It is late spring verging on summer in Marrakech, and this is the time of year when gardens are especially vibrant. Citrus trees have already shared the fragrance of their abundant white blossoms, and the less conspicuous olive flowers have come and gone, promising a rich harvest in the autumn. Now we have an explosion of flowers in our notably zen gardens: larkspurs blooming like wildflowers across ornamental beds, native honeysuckle matching the beauty of exotic climbing bauhinia, and a new garden of ornamental shrubs adding a variety of forms and colors. A personal favourite is the ‘flor del mar’ (Caesalpinia exostemma), a native of Mexico and Central America that is quite rarely cultivated. Its abundant red and yellow flowers appear before the leaves, providing a distinctive floral display.
Walking through the garden of Jnane Tamsna, our boutique hotel in Marrakech, I find that the early summer heat has ripened an explosion of mulberries. The mere picking of these subtle berries from the trees gives me a taste of paradise. We use them in the kitchen to add a burst of flavour to breakfasts, fruit salads and desserts.
I run into a family whose children giggle, their little mouths spotted with mulberry juice. Their father says that he had never stayed in a hotel where he could pick things to eat straight from trees in the garden. Yesterday Lamia, the art teacher, had a workshop with 7 little ones, aged 4 to 7 years old, in the garden. Her students were Dutch and English, and while the Dutch were too young to speak English, every one communicated through drawing and eating mulberries!
The bird song is loud and a gentle breeze blows through the trees. I find a client reading under a tree with a bowl full of mulberries next to him. He smiles and says, “I am in paradise.”
My latest garden project is to cultivate a maquis – a Mediterranean shrub landscape – in front of the main entrance of Jnane House. Against a backdrop of Moorish arches, dwarf fan palms and majestic date palms, I had planted jasmine, lavender and rosemary, which made for a beautiful and fragrant combination for a number of years. Because the lavender and rosemary had become woody, and the jasmine invaded by weeds, I decided it was time for a spring cleaning and replanting.
It’s thinning time of the year in the Jnane Tamsna gardens. From seed sown in December, we are now pulling fingerling Chantenay red core carrots, hollow crown parsnips, Mantovano fennel and plump purple top turnips. Instead of thinning and throwing in the compost, we use these tender vegetables as a side dish, mixed with young fava beans.
Although it is a bit labor intensive to clean all these organic roots and shoots – and husk the favas – they are a hit with guests. Our chef Bahija Lafridi has just the right touch: she poaches the carrots, fennel, parsnips and turnips in salted water for three minutes, and then blends in the green faba beans and lightly stir-fries the mix in Jnane Tamsna’s own olive oil. Fresh from the garden, they keep their color, flavor and crunchiness. Guess what’s on the menu tonight?
Although our garden is mostly zen - subtle variations on greens and whites - we have the occasional splash of color. As an Easter special, we are livening up our Facebook page with a series of pink and pinkish-red flowers currently on show in the nooks and crannies of our grounds. We began with Cercis siliquastrum, commonly known as Judas tree or European redbud, which we grew from seed in 1996 and then transplanted to Jnane Tamsna in 2001.
In April, the first book on Gardens of Marrakech will appear with the spring flowers, written by Angelica Gray and illustrated with gorgeous photos by Alessio Mei. The reviews are glowing, including one in The Independent. We are thrilled that the verdant entrance of Jnane Tamsna, our Marrakech boutique hotel, was chosen for the front cover.
The photo captures the magic of our lush courtyard. I designed the house around the date palms that had been on the land for centuries. As they were too big to be moved, we left one is in the middle of the front entrance as you may see here, through the Moorish arches! The first riad courtyard – from where this photo is taken – was planted around another robust date palm.
Our gardening workshops were inspired by citrus and Scandinavia. This may seem a curious combination, but it is really quite simple. When a Danish family visited Jnane Tamsna a few years ago, the father told me that his young daughter was dreaming of plucking tangerines directly from the tree. As I come from Michigan – and saw an orange on a tree for the first time when I was a teenager – I could relate to this.
We ventured into the garden, and the three-year-old – lifted by her father to the height of the fruits – harvested her first citrus. As Jnane Tamsna is popular with families, this experience inspired me to get visiting children involved in garden discovery, from planting seeds, to transplanting seedlings and gathering vegetables.
It has become a seed to compost experience, as we even show the kids where we throw the orange peels and other compostable garden refuse. This all makes the gardeners happy, as they like working with children, and are always happy to have their helping hands.
If you happen to be flying First or Business Class on American Airlines, check out the article “Back to the Land” in Celebrated Living magazine's spring 2013 issue. Written by Los Angeles-based freelance journalist Tanvi Chheda, it features Jnane Tamsna among the global places to go for agritourism – the growing trend of visiting farms, ranches, vegetable gardens and vineyards while travelling.
Tanvi writes of Jnane Tamsna’s green spaces, “These enchanting gardens, along with a nearby 150-acre plot of farmland, supply the hotel’s restaurant, but also serve as part playground and wonderland for children and their parents too. Depending on the season, kids might pick mandarins or dig up carrots; parents might harvest olives and then taste the olive oil pressed from them.”
I know spring is in the air when the wild asparagus starts to sprout at Jnane Tamsna. It is now that time of the year, the season to enjoy our fresh arugula, salad greens, spinach and other spring vegetables. It is also the moment to plant seeds for our summer harvest of eggplants, peppers and tomatoes.
Among the other organic vegetables I am cultivating this year are two cultivated heirloom asparagus varieties, ‘Argenteuil’, from France and ‘Mary Washington’, developed in California. With both cultivated and wild asparagus on the Jnane Tamsna grounds, we will have a consistent supply of tender stalks in season, from late January until early March. When the season ends, we leave the remaining sprouts to grow and flower, strengthening the rhizomes to produce an even better crop the following year.
Inspired by North African traditions of horticulture, I had my heart set on creating edible landscapes around our emerging boutique guesthouse. As Meryanne was seeing to foundations, walls and interiors, I set about designing the gardens.
After the earthen wall went up around our property, and the wells were dug, my first step was to create an arsat. This is a quintessential orchard garden, with date palms forming the upper canopy, fruit trees filling the middle space, and beds of culinary herbs and vegetable gardens on the ground. The sunken beds are selectively watered through gravity flow irrigation, and the date palms and fruit trees – citrus, figs and pomegranates – benefit from the soaking.
Some people found it daring that we would have arsat instead of grassy lawns – the expected emblem of Marrakech luxury hotels. I didn’t hesitate a second. Jnane Tamsna was built to reflect our lifestyle and ideals, and I don’t spend my days lounging on grass looking at geraniums. I prefer to be in my arsat, harvesting leeks, oranges and rocket, to the sound of water flowing along the irrigation canals.
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