In the foothills of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, designers Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurières have created a garden as stylish as the house it surrounds using only plants suited to the hot arid conditions
Silhouetted against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlas Mountains, the earth red pavilions of the Azaran complex have a strikingly sculptural quality that could have been harsh, were it not for the extraordinary planting that wraps around them on all sides. The work of renowned designers Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurières, these gardens exemplify the French expat duo’s passion for creating landscapes that are both visually stunning and environmentally respectful.
“It was 2010 when we first saw this place,” says Arnaud. “The buildings were not yet complete, but it was already clear that there was no proper relationship between the various elements. The main house, three pavilions with bedrooms, and a swimming pool were all spread around the blank canvas of a sloping site. Our first and most important intervention was to establish a route that led from entrance to garage to house to pool. This formed the basic map. Then we put in a series of shallow terraces to deal with the slope and impose a structure on the site.”
In classic Ossart + Maurières style, the resulting network of paths forms a strict grid. “We don’t do winding paths,” says Arnaud. “Your routes must be direct although your planting should break out of this and conceal the way ahead.” And what a planting it is… Many key plants were selected by Eric between 2000 and 2005, when he undertook an extensive survey to find Moroccan natives worth cultivating, “We tried hundreds of different plants and only succeeded with around ten per cent,” says Arnaud. Agave sisalana was one such success story. This was traditionally only grown as a commercial crop for the sisal industry until Eric and Arnaud spotted its ornamental qualities. At Azaran it now grows in vast drifts that intermingle with other agave cultivars, selected cacti and waving oceans of ornamental grasses to create a stunning effect.
“This is our Steppe planting style,” explains Arnaud. “It all looks very wild and native, but the plants may actually originate from Africa, America, Madagascar – anywhere we have found attractive plants that are adapted to the conditions. It is an artificial landscape but it looks very natural. Every garden should be a place of liberty where you can do what you want, provided that you don’t use too
much water and you don’t have anything that will escape into the wild. These are the universal principles.”
Similarly universal is the principle that even the most carefully selected plant will do better if planted into wellprepared soil. Since the ground at Azaran was naturally heavy and further compacted by the building work, before any planting could start it was first improved with the addition of large quantities of sand and sheep manure. “People think that cacti don’t need a rich soil, but every plant benefits from better growing conditions,” says Arnaud. “It is no exaggeration to say we probably spend more money on the soil than on the plants.”
Only once the site had been thoroughly prepared did the young ornamental plants go in, together with masses of sacrificial grasses to create a living sunscreen. This companion planting technique exploits the fact that grasses will grow up quickly and protect the more vulnerable plants as they get established. After a couple of years the grasses die away, by which time the permanent planting is sufficiently established to withstand the rigours of the climate.
In fact the strength of the sun at this latitude is not just a practical issue. It also has a pronounced visual impact. “Light drenches the site and this could have been too much, too strong,” says Arnaud. “You need some sense of enclosure to redress the balance, but here the architectural elements were almost too open. We used the pavilions as ‘enclosing’ walls, and created some sunken terraces. Even if the drop is just 30cm down, it is a powerful way of breaking up a space.”
They have also made good use of two sculptural arches designed by the architect. These once stood strangely alone but now rise out of a spiky sea of agaves, setting up a series of vertical points that stand in pleasing contrast to the strong horizontal planes of the twin arches.
Thanks to all that sheep manure, the garden established quickly and now has a rich volume that makes sense of the space. Eric and Arnaud’s expertly selected plant palette, impeccable horticulture and exquisite aesthetic judgement have combined to produce a world of quiet magic. The sun still blazes down relentlessly, but now it shines on a perfectly realised world where everything is as it should be. USEFUL INFORMATION Find out more about Eric and Arnaud’s work at ossart-maurieres.com
Left This courtyard filled with succulents, cacti and shrubs marks the intersection of the paths that link the garden’s three pavilions to the main house. The jacaranda-shaded sunken area to the right is used for boules.
Clockwise from top left On warm days this mix of Helichrysum italicum and topiarised lemon trees smells heavenly. Arnaud and Eric disapprove of topiary but to their dismay the head gardener here is a fiend with a pair of secateurs. The spiky Agave sisalana growing among the blue cactus Opuntia robusta on the side of the driveway was planted in Morocco in the 1930s for its sisal and is now subspontaneous in this area. A pink-flowered bougainvillea grows among Jasminum grandiflorum, the flowers of which are harvested for cosmetic company Yves Saint Laurent Beauté. Both work well with the clone of Agave americana in the foreground. Lantana camara ‘Avalanche’, the only truly white cultivar and yellow L. camara ‘Esperanta Lemon’ line the path to one of the pavilions. Beyond the spiky forms of Opuntia robusta and Agave americana contrast with the soft flowers.