Morocco: In Paradise, after the Rains

If you have a love of walled gardens, whether urban courtyards or country hideaways with interconnected spaces full of surprises; if you would respond to unexpected approaches to gardening in arid conditions where water is at a premium and plants from across the world get along just fine together; and if you enjoy hikes along mountain valleys beside crystal clear streams, with towering carob and pistachio trees overhead and wild flowers all around – then Morocco is the country for you.

April’s journey from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains began with the urban courtyard garden, with a sensitively restored riadin the old medina(town) of Marrakech – itself enclosed behind walls – where brilliant bougainvillea cascades down a cypress tree and a rooftop terrace is packed with jasmine, cacti and yet more bougainvillea.

In the recently restored Jardin Secret there’s a different approach. The “exotic garden” has specimens from around the world, while a second courtyard features a modern riff on the Persian garden with geometric beds of Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), lavender (Lavandula dentata) and South African garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, and well-established olive trees.

Everywhere, there is water: pools and fountains, channels bisecting the courtyards, even paths laid with chevrons of blue-green tiles to imitate its cooling feel.

Arguably Marrakech’s most famous garden, Le Jardin Majorelle, established by artist-botanist Jacques Majorelle in the early C20 and later restored by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge, is densely planted with bamboo groves and huge trees. Kiosks and ceramics are painted in the famous bleu majorelle. The site has the bonus of a fascinating and beautifully laid out Museum of Berber Life.

Still, it was actually beyond Marrakech that we entered the most memorable part of the tour, heading south into the High Atlas and then on to Taroudannt.

No question, we were lucky. Travelling among the hills and mountains of southwest Morocco we soon saw the effects of a winter of heavy rain following several years of drought. A gentle carpet of fresh green, with here and there a haze of creamy-pink asphodels or brilliant red poppies, stretched all around. On a day trek to the casbah(fortress) of Toubkal, cherry, peach and pear trees filled the terraces and valleys with blossom as far as the eye could see, while white and deep purple irises edged fields of spring cereal crops.

In the mountains near Taroudannt, argan trees (Argania spinosa) were plentiful, their bitter fruits much favoured by goats. We stopped to watch a herd crowding around the trees, stretching up on hind legs to browse and then climbing into them before dropping down again, replete!

As we trekked up to an experimental nursery beyond the village of Imoulass, we passed myriad wild flowers: gladiolus, tassel hyacinth, pitcher plant, rock rose and wild lavender, among others, dotting the fields, tumbling over stone walls, finding a foothold in tiny spaces. Among the many species of tree, the walnuts were coming into bud, while shrubs included the broom, Genista monospermum.

The nursery is both rural retreat and botanical drawing board for French gardening duo Eric Ossart and Arnaud Maurieres, landscape designers (and, more recently, architects also) who have created homes and gardens for clients in Morocco, especially around Taroudannt, and internationally.

Moving away from traditional garden designs to invent new versions of paradise  referencing the historic Persian concept, Ossart and Maurieres have travelled widely, studied traditional farming practices in arid environments and experimented over several years in order to develop their own aesthetic.

This approach sets out to blend the responsible use of materials and water with planting schemes that privilege a truly natural feel, using plants or seeds from all over the world. Aged Moroccan olive trees are surrounded by Mexican grasses, aloes rub shoulders with agaves, American cacti share the earth with Madagascan succulents, while prickly pear rambles around all.

Every so often, there is a reminder of a traditional Moroccan garden: a glorious double yellow Rosa Banksia climbing up a palm tree at our hotel, Dar al-Hossoun, for example.

Sometimes, the designs are exceptionally pared down, as in a riadin Taroudannt, where green tiles suggest the element of water and a few well-chosen cacti in huge pots are framed against a courtyard wall.

Other times, Ossart and Maurieres have worked closely with a client to create a garden that blends many different design elements and planting schemes. One garden outside the medina is truly compelling with its geometric pattern of beds filled with RosaIceberg, white Lantana camara and Stipa grasses; superb water channel covered by a pergola; citrus grove; sheltered kiosk, romantically afloat in its own pool; and swimming pool shaded by Indian bead trees (Melia azedarach). Harmonious and inspired, this is a garden to cherish.

The outer walls of these extensive gardens, and of the houses themselves, are usually made from beaten clay extracted on-site, and Ossart and Maurieres have on occasion turned the resulting “quarry” into another exceptional feature: a sunken garden with its own tropical micro-climate.

An attractive example at our hotel, Dar al-Hossoun, is filled with dense vegetation growing luxuriantly beneath palm, banana and papaya trees. Morning glory (Ipomoea acuminata) twines around the railings above and a wonderful collection of succulents lines the steps to access the garden. Early in the morning and at sunset this is a magical place to wander around.

The hotels chosen, Les Deux Tours in the oasis of La Palmeraie just outside Marrakech and Dar al-Hossoun near Taroudannt, are exceptional, with fine – though contrasting – gardens. The former has an exemplary kitchen garden and the latter features drought-tolerant plants from across the world. Strutting around both estates the resident peacocks are kings of all they survey!

Posted by: A wanderer in North Africa