Planting Design for Dry Gardens – Olivier Filippi

Though it might not seem immediately relevant for Irish gardens, the more I read this book the more I enjoyed it, for the philosophy of its approach, the beauty of the book itself and, believe it or not, for the many ways in which this approach to gardening might be applied in an Irish garden situation. Most of all, I enjoyed reading this book because it was obviously based on years and years of observation, trial and error, so the comments and advice contained there come with a gentle but assured authority. It is a gardening book written by a gardener with dirty fingers and broken nails, a man of great experience and great love of plants and gardens.

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The book is written specifically as a handbook for those who garden in dry climates, especially for those who garden in the areas around the Mediterranean. I heard Beth Chatto’s old comment the other day – “Right plant – right place” – that we should choose the plants that suit our garden conditions as these are the plants which will do best for us. Olivier Filippi is saying exactly the same thing with an particular emphasis on the Mediterranean lawn and how to replace it.

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The natural vegetation of the Mediterranean area which was an inspiration for Olivier Filippi
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Allowing the natural dynamics of the landscape free expression!

Quite simple, he states, the lush green lawns we see in British or Irish gardens are not suitable for gardens around the Mediterranean and are only an “invasion in the last decades”. These lawns suit our climates where we have abundant rainfall to maintain them in the summer but to do so near the Mediterranean requires – in the south of France, in Marseilles or Montpellier – 1,000 litres of water per square metre per year! Yes, 1,000 litres per square metre! An incredible amount! A lawn in Andalucía would require 2,000 litres per square metre! The author insists that this is simply unsustainable and unsuitable to the climate in which he lives. While the first gardens of the Mediterranean area always had an abundance of water in rills, pools and fountains, it was never used on grass. This has been a recent trend only.

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Requiring neither watering nor pesticides, the groundcover garden requires less maintenance than the traditional lawn.

George Washington was ever so proud of his lawn at Mount Vernon, grazed by goats, and he lead the way in it becoming a fashion in the United States. The invention of the lawnmower meant the lawn became a practical addition, and obsession, for the smaller household and this became a boom after the Second World War with the development of chemical fertilizers and selective herbicides. Nowadays, 60% of the water consumption in southern California is for the irrigation of lawns and automatic irrigation systems have become a basic garden installation in Mediterranean gardens – again to support the fashion for lush green lawns. Scott and Monsanto have even developed a lawn grass variety named “Roundup Ready” which is resistant to the indiscriminate herbicide ‘Roundup’.

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A mixed groundcover, consisting of Thymus hirsutus, Thymus ciliatus and Phyla canescans

However, with growing awareness of how our gardening impacts on our environment, there has been a movement away from the traditional lawn. We have seen the increasing popularity of the use of meadows of grass and wild flowers, the complete replacement of lawns with groundcover plants as seen at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens, the increased use of xeriscape plantings in Arizona and New Mexico which use no water at all and the use of ornamental grasses with herbaceous perennials as lead by Piet Oudolf. We have all read of the wonderful meadows at Great Dixter, the gravel beds developed on the former car park at The Beth Chatto Garden and this movement is spreading and nowadays modern landscape designers in Greece and the south of France are developing gardens which require little water or maintenance and no lawn. Rather than lawns there are natural meadows which are dry in summer and which revive in autumn or there are a variety of groundcover approaches to planting which will give year round interest – all outlined in this book.

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In abandoning the goal of the perfect lawn, gardeners find that more natural lawns bring unexpected pleasures.

Gardeners are becoming more aware of their ecological impact and of their duty of care to the environment: “The model of a garden covered by a perfect lawn which is made possible only by a massive use of water, fertilizers and pesticides is reaching the end of its sway” and gardeners are “turning towards a kind of garden that better respects local soil and climatic conditions.”

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A steppic landscape. The stony soil is dotted with widely spaced patches of vegetation, including thyme, germander, bird’s foot trefoil, cinquefoil and Stipa

This book was originally published in 2011 in French, Alternatives au gazon, and the core of the book, a most perfect practical handbook, sets out Olivier Filippi’s suggestions and guidelines for his lawn alternatives. The various approaches suggested are guided by the proposed use of each area: whether or not it is an area which will be walked on regularly or not, for example. There are plant suggestions and general how-to advice on developing flowering carpets, flowering steppes, gravel gardens, the greening of stony surfaces, perennial shrub and ground covering of large areas, wild gardens and flowering meadows.

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A thick layer of gravel covers the ground between plants in a gravel garden

The section on planning and maintenance is simply stated and perfectly practical with sections on soil preparation, drainage, planting, watering (first year only), maintenance and weeding. The A – Z of plants lists 200 groundcover plants for dry gardens and many of the suggestions will be familiar to Irish gardeners and  made me think that this approach to gardening might not be as foreign as I might have first imagined and the likes of Achillea, Ajuga, Ceratostigma, Crocus, Cyclamen, Erica, Erigeron, Euphorbia, Geranium, to mention a few, certainly find suitable homes in our gardens and, I imagine, there are areas in many of our gardens which could be developed in the manner outlined in this book.

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The successive levels of large limestone slabs are enhanced by edgings of vegetation.

Although written for gardeners in Mediterranean areas I think, more fundamentally, this is a book which calls on all gardeners to be open to new suggestions and approaches in our gardening; to think about how we garden and to be willing to amend our methods to suit more than our present considerations and fashion trends. Do we need to water so much? Do we use chemicals unnecessarily? Do we consider the needs of wildlife? Do we give space to native plants? Do we choose plants which are part of our national horticultural heritage and do we make an effort to conserve them? While this book is a rethinking of the Mediterranean lawn it is also a call to us to rethink our approach to our own garden.

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Flowering meadows enable us to cover large areas while reducing maintenance

[Planting Design for Dry Gardens, Olivier Filippi, translated by Caroline Harbouri, Filbert Press, 2016, HB, Large format, 239pp, £35, ISBN: 978-0-99338-920-7]

Paddy Tobin

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