The origins of Le Jardin Secret lie in a dentist’s waiting-room in Mayfair. Sante Giovanni Albonetti, an Italian businessman, had acquired a development site on the ruins of an ancient riyad and its garden at the centre of Marrakech’s medina with his business partner, Lauro Milan. They had planned to build a hotel, but after the crash of 2008 started contemplating other possible uses for a space that was both huge and, because of the high walls in the medina, invisible to the outside world. Browsing through a magazine, Albonetti saw an article about a “secret garden” that Tom Stuart-Smith, Britain’s most celebrated garden designer, was creating – and thought, “That’s it!” So the developers hired Stuart-Smith to make one for them too.
There is nothing unusual about creating an ambitious garden in Morocco. It is a wonderful place for cultivation (the region does much of Europe’s market gardening), for the High Atlas mountains keep temperatures down and provide snow-melt that flows into underground aquifers. Gardens are central to Islam. While Christianity’s paradise is a vague notion of proximity to God, Islam’s is firmly rooted in a garden, with a detailed planting scheme described in scripture: fig and pomegranate, olive and date-palm. The basic chahar-bagh (four-garden) shape was first used by the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great two and a half millennia ago, and the idea of a formal garden came to Europe from the Muslim world via Moorish Spain. The illustrations for the “Roman de la Rose”, a 13th-century French poem, show a garden clearly modelled on an Islamic one.
Morocco’s French colonisers, partial to building winter homes in their balmy southern possession, continued the tradition. Marrakech’s most famous garden was created by a French painter, Jacques Majorelle. It fell into disrepair after his death in 1962, and was bought in 1980 by Yves Saint Laurent and his companion Pierre Bergé, who restored it to blue-themed glory.
Now there is a new burst of garden-creation going on in and around Marrakech. André Heller, an Austrian artist, has melded art and flora in his surreal Anima garden in the Ourika valley; Gary Martin, an American ethnobotanist, has created what he calls an “edible landscape” around his wife’s hotel, Jnane Tamsna, located in the Palmerie, a five-mile-long grove of date palms on the city’s northern edge.
Le Jardin Secret, which opened earlier this year, is unusual in that it is at the heart of the city’s densely populated ancient centre. It is also, at first sight, more traditional than the other new gardens flourishing in the area. That suits the location, for the garden’s design – in line with the Koranic ideal – offers cool in the heat of the day (in contrast to the baking city centre) and order amid the chaos of human existence (of which the surrounding bazaars are a constant reminder). The chahar-bagh shape of the main garden is established by turquoise-tiled walkways that cross at a central fountain; each quarter is similarly quartered, with a fountain at its centre. Pavilions at either end (one with an un-traditional coffee shop) offer shade, as will the orange and olive trees when fully grown. A raised pool beside the main pavilion feeds the waterways and cools the seating area.
Stuart-Smith wanted to create a real Islamic garden, rather than the Western idea of one. “My instinct, as an English gardener, is to have climbers all over the walls. Bougainvillea, that sort of thing. But that’s not the tradition. Think of the name: bougainvillea was discovered by a French explorer in Latin America. You can’t plant bougainvillea in this garden.” He followed Koranic precepts on tree-planting, but allowed a later introduction. “Sweet oranges are a 15th-century innovation, but they were important in Marrakech, so I’ve included them.” Stuart-Smith is strict with his clients: Albonetti asks tentatively whether a non-native iris is permitted in the main garden. “No,” says Stuart-Smith firmly. He is happy to use plants that would be at home in an English garden, so long as they have a claim to authenticity. When I visited, he carried tenderly with him a musk rose and a damask rose (originally from Damascus, and brought to England by the crusaders).
But any adventurous designer wants to play with tradition. Stuart-Smith has done that in two ways. One is by underplanting the trees with Mexican feather grass. “It’s a very contemporary twist,” says Tim Upson, the Royal Horticultural Society’s director of horticulture, who was visiting with a party of botanists when I was there. “When the wind blows, the play of sun and shadows creates interesting patterns.” The softness of the grass also underlines the garden’s role as a place of respite, relief and comfort. Stuart-Smith’s second innovation is a small exotic garden, separate from, but linked to, the main one. In the main garden, grass aside, he has used only traditional species; in the exotic garden he has gone wild. It is filled with life from all over the planet, the odder and more remote in origin the better, showing off the fecundity of the Moroccan climate. Though the visitor can wander from one to the other, the two planting systems can be seen at once only from the tower in the north-western corner of the main garden – which also affords a stunning view of the snow-capped High Atlas mountains that make the whole thing possible.