Take a decrepit riad and an English designer with a brief from Italian owners and you have a garden that could be transported to Chelsea and back with a gold medal.
Tim Stuart-Smith had almost a blank canvas on the ground and an ancient structure around and above. When ground clearance began a gardener’s delight was uncovered.
There was a rectangular tank full of rubble, which was quickly revealed as a former pool, fed by pipework in the hollow of a wall and pumped from a source in the medina. This has become a defining feature of the entire garden.
The inlet is close to the garden entrance and, apart from its intrinsic interest it feeds a fountain and a rill along the central path of the planted area and back beneath the surface. A cycle of one-time decay has been transformed into a cycle of renewal.
This is a characteristic Paradise garden with a Mediterranean influence. The walls are plastered with the local pink render. Lavender will be familiar to anyone having visited similar gardens or watched Monty Don on television. Some of the trees lead the eye upwards to the tower that might equally be seen in Florence. This can be climbed for views across the city. As the name suggests, it is in complete contrast to the bustling medina outside or the nearby parking area for tourist vehicles. In the pavilion below is an informative display on how the garden was developed.
We arrived at lunch time and so decided to eat, not in the least deterred by a notice of “slow service”. It was exactly what was needed before touring the garden. It may not be huge but in a 25C temperature with the prospect of half an hour’s walk back to our riad after the tour (and we didn’t know at the time it would rain heavily) we were handsomely repaid. A vegetable wrap, pure fruit juice to drink with mint tea to follow was an ideal combination. “Slow service” also encouraged a chaffinch-like bird to land on the table nearby. It gave no intention of looking for our food but seemed more interested in having its photograph taken. An ornithologist friend has since identified it as a house bunting, so having similar characteristics to our house sparrows. It certainly provided a diversion while we waited to eat.
Our meal also gave time to plan our tour of the garden. Its layout suggested minimal choice, with four rectangular beds of symmetrical planting, yet in the event we found at least two results from groups of identical plants. Anyone with a walled garden will know how one side receives more sunlight than others.
Tiling and paving are unifying features with benches at strategic points, symmetrically placed of course. On the cool side these were welcome. Changes in viewpoint offer more to reflect on. We also had a chance on returning afterwards to realise that the water tank had been the source of the hammam, or bath house, that had in part been preserved beneath toughened glass.
The Secret Garden lives up to its name by attracting fewer visitors than the Majorelle. so the plants don’t have to compete for attention with the selfie addicts of the latter. It also gave us time to discuss with a family of Americans the principles behind the design and whether the plants would flourish in their environment.