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Climate change: how to create a dry but dazzling garden

A French plantsman who loves a drought is expanding our plant palette, says Tim Richardsonclimate change 1

Club Med: the Filippis’ dry garden Photo: Clive Nichols Garden Pictures

Apparent changes in the climate, and therefore in our expectations of gardens and the plants we use in them, have led to a growing appreciation of drier-climate or “Mediterranean” plants. Yet many planting gurus in Britain remain locked in the lush embrace of a romantic palette of herbaceous perennials, so suited to our country-gardening traditions.

But creative and ambitious gardeners need to look farther afield for inspiration. Their mission: to find intriguing new plants that thrive in tough, drought-like conditions.

One place worth seeking out is Olivier Filippi’s nursery, located between Montpellier and Béziers in the Languedoc region of south-west France. Plantes pour Jardins Secs (plants for dry gardens) does what it says on the tin – specialising in plants resistant to the heat, wind, limestone and occasional severe cold of the Languedoc region.

Olivier Filippi calls it “a kind of ‘dry is beautiful’ philosophy, where instead of fighting against drought and poor soil, you base the design of the garden or landscape on enhancing the unusual beauty of species growing in tough conditions.”

This is a husband-and-wife team. “Clara and I started very young (I was 24) with a tiny and very modest nursery,” Olivier recalls. “We visited many places, including major gardens in England – and we spent some time at Kew and Wisley, dreaming of a new approach to gardening. Early on, we decided to focus on Mediterranean natives.”

climate change 2Olivier Filippi (CLIVE NICHOLS)

Olivier and Clara have graduated from plant-collecting trips around the Mediterranean, with Sicily a special destination, to places farther afield (California, South Africa, Chile, Australia). Recently, they started making what Olivier calls “landscape studying” trips.

“In the past 10 years or so, we have been more and more interested in natural Mediterranean landscapes,” he explains. “This means studying not only the plants, but how and why the plants live where they live . How the ecological functioning of the landscape creates the specific and very attractive beauty of the Mediterranean garrigue. We have developed several of our lawn-alternatives by observing different types of landscapes. The Mediterranean meadows in Sicily, high-altitude steppes in the Moroccan Atlas, natural gravel gardens in the Greek islands, and allelopathic low-maintenance ground covers in our local garrigue.”

Olivier describes the couple’s trial garden at the nursery as low maintenance. No irrigation, just an annual trim to enhance the natural mounding shape of Mediterranean sub-shrubs: “We trim as goats would do in the wild. We call it goat gardening.”

There’s very little weeding. Plants self-seed freely in an evolving garrigue landscape. “We mainly just sit and observe plants and insect life,” he adds.

They have adapted nursery techniques to the special requirements of Mediterranean native species: special “anti-spin” pots to favour high root quality; very little feeding or irrigation in order to encourage tough and hardened plants; no chemical input to allow natural mycorrhizal symbiosis in the soil, which will later on help plants to survive in tough conditions. The Filippis also do all their own propagation from seeds or cuttings.

“For us there is a deep sense of the place behind many of the plants we grow,” Olivier says. “Just seeing Salvia fruticosa in our garden brings us back to the gorges of the White Mountains in South-Western Crete, the intense fragrance of Artemisia herba-alba takes us to the barren overgrazed landscapes of the Anti-Atlas south of the Sous Valley. The silky pale pink flowers of Cistus x pauranthus are a reminder of the beautiful Akamas Peninsula in Cyprus. And the red bark of Arbutus andrachne takes us to the surprisingly green Allouites mountains in Syria, which separate the Mediterranean coast from the inner deserts of Asia Minor.”

Filippi has become something of an international horticultural celebrity in recent years, especially among American gardeners, for some of whom the Languedoc plant palette is climatically suitable. But he is not about to hang up his plant-hunting boots any time soon:

“Plant hunting is addictive,” he says. “The more you go, the more you want to go.”

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