Gardens Illustrated Magazine - - Travel - WORDS JODIE JONES PHO­TO­GRAPHS CLAIRE TAKACS

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-mau­ri­


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.

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