone pathway
from left old trees with sculptural trunks provide shade in warm weather; euphorbia ingens is found throughout; locally made terracotta pots and sculptural plants create focal points and frame views throughout the garden