Olivier Filippi and the Mediterranean garden of the future


An overview of the garden created by Olivier and Carla Filippi over the last thirty years. To many of us it appears to be a quintessentially Mediterranean landscape, all those grey hummocks and of course the Italian cypresses. The visual balance between these two elements is powerful as well as symbolising a harmony between the natural and the cultural. The cypresses may be native to the region but the narrow form is the result of a long period of selection and the tree’s wide range is a reflection of centuries of planting.

Welcome to my blog. Please note that this is my new blog site, but I am still using my old one: noels-garden and that is where you should go to access previous postings etc. I hope you’ll agree this one shows off pictures much better! I also now blog monthly for Learning with Experts - this is more practically-orientated and entry-level, but always with little bit of detail on plant and garden history, ecology etc.


The irony though is that the vast majority of the plants here may be native to the Mediterranean region but very few of them are in cultivation. They are available from the nursery here of course, but in many cases it is Olivier who has pioneered their use in cultivation and their commercial production. He and Carla have spent a lifetime traveling throughout the region studying plants and habitats. Probably more than anyone else Olivier understands how plants survive the interactions between drought and soil in the region. So it is actually quite shocking to realise just how stereotypical many Mediterranean planted environments are, and/or dependent on irrigation.


Mediterranean gardens are dominated by a classical model based on the formal clipping of a limited range of species. There are good reasons for this - it is not just an exercise in conspicuous consumption as some northern Europeans think (the ‘look at the all gardeners I employ’ model of horticulture). Clipping is a way of giving meaning to the amorphous shapes of the limited number of plant species that stay green through the summer. Increasingly though people are criticising this model and turning instead to the aesthetics of wild landscapes.


The vegetation of wild landscapes does not have a high status here. Traditionally the maquis (or macchia, matorral, matos or whatever) is seen as a source of herbs, honey, hunted wildlife and firewood and given no value for itself. Given that these are very tough drought-tolerant plants, it is natural that Olivier and other practitioners of the new Mediterranean gardening should turn to the. There are simply so many grey-leaved, tough, twiggy, compact shrubs (or sub-shrubs as they are often called). Convergent evolution has resulted in many different unrelated species developing similar characteristics. Thinking as garden designers, there may be a similarity of form and texture, but there is huge variation in texture.


Gaps can be important part of the visual aesthetic, just as in nature many of these plants grow in environments where there are considerable gaps between plants. The visual qualities of the stone or other substrate is of course important. Gaps play a role in habitat diversity too, places for spring-flowering bulbs or annuals to grow or simply the space around planting allows us to better appreciate the planting.


Grasses (tough tight clump-formers, i.e. cespitose) species are one of the most effective contrasting forms to the default ‘grey hummock’. This scene is a typical example of the big gap in plant size between developing canopy trees (mostly stone pine, Pinus pinea) and a ground-hugging understorey. Its very attractive as well as a frequently occurring situation.


There is a lot of seeding going on, for example of these Euphorbia species here. Many of these plant species are relatively short-lived, which means that to survive they have to seed. Allowing, encouraging, but also managing seeding is an important part of habitat-based planting styles and to be honest is the barriers to wider adoption. Effective management of plant reproduction and replacement is a key part of how these plantings are looked after, skills which are not immediately obvious and which need to be communicated to those at the sharp end of maintenance.


Many of the grey hummocky plants are short-lived, in that they are naturally part of early succession communities, to be eventually replaced by trees and larger shrubs. That is happening here, as almonds and strawberry trees (Prunus dulcis and Arbutus unedo) are gradually establishing. As so many of us know, lavenders and cistus begin to deteriorate after a few years, they may live for 20 years plus, but if a large part of this is as scrubby rangy specimens many of us would rather not know. Annual light pruning helps keep them in shape. Such pruning is a vital part of maintenance but again, needs to be communicated effectively to those who wield the clippers; only light pruning is needed, not the ‘meatball’ pruning so often seen in public landscapes.


The amount of research that has gone on here is incredible. Much has been written up in Olivier’s books: Planting Design for Dry Gardens, and Bringing the Mediterranean Into Your Garden: How to Capture the Natural Beauty of the Mediterranean Garrigue. The nursery stocks a huge range of plants, and is amazingly tidy and organised. I’ve had a nursery myself and I know how hard it is to keep it this way! Olivier is actively researching plant propagation and keeps notes on a huge range of plants, all to be written up in another book one day.


One final thing. These plants, of lean-and-mean habitats, survive and flourish on well, lean and mean soils. They don’t like irrigation, or any unseasonal watering. They offer their services to those who can provide them with the right habitats. Those on moister and fertile soils will not have so much success!

Here’s the link to the information-packed nursery website.

lower level planting below trees.JPG

Blog roll: from Spain: Arañazos en el Cielo, Miguel Recio’s thoughtful blog about gardening and gardeners and El Blog de la Tabla. From los Estados Unidos we first have to mention the beautifully-illustrated View from Federal Twist, James Golden’s tales and images of gardening in the New Jersey backwoods and then Thomas Rainer’s Grounded Design - essential reading for all concerned with making our landscapes more sustainable and more planty. From Canada, Tony Spencer’s The New Perennialist is a must for lovers of contemporary planting. I can get terribly engrossed by the Garden History Girl blog, and in a similar, fascinating and well-researched vein is some LANDSCAPES.