Preview interview: Olivier Filippi

The Filippi's nursery and garden is in southern France. Photo: Olivier Filippi

Before his upcoming UK course, Helen Basson talks to the Mediterranean plantsman about his ethos

On 12 October 2019 at West Dean, Olivier Filippi will share his expert knowledge on Mediterranean planting, with a lecture based on his new book, offering inspiration on growing plants that will withstand long dry summers, whilst creating a naturalistic effect. He learned his craft at his spectacular family-run nursery on the coast, a little way from Montpelier in France, where he and his wife Clara offer more than 1,000 species of Mediterranean plants for sale.

For more than 30 years, the couple has been exploring the various Mediterranean landscapes, sometimes in completely out-of-the- way locations, studying plant habitats to see how and why plants have adapted to living in different ecosytems. They collect seeds and cuttings, and learn how to grow these plants – making them the perfect people to recommend which garden scenarios these plants would be best suited to for both private and professional clients.

Photo: Olivier Filippi

As Filippi states in his new book, Bringing the Mediterranean Into Your Garden, when describing the garrigue: “Vegetation is sculpted by wind or goats, alternating dark and silver foliage come into their own when seen in the highly mineral environment in which they grow naturally, the bright sun accentuating the rhythm of these cushioned mounds that protrude out of the ground, the intensity of the scents mixing the essential oils of immortelle and sage – suddenly all the elements of a magnificent garden seem to come together, with one striking difference – it is a garden without a gardener. No one is there to weed or water, no gardener comes to mow, or treat or fertilise.”

The couple’s observations in the wild enable them to experiment with these plants in their own trial garden, which can be seen by appointment and is definitely worth a visit for anyone wanting to learn more about this type of gardening. Here, the plants grow in a gravel mulch, which allows for drainage, maintains a certain level of humidity in the hotter weather, and also makes weeding easier. “We have also mounded the gravel in places, and the plants are planted on these mounds which create pathways between them that also act as drainage channels,” Filippi explains. “This method means the plants never have their roots in damp soil and are able to grow as they would in the wild, protected from disease and mould.”

Photo: Olivier Filippi

Instead of preparing the ground and adding ameliorants to the soil, the Filippis prefer to leave the soil as it is. “The poorer the soil, the less possibility there is for competition, as only a select few plants can survive in these conditions.” This means whilst weeding is much less of a problem, self-propagation of the plants desired is optimal. Add to this the fact that plants such as Euphorbia rigida grow closer to the ground and need less, if any, pruning, and the Filippi philosophy makes for low-maintenance gardening.

Another interesting and more recent addition to Olivier’s research is the use of allelopathic plants. Allelopathy is used to denote the chemical reaction (whether positive or negative) between plants. One example is Phlomis. “This plant has an interesting strategy to ensure minimal competition,” he says. “The decomposing leaves lie at the base of the plant once they have fallen in early summer, and emit a certain mix of chemicals that prevents other plants from germinating. A fascinating natural solution!”

Photo: Olivier Filippi

By looking at these reactions in the natural environment, the couple has been able to observe the best-case scenarios for the garrigue plants that can be used in planting combinations. This means they are able to advise how to create an environment where without using pesticides at all, weeds find it difficult to grow, purely based on the natural interaction of the plant community created – a huge advantage to the gardener when it comes to maintenance. Plants best work in this manner once they have been established for three to four years, so some weeding is to be expected initially.

The nursery itself is divided into zones according to the amount of water the plants require, making it easy to select the right plants for the right zone of the garden. Plants are grown in specially designed pots to encourage downwards growth of the root stock and avoid knotting, so the pots are 1.4 litres, but 17cm deep, ensuring the plants get the best possible conditions for regrowth once planted in open ground. Filippi stresses that autumn is the best (ideally the only) time to plant this type of plant, and the nursery production process is organised around this concept, so stocks tend to get low in spring time.

Photo: Olivier Filippi

The Filippis’ level of research and knowledge in these climates is such that their plants are sought after by numerous designers who are working in the Mediterranean area – Thomas Doxiadis, Jennie Gay and Piers Goldson, to name but a few - who use the plants to great effect in Greece, creating gardens that blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape.

We at Scape Design use them for all our gardens in the South of France, as we know they offer a good deal of choice and the plants are of an exceptional quality. The good news is that they do also transport overseas, so UK designers can and do now use the Filippis’ plants and advice when making Mediterranean gardens, either at home or abroad.

Photo: Olivier Filippi

Book your place on Olivier's course on 12 October at West Dean by following this link: Bringing the Mediterranean into your Garden (SGL09170)