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.
OUR GARDEN PHILOSOPHY IS INTEGRATED INTO OUR WIDER INTERESTS IN POTTERY, WOVEN CARPETS AND NATIVE ART