I’ve shared with you my two favourite gardens from Marrakech, Le Jardin Secret and Jardin Majorelle, but there were so many more that we saw and loved. I hadn’t previously thought of Morocco as particularly garden-loving, but my week exploring this busy city quite changed my mind.
Having had time to reflect upon my experience, I realise there are many lessons that will stay with me and impact my future design thinking. I’d broadly summarise them into four categories:
The use of colour in Marrakech is tremendously skilful. You see every colour under the sun and yet it is rarely overpowering or distasteful. They manage to use just sufficient common threads to pull it all together and the vibrant, cheery effect lifts your soul.
A number of colours are seen more than others, reflecting historic influences and associated symbolism that’s still important today. The red, black, green and gold of Africa (think of their flags) and the red, black, green, yellow and white mentioned in the Quran. Green was supposedly Mohammed’s favourite colour (and also an Islamic symbol of nature and life; especially potent in the dry desert), and the gardens are overwhelming green; less flower colour than, say, a typical English garden. But they inject other colours in playful, innovative ways, bringing the garden to life.
Whilst the use of colour is not always predictable, at the same time it is somehow reassuringly consistent and I think this is why it works so well. Ideas are reinterpreted in new ways, but common themes run throughout the city, providing a satisfying ‘fit’.
The attention to detail seen in the fabric of buildings throughout Marrakech stops you in your tracks. It is, quite simply, mind-blowingly beautiful. Perfectly harmonious effects are created through a skilful balance of complexity and simplicity. The most intricately detailed carving will be in the purest, raw material. The time, effort, care and attention that has been put into the workmanship is clear for all to see; and just as well-loved gardens emit an atmosphere of joy, no matter how unconventional the design, so too do the buildings and hard landscaping of Marrakech.
I wonder how we have largely lost this desire for intricacy. Are we too focussed on having more, rather than quality? How can you not fall in love with something that has clearly had so much love put into it? With more money today than we have ever have, we sadly seem to be more focussed on price than on value, on cheap rather than expert workmanship, bigger houses rather than beautiful houses. I wonder when and if society will take more pride once again; take the time to make more effort.
3. Small spaces
Which leads me on to the next learning. In the centre of Marrakech, everything is small. Small passageways, small shops, small houses, small courtyards. But gosh, is there beauty in this compactness. Everything has to earn its place and there is little wastage. Innovation shines through and every square centimetre of space is optimised.
As I sit in my teeny tiny airbnb cottage in London, looking out over the 2m by 1.5m roof terrace, I’m thinking this learning could be useful over the next few years! It’s exciting to have the opportunity to really work a space, to have a completely open my mind to new ways of doing things and Marrakech has given me the confidence that anything is possible!
This isn’t a new learning as such, but Marrakech reinforced my view that abundance is one of the key success factors for gardens. In this dry, dry environment, many struggling gardens had large expanses of bare soil. If you could even call it soil. But my favourite gardens had no earth to be seen. There were entirely smothered in plants.
I’m currently reading a book called Planting in a post-wild world by Rainer and West. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book that I’d highly recommend to anyone with a garden, or even just an interest in gardens. It talks of how we are hard-wired with associations regarding nature, from the days when natural landscape type influenced life or death: our ability to find food and stay safe from predators.
Abundance equals life. And it equals future life; soil with vegetation rarely erodes, it stays moist for longer and without exposure to the sun, hosts more microorganisms and stays more fertile. It’s not surprising that full gardens appeal to us so much.
The vulnerable soils of dry climates mean they benefit from abundance even more so than temperate ones. In nature, apart from the driest of desserts, most landscapes are abundant. Perhaps only with hardy grasses, but typically there are niche plants that will find their way into any bare space. The book describes how we have a tendency in our gardens to plant things far apart and keep soil bare under shrubs in a way that differs from nature, resulting in a different (and I’d say compromised) emotional response.
If the gardens of Marrakech manage to create abundant plantings, why don’t we plant like this every time in our more tolerant climes?
Over-ridingly, the gardens of Marrakech have developed very strong themes and these themes tie them together, providing a clear sense of place. As I wander around London I see Yucca next to roses, yellow variegated shrubs next to dark conifers and see that it isn’t just Australia that could do with a little more sense of place. It seems, we all have a lot to learn from Morocco. Who would have thought?