Who’s who

The gar­den de­sign duo on the hor­ti­cul­tural chal­lenges of work­ing in arid con­di­tions, the im­por­tance of tak­ing your time and how to cre­ate a par­adise gar­den


De­sign­ers Eric Os­sart and Ar­naud Mau­rières on liv­ing and gar­den­ing with re­spect for the planet

Within the up­per ech­e­lons of the in­ter­na­tional gar­den de­sign com­mu­nity, Eric Os­sart (stand­ing on the right) and Ar­naud Mau­rières are high priests of ex­ac­ti­tude. “The de­tail is vi­tal,” says Ar­naud. “We can spend years find­ing the right plants to make our gar­dens, then prop­a­gat­ing suf­fi­cient stock. We may live on site for a year, de­vel­op­ing a gen­eral con­cept, then re­fin­ing the de­tail. Ev­ery day we change some­thing. It means we can only make a few gar­dens, but it is es­sen­tial to our process.”

Os­sart and Mau­rières ex­cel in pro­duc­ing beau­ti­ful, sus­tain­able gar­dens in some of the most in­hos­pitable parts of the world. If their pro­file is rel­a­tively low in the UK, it is be­cause their work is so tuned to the hot dry cli­mates of the south­ern Mediter­ranean, Africa and South Amer­ica. “For too long the global ideal of a beau­ti­ful gar­den was based on the tem­per­ate Bri­tish cli­mate,” says Ar­naud. “To­day the wise use of water is a spe­cific is­sue for arid coun­tries, but to­mor­row it will be an is­sue that ev­ery­one must ad­dress. This is the prin­ci­ple on which we base our work.”

The paths the pair took to reach this point have been cir­cuitous. Ar­naud grew up on the out­skirts of Paris with an affin­ity for na­ture that found its fo­cus at the age of 15, when he spent a sum­mer in Dorset to im­prove his English and found him­self stay­ing with an orchid en­thu­si­ast. “I fell in love with the ex­oti­cism of the genus,” he says. He went on to study wild or­chids at uni­ver­sity, won sev­eral pres­ti­gious awards for his work on their in vitro re­pro­duc­tion, and later set up a spe­cial­ist lab­o­ra­tory in this field.

Eric was born in France but grew up in Morocco, cul­ti­vat­ing veg­eta­bles on the roof of his fam­ily home in Ra­bat and fre­quent­ing the ex­traor­di­nary Ex­otic Gar­den in Bouk­nadel. “It was a mag­i­cal jun­gle straight from the paint­ings of Rousseau,” he says, which fu­elled his twin pas­sions for art and plants. At 18, he moved to Paris to study hor­ti­cul­ture and land­scap­ing, gain­ing a diploma from L’École Na­tionale Supérieure de Paysage in Ver­sailles in 1985.

They met by chance at a hor­ti­cul­tural show 32 years ago, and joined forces to set up a nurs­ery spe­cial­is­ing in rare plants. When the busi­ness failed they moved to Paris and were soon de­sign­ing mu­nic­i­pal flowerbeds of such strik­ing orig­i­nal­ity that they wrote two books on the sub­ject. “We look at each chal­lenge with fresh eyes and de­velop our own cre­ative so­lu­tions,” says Ar­naud.

Eric be­came in­volved in the early years of the In­ter­na­tional Gar­dens Fes­ti­val of Chau­mont-sur-Loire, while Ar­naud set up the École Méditer­ranéenne des Jardins et du Paysage, where stu­dents had to be trained gar­den­ers be­fore they could learn to de­sign gar­dens. To­gether, they ran a stu­dio de­sign­ing gar­dens in north Africa and the Mediter­ranean. In 2003, they moved to Morocco to es­cape work pres­sures. In­evitably, work fol­lowed them, but the rad­i­cal change in en­vi­ron­ment trig­gered an­other typ­i­cally cre­ative re­sponse.

Their first Mo­roc­can com­mis­sion was a par­adise gar­den for Farah Pahlavi, for­mer em­press of Iran. “Cre­at­ing that gar­den made us re­alise it de­manded a lot of water. Even palm trees and cacti need gen­er­ous ir­ri­ga­tion,” says Ar­naud. They be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with plants that could thrive in tem­per­a­tures over 50°C. “We de­vel­oped a dense plant­ing style – maybe ten small plants per square me­tre – com­bin­ing per­ma­nent or­na­men­tals and sac­ri­fi­cial grasses. If you water gen­er­ously for the first few months the grasses grow up and screen out the sun, al­low­ing the de­sir­able plants to es­tab­lish. Af­ter a cou­ple of years the grasses dis­ap­pear and the per­ma­nent plant­ing makes up the ef­fect.” This method re­quired plants not nor­mally avail­able in lo­cal nurs­eries. “Eric spent five years find­ing good Mo­roc­can na­tives, and we go through a sim­i­lar process with ev­ery new coun­try we work in. The plants are dif­fer­ent, but the ef­fect is the same. We call it steppe style – a wild land­scape within a strict frame­work of paths.”

This frame­work is in­spired by Mod­ernism and in par­tic­u­lar the work of the Mex­i­can ar­chi­tect Luis Bar­ragán, who had a pas­sion for raw ma­te­ri­als and the dra­matic use of light. On a pil­grim­age to Mex­ico to visit some of his build­ings they fell in love with the coun­try and now have a home there, which com­bines tra­di­tional tech­niques with their con­tem­po­rary de­sign aes­thetic. “We have in­te­grated our gar­den phi­los­o­phy into our wider in­ter­ests in pot­tery and wo­ven car­pets, na­tive art and rammed earth build­ings.”

They have just un­veiled their most re­cent project – a fra­grant oa­sis near Mar­rakech, de­signed for Yves Saint Lau­rent Beauté. It is the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of these ideals, a true par­adise where gar­den and build­ing merge. “It is the cul­mi­na­tion of 20 years’ re­flec­tion,” ex­plains Ar­naud. “It is about dis­cov­er­ing a new way of life and gar­den­ing with re­spect for the planet. You can never go back once you re­alise that.” USE­FUL IN­FOR­MA­TION Find out more about Os­sart and Mau­rières at os­sart-mau­ri­eres.com IN JAN­UARY Mike Nel­hams, cu­ra­tor of Tresco Abbey Gar­den.


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