Olivier Filippi

Dry gardening guru Olivier Filippi

The French dry gardening guru on learning from his mistakes, adapting to climate change and why the future of UK gardening may owe more to sculpture than to painting
 Words by Stephanie Mahon, portrait Charlie Hopkinson

Olivier Filippi is known as the dry gardening guru, a pioneer of drought-tolerant planting, and his nursery in France draws people from all over the world. Long before the phrase ‘climate change’ entered common parlance, this passionate plantsman and his wife, Clara, were looking to Mediterranean landscapes to offer a wholly different approach to gardening. “There is an obvious necessity in southern Europe to create gardens with no water consumption,” he explains. “In the future, water won’t be available to us.”

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It has been an unlikely career for a boy who grew up near Paris with no horticultural background. Dissatisfied with university, he quit his philosophy degree and began travelling around Europe, taking on seasonal work to survive. When he and Clara decided to live together and start a business in the South of France, they fell back on the one job he had done for an extended period – working in a nursery.

It was 1984, and to get started the couple rented a small plot and drove their wares around in an old van. “It was the beginning of a wonderful adventure. We were lucky enough to know nothing, so it seemed that anything was possible. We should have failed. We had many problems – either we missed the growing conditions and the plants died, or we had a beautiful batch but didn’t have customers. But we learned from our mistakes.”

In the UK, as soon as you have a heatwave, you have a hosepipe ban. How would you cope with constant heat of 35-40°C?

The couple also began travelling, and were captivated by Mediterranean landscapes. “We decided we wanted to grow the plants we loved in the landscape, whatever it took, even if it led to us closing the nursery. The idea is fashionable now, but then no one was interested in native Mediterranean species adapted to dry gardens. We started with a small range, and showed it around flower shows and markets and nobody would buy a single plant.” He laughs wryly at the memory. “It was what I call our ‘walking through the desert’ period.” They held on, he says, because of the intimate pleasure of the miracle of propagation. “When everything fails and suddenly something works, it is a huge gift and you are extremely happy.”

Over the past 30 years, he and Clara have honed their propagation skills on 100 botanical trips across the Mediterranean and Mediterranean climate zones. From Crete to Cyprus, Syria to Sardinia, they study or collect plants, sometimes in their special van equipped with a tiny propagation lab, fridge and solar panels. In this way, they discover species new to horticulture and bring them home to Mèze to trial and propagate as possible new garden plants.

They are aided in this by an informal research group, working around the Mediterranean and elsewhere, which includes botanists, ecologists and landscape designers, such as James and Helen Basson and Thomas Doxiadis. This network is focused on the link between the landscape, human history and the future of gardens. “The Mediterranean is a totally man-made landscape,” Olivier explains, “And as such it’s an immediate model for gardens, because it’s artificial and beautiful. It’s also extremely resilient through a long history of disturbances – whatever happens, from fire to erosion to overgrazing, it always comes back, cycle after cycle.” There are at least 25,000 drought-tolerant species in the Mediterranean, he says, which is one-tenth of the world’s flora. “How many of these thousands of plants are grown in cultivation?” he asks. “Maybe a couple of hundred. So there is a lot to do.”

His new book, Bringing the Mediterranean Into Your Garden, does exactly what it says on the tin, giving an idea of this aesthetic and what a drought-tolerant garden looks like. “It is totally different from an English garden,” he says. “The first thing is that you have to forget about flowers in summer. We focus on foliage and the diversity of texture and scent, and play with evergreen material, which covers the ground all the time, at different heights from low groundcover to high mounding plants. You have to consider the garden as a sculpture, not a painting.”

How relevant is this approach to our own green and pleasant land? “It will be relevant for your grandchildren,” he says. “In the UK, as soon as you have a little heatwave, you have a hosepipe ban right away. Then a lawn or a mixed border is able to survive for maybe three weeks or a month, but not two to four months’ drought, with constant heat of 35-40°C, like we have. This is a projection of what you’ll have in between 50 to 100 years’ time.”

To illustrate his point, at the recent Society of Garden Designers conference in London he showed delegates an image of a lawn in Hyde Park. “Imagine this scene without a single square metre of grass,” he challenged them. “What will that look like? What will you do with the open space in summer, the baked soil? These are the questions we deal with, and you will have to deal with in due time.”

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Pépinière Filippi, RD 613 34140 Mèze, France. Tel +33 (0)4 6743 8869 jardin-sec.com
• Olivier Filippi’s Bringing the Mediterranean Into Your Garden: How to Capture the Natural Beauty of the Mediterranean Garrigue is published Filbert Press priced £40. His first book, Dry Gardening Handbook, has been also been reissued by Filbert Press, £40.