Two great gardens in Marrakech

The cubist villa in the Jardin Majorelle

Apologies for the long silence – as seems to happen every year, Chelsea Flower Show and other things get in the way. One of the other things this May was a trip to Marrakech. As with our trip to Italy last autumn, Vicky and I principally went to look at gardens, which we did in abundance. I’ll cover the two most prominent gardens in this post – Majorelle garden and Le Jardin Secret, but I will delve into others in a following post that you might want to visit if you are heading out to Morocco.

The Majorelle Garden was created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle over a forty year period in the first half of the twentieth century, up until his divorce in 1950, when it was sold. He also built a remarkable cubist villa designed by Paul Sinoir. Following the sale, the garden fell into disrepair until it was rediscovered by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé who set about restoring it.

The garden’s most notable feature is its use of colour, particularly the bright cobalt blue (known as Bleu Majorelle) which many of the structures and containers are painted. This is remarkable – and much imitated. However, although this is what everybody notices first, there is much more to the garden than this.

The light and shade creates beautiful effects which contrast dramatically with the blue.
Amazing textures and forms in the succulents part of the garden

The structure of the garden is interesting. It is actually two gardens joined together (check opening times if you are going – part of the garden is only open a couple of days a week, which is not really advertised). It slips comfortably from informal to formal and back again. There are unexpected vistas and some great shots of the Sinoir-designed villa against the sky. But the thing I liked in particular was the variety and richness of texture. It swings from mounds of brightly coloured Bougainvillea through chalky blue-grey succulents to spikey palms.

The pools are an interesting fusion between European and Islamic design

The use of water is also beautiful and very reminiscent of Islamic gardens (which is hardly surprising). There is a system of rills and large tanks, with the latter full of water lilies.

My advice would be to visit early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. The garden is extremely popular with tourists.

Later on in our trip, we visited Tom Stuart-Smith’s Jardin Secret. This is a garden situated near the old city, on the site of an ancient Riad (Garden Villa). The original plan of the developers had been to build a hotel, but the combination of planning consent and funding proved difficult and eventually the idea of the garden (as an attraction) was born.

Beautiful array of textures in TSS’s world garden at Le Jardin Secret
Plants from all over the world in this section

The garden is made up of two linked spaces, joined at one corner. The two gardens have very different characters. The first is strictly non-historical in its design, although it draws deeply on the ideas of courtyard gardens and also the concept of Marrakech as a the crossroads of culture – African, Western, Arab and Eastern. It consists of plants from all over the world – a riot of texture and colour. I spent hours in in this space, endlessly photographing and trying to etch the textures and colours into my memory. I was like a child confronted with a free-run of pick-and-mix (and a very large bag!). The multiple textures in particular fascinated me.

Olives provide the structure in the Riad’s second space – more traditional in feel but with a contemporary twist

The second garden is more traditional in some ways; the layout having been designed according to familiar middle eastern quartered patterns, with a pavilion at the centre. Some of the plants are also familiar – Citrus and Olive are used in abundance. Fig, pomegranate and date are there, but stuck over in one corner. The use of the rosemary hedges is also quite traditional, although the constantly moving fronds of grass and sweeps of Allium less so. Nonetheless, the whole effect is charming, and again I could have spent hours there (indeed I did).

The rosemary hedges define the quadrants, with lavender, allium, grasses and citrus.
The grasses move constantly in the wind. When we were there in early May, they were just cutting them back.

Connecting the two gardens is a series of water features which flow in a serial manner, very much as they would have done originally. The larger and more traditional of the two courtyards is laid on the lines of the original garden and many of the historic water features have been restored. These would have been fed from a private water supply drawn from the Atlas mountains. The ancient technology needed to achieve this is thoroughly explored through very clear information boards. There are also some videos, including interviews with Tom.

If you love gardens, this is not one to miss – I would say you need to set aside about three hours for a visit, although you could do it in less. Luckily, there is a very nice roof terrace restaurant with shady parasols in which to recover.

With us or against us?

We all know competition in markets is the best way to improve things. It drives down prices for consumers, drives up standards and ensures the best win. Where would the Olympics be without competition? Collaboration in markets, on the other hand, leads to anti-competitive practices such as cartels, monopolies and blacklisting.

An alternative view is that collaboration is the best way to achieve good results. Sharing knowledge and working together is how all the best discoveries have been made. Where collaboration leads to transparency, competition leads to secrecy, and a race to the bottom, as well as firms and individuals bending or breaking the rules to win. And where there are winners, there are also losers.

Which of these world views is true – or are they both right? The natural tendency in business is to not tell people how you have achieved things, to try and steal a march on your competitors. There is nothing like healthy competition, as the saying goes. But when does competition become unhealthy? Extremes of competition can be detrimental, but there are lots of grey areas in between where this may not be true.

An ex-colleague of mine used to say that he didn’t see the point of going to industry meetings or writing for industry magazines. “You’re just talking to the competition,” he would say, “and what’s to be gained from that?” There is, of course, much to be gained from talking to the competition. Conferences and formal events, where we get a window on the way inspiring practitioners think, are an obvious bonus. Sharing experiences and solutions – the ‘how did you cope with this?’ scenario – is also good. I have learnt a lot over the years from casual conversations with friends and associates, and this is also what makes SGD Cluster Groups so useful and popular.

Conventional wisdom is to keep information that leads to a competitive advantage to yourself in business. Clearly there is no advantage, mutual or otherwise, to telling competitors about a great opportunity that you have just spotted. But what about the many techniques and processes that give us competitive advantages in business? Is there any benefit in sharing this information with others? Surely anything that gives an advantage to our competitors, is a disadvantage to us?

Counter-intuitively, I think that conscious sharing of best practice is an advantage to us. An obvious example of this is the ‘altruistic mechanism’, whereby if we do something that is good for others, we will benefit at some future point when they do the same for us. But I would go further than this. The development of new techniques and processes takes time and investment, and so tends to make those innovators more expensive in comparison to others. We know that the benefit to the client is worth it, and that this outweighs the slight increase in cost. So it follows that sharing best practice is not just altruistic – it’s actually in our interests to raise everybody’s game.

There is another aspect to collaboration that is vital to garden designers. We are mostly sole practitioners or small practices. The projects that we work on vary and often involve challenges that are beyond the skills of the individual. An architect I know says that he is only as good as the team he can assemble on any project, and that is true for garden designers too.

RHS Chelsea is a perfect example of this. Most gardens have mixed elements of structures, water features, artworks and planting that are beyond one person’s skills – that is the joy of them. Chelsea is, of course, fiercely competitive (just watch people’s faces on camera when they are told they have got a Silver- Gilt medal when they wanted a Gold).

Darren Hawkes’ garden at the Chelsea Flower Show 2017

But as I walk down Main Avenue during build-up, I see people lending equipment to each other, sharing plants, even helping on each other’s plots. And best of all, despite the passionate nature of the rivalry, there is an atmosphere of shared endeavour. So, despite my occasional misgivings, perhaps Chelsea is, after all, an example of the industry at its best: competition and collaboration in perfect balance.

[This piece was originally published as an article in the Garden Design Journal in June 2019 as part of the ‘Just Saying’ series]