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Book Review

Planting Design for Dry Gardens
By Olivier Filippi

Translation by Caroline Harbouri, Filbert Press, 2016, ISBN 978-0-99338-920-7. 240 pp., ₤35.

Reviewed by Alisdair Aird
Photographs by Olivier Filippi

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 84, April 2016.

This tour de force, published in its original 2011 French edition as Alternatives au gazon, is an expert and inspiring manual on different ways of carpeting a garden with rewarding and distinctive waterwise groundcover. The French title, Lawn Alternatives, says exactly what the book’s main practical thrust is: the replacement of the classic lawn, so unsuitable for mediterranean climates in its thirst for water, by more sympathetic plantings. It’s the English title though which more deftly sums up the great appeal of the book’s spirit and character.      

Many of us in the MGS have seen and heard Olivier Filippi either giving a talk or showing visitors round the demonstration gardens attached to his nursery in the South of France, so know at first hand his exhilarating combination of hands-on gardener, tireless explorer-plantsman, enthusiastic teacher, inventive experimenter, and above all creative artist. This last quality ensures that turning his well-produced book’s pages, filled as they are with his excellent photographs, is a visual delight; studying it in detail shows how much the book owes to his other qualities.

Pépinière Filippi demonstration garden: dry garden in spring

Pépinière Filippi demonstration garden: dry garden in summer

It has four main sections. After an entertaining and instructive account of the relatively short history of the lawn and its surprisingly recent invasion of Europe and North America, the first section puts the current search by individual European and American landscapers for more diverse alternatives to lawns into the thought-provoking context of the many different ways and conditions in which groundcover plants flourish in the wild, especially around the Mediterranean. This section grounds us firmly in understanding how there can be no single magic fix for dry garden groundcover, but instead a huge variety of different and often complementary ways of suiting plants to situations.

Pépinière Filippi demonstration garden: mixed groundcovers in spring

Pépinière Filippi demonstration garden: mixed groundcovers in summer dormancy

The main central section explores ten separate broad approaches, from the most lawn-like (using drought-resistant grasses which grow in the warm season but yellow in winter), through richly colourful flowering meadows, to the most xeric (arid steppe or gravel areas dotted or carpeted with swathes, cushions or mounds of plant colour changing with the seasons, perhaps punctuated by flowering bulbs; even more or less solid stone surfaces interlaced with plants). All ten approaches are enriched by all sorts of tangential thoughts and suggestions, and given solid practical weight by outlines of their particular advantages, disadvantages and what might be described as “lifestyle fit”, as well as by lists of particularly suitable plants. Spending time with this extraordinarily rewarding section – which most readers will probably want to come back to again and again – is like walking around your own garden with an extremely gifted old gardening friend who keeps bubbling up with wonderful planting or reshaping ideas that you can’t wait to try.

Pépinière Filippi demonstration garden: gravel garden

The next section, on ground preparation and on planting and maintaining various sorts of groundcover, is thoroughly practical, taking for granted and dealing with the many difficulties which beset mediterranean gardeners. Filippi gives a lot of attention to watering, whether by hand or by irrigation, in the plants’ all-important first year. For later years he describes the “hydrozoning” that lets types of groundcover still needing at least some water co-exist with others that do not tolerate any summer watering. His thoughtful approach to pests, diseases and unwelcome plants is broadly ecological and aims at minimal intervention. His carefully considered thoughts on invasive plants will be salutary for anyone in the Mediterranean Basin who has been over-exposed to the dogma-driven attitudes of some authorities. As he points out, thousands of years of human activity have already inextricably mixed the floras of different regions here, and many “signature” Mediterranean plants – cypresses, figs, grape vines, plane trees, mulberries, almonds and cultivated olives – are really foreign introductions.

The final section describes some 200 choice groundcover plants for dry gardens (mentioning many more in passing), most pictured and all with notes on drought and frost resistance. Filippi’s useful drought ratings are well worth calibrating against your own experience. Find his rating for some plants that you know are marginal in your own conditions, and that will give you some idea of which of his other recommendations will or will not survive your own hottest and driest summers. (This can’t of course be an exact calibration, but in our own hot unwatered Greek garden we usually find plants survive if and only if he rates them at 4 or higher.)

Thyme and paving

Zoysia in winter dormancy

This is a first-class book. As one might expect from the translator, the English translation makes it a delight to read, and I hope that a great many other people benefit from as many helpful ideas from it as I know I shall do in coming years.

Wild meadow

Pépinière Filippi website
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