“Plants invented the internet long before us. The plant world is still very little known and is underestimated, but plants are certainly more evolved than animals and even than us humans. A plant is static, it must stay in its place and defend itself against attackers. Therefore, it develops a multitude of processes to be able to survive."
Could you please introduce yourself?
Pierre-Alexandre Risser, gardener and landscape designer. I design urban gardens, terraces and balconies. My teams and I produce and maintain them. We turn such outdoor spaces into places where the city dweller can rediscover nature and live in a cocoon, like an urban Robinson Crusoe.
Where are your roots located?
My roots are very complicated: I am twice a migrant. My paternal great-grandparents left Alsace for Lyon and my maternal grandparents came from Greece in 1920 to flee the Turkish army. I was born in Lyon and I spent my childhood 20km away, in the countryside, at the foot of Beaujolais. When I was young, I dreamt of being a farmer, so I studied agriculture in high school. Then I studied horticulture in Antibes, on the Mediterranean coast. I arrived in Paris in 1984 with the firm intention of leaving exactly two years later and not to stay one day longer. And I'm still in Paris… fail.
How did you become interested in gardens?
I have been interested in gardens since childhood. My father and my grandparents loved them! My maternal grandfather was a tailor, and my great-grandparents were in the silk business in Lyon; my father worked in the textile industry. But they were all “fans” of nature and gardens. My dad's sister, Georgette Risser, is an agricultural engineer. She is the one who invented the Gariguette strawberry. With my brothers, we were literally cradled in nature, in gardens, all our childhood long. For me, gardens are a way of life, a form of existence.
Was it during your studies or later, in the field, that you really trained?
The core of my education comes from the agricultural high school: animal biology, plant biology, ecology, soil sciences ... I still use this knowledge every day. In Antibes, we studied more of the flowers and plants. And then when I arrived in Paris, I worked with Daniel Mathieu in Montmorency. He was a master of the garden and he introduced me to what the layout of a garden is really about. After that, I worked six months in Paris for Alain-Frédéric Bisson. He created terraces, balconies, and urban gardens. I started my own business in 1986 because I needed to find my place elsewhere.
« Horticulture et Jardins » is your workplace, but also a place to live. Tell us its story...
When I arrived in Paris, I lived in Pantin, an eastern suburb. As soon as I started my business, I came back to this area because there was still a bit of a "provincial" spirit, a bit of countryside with which I identified. I was fortunate to be able to find land to set up my nursery and, subsequently, my offices. Then I found this house close by, and now I live partly in Boulogne and partly here. I developed the concept of "second home in the workplace". It has advantages and disadvantages.
Do you consider it as a haven of peace?
Yes, we are thirty minutes away from Paris and yet it feels as if we were at the end of the world. Apart from the planes from Charles-de-Gaulle airport, one could imagine oneself to be in paradise.
Do you have heroes?
I had a mentor, Mr Maymou, a nurseryman in Bayonne. He was a true example of a plant lover in the way he grew them and offered them to his customers. There are also people I regret not having known, whom I would like to meet to hear their perspective on the world today: Boris Vian, Reiser ... And at the sporting level, my hero was Serge Blanco (a famous French rugby player – ed.) I love rugby and I often use one of his mottos (I don't know if it was his originally), which says, "Rugby is giving before receiving". I think that’s exactly what gardening is: you have to give first in order afterwards to receive.
What was your best encounter?
My wife! And then my children, clearly (smiles). And when I started working in Paris, I met Ariane Brener, Emmanuel Ungaro's right-hand person. She made me grow up in my way of seeing life. I don't know where she is today, but I say hello to her.
How does one recognize a garden designed by Pierre-Alexandre Risser?
I would say that it’s a garden where there is a profusion of plants, a harmony, a lot of flowers and scents. When I started working, we were asked to bring the garden inside the house. One had to enjoy the garden from the house. And then in the late 90s, city dwellers said, "I prefer going out to live in my garden". Today we are truly designers of outdoor living. It's not a very pretty name, but we are developing the art of living outdoors within the city.
Which garden inspired you the most?
Nature! There are places that are so beautiful… And the English gardens, especially Sissinghurst. And also the Italian gardens, La Pietra in Florence and the Tuscan gardens, in which I recognize myself. These are gardens that are designed and structured, as a base for all the nuances of flowers and colours. These structures allow one to read the wildness.
Can a garden awaken the five senses?
Of course, a garden evokes the five senses, that's just common sense! A garden is all about feeling. It is subjective. There is sight, hearing, smell, touch ... To enter a successful garden is to enter a place that can be appreciated. There is the world around but we are as if in a cocoon, we forget it. A garden must make people forget its limits; we must have the impression that it is infinite, even if it is small. You must feel totally good there alone, as a pair, as ten people, as twenty.
Can you explain to us how you play with lines, textures and colours?
I can’t give you a technical specification... it really plays out on the subjective level. The first ideas come with my heart and not with my pencil. Of course, the smaller the space, the more geometric shapes you have to use: square shapes, round shapes, playing with right angles, very few curves. Upon this very rigid structure I place plants with interesting blooms or foliage, which will give the garden its full roundness. One ought not to sense this underlying strictness at all.
How do you translate current ecological concerns into your creations?
Ecological concerns are also a matter of common sense. If you work with nature, your garden will inevitably develop better, of its own accord. You have to work with the plant world, the microbial world, with very small entities, with fungi and bacteria. You have to understand how nature works.
We often take the example of forest soil: one does not water it, does not apply fertilizer, and the soil is always rich. For a cultivated garden – or a cornfield – if you do not apply watering and fertilizer, after three years nothing grows. What happens in a forest? There are branches and leaves that fall to the ground in thin layers. Fungi – not bacteria, fungi, that’s important – break down this organic matter. Mushrooms are living beings that cannot feed themself, like infants. They are made of filaments that stick to the root of another plant. The plant, instead of absorbing solution from the soil only through its smallest roots, absorbs it through this multitude of filaments. A mushroom’s filaments can descend a kilometre underground, they draw up water and minerals that are otherwise inaccessible. Plant matter is purely carbon. It absorbs carbon dioxide, converts it into nutrients and releases oxygen. And it gives 20 to 30% of what it produces to the mushroom.
You should know that in one cubic centimetre of earth one can find up to 200km of filaments. And we know today that plants communicate with each other via these filaments ... Plants invented the internet long before us. The plant world is still very little known and is underestimated, but plants are certainly more evolved than animals and even than us humans. A plant is static, it must stay in its place and defend itself against attackers. It therefore develops a multitude of processes to be able to survive. Today, scientifically, very little is known about plants. Francis Hallé believes that a tree that is 300 or 400 years old can still change its genome to adapt to climate change. Plants will still be on Earth when we're gone.
What is your favourite plant?
I have many. All women are beautiful and all plants are beautiful, that's it. Well it’s true that I don’t like puba, generally speaking. But there is no racism against plants. If we want to talk about a plant from my childhood, it is the violet. As soon as the violets bloomed in March, my friend Henri and I went into the forest to pick violets, which we replanted in our gardens. I love their scent. It is a plant that touches me sentimentally. Later, Paul Maymou introduced me to the whole “low” range of Japanese maples, dogwoods, camellias, which are plants that I still particularly appreciate. I also told you that my maternal grandparents were Greek: I feel very good with Mediterranean flowers.
Do you think that each person can be associated with a plant?
Yes, of course, with several plants. We all have favourite plants, those that match our character. Some people love bamboo, horsetails, anything pruned, anything a little stiff, and others will be more into blooms, into scents. If you ask customers which plant they like, they always answer peony, rose, and jasmine. We are here to introduce them to other plants.
I think plants are also associated with childhood – one never falls back into childhood, one stays in it. There is always the memory of a flowering; perfumes are especially evocative. Passing next to a fig tree, next to a cypress, next to a laurel, to jasmine blossom, every time it’s something… It also allows us to follow the seasons. The scent in one’s garden in October and November is extraordinary, and one waits for this somewhat fleeting moment. The flowering of osmanthus on the shores of Lake Como at the end of September is something to be experienced once in your life.
In yours daily life, what are your rituals?
When I'm here for lunch I go fetch eggs from my henhouse above the garage, pick a salad and make myself a fried egg or a soft-boiled egg with garden salad. And there is this other ritual I am a bit ashamed of: on Sunday morning when I'm at home: I play Luis Mariano very loud and I do the housework (laughs).
I will take up Serge Blanco's, "giving before receiving". Gardening is a job that can bring a lot of satisfaction, but it takes a long time. Today we are dealing in the short term, with immediacy. It can be great to snap your fingers and have it all, I'm not saying the opposite ... But when you sow a seed in a small pot, water it, then repot it, and after three years you finally have flowers and fruits, the satisfaction is immense.
My greatest joy when I walk in Paris is to say: this is a tree that I planted 25 years ago, this one 32 years ago, this one 15 years ago. To be able to see, years later, the result of what I did is incredible. My daughter moved to the north of Paris and I went to pick her up before lockdown. I got out of the car and I said to myself "but this garden here, it’s me who made it!" Seeing those Japanese maples fifteen years later was wonderful. But this satisfaction is to be earned. You have to know that there is no second chance. That is, if you don't water your plant, it dies: you've wasted a year. It's that consistency that you need to have, not wanting a result right away.
A gardener puts on an outfit to work. What's yours? ?
An outfit for work is an outfit in which you feel good. As with a garden, we like to surround ourselves with things that are pleasing to us. For the practical side, I wear a sleeveless jacket with a lot of pockets. On the left my wallet, on the right my two phones, in this right-hand pocket my keys. Every morning I check "wallet, phones, keys" and I can go, I know I have everything. There is also the pocket with the pens, the notebook in this other one. It’s my work tool. I live all year with a waistcoat, even during the holidays. My handbag is my sleeveless jacket. That way I don't lose anything, because I have my head in the clouds.
The relationship with clothing is linked to materials, to touch, to feelings. I love linen, cotton, and wool: materials that are natural. I'm a bit of a rough man, and I like raw materials. Clothing must also adapt to one’s lifestyle. I can't put on a silk shirt, because at the end of the day I’d bring shreds back. I need clothes that are resistant enough for my way of life.
How do you dress for a special occasion?
For a chic dinner, you mean? I just go by hollington. The rest of the time I put on jeans. On vacation in Auvergne, I have jeans cut into shorts with stuff sticking out everywhere, a T-shirt, and my waistcoat of course.
What do you wear for colours?
I wear colours that look like nature, that is to say khaki green, brownish clothes. Every now and then I like to wear coloured pants. I have a favourite colour, black, I feel very good about black. When I was very young, I used black in all my drawings, my mother worried about it, she wanted to take me to the psychiatrist. She dropped the idea later. Otherwise, I wear pastel tones, never bright tones, and very few patterns: plain tones, linen, and colours that one finds in nature.
How did you hear about hollington? Why do you like this brand?
I got to know hollington through a friend of mine who only dresses by them. I always put on sleeveless jackets, but they were fishing jackets or stuff that weren't always very pretty. One day I saw him with a 20-pocket Waistcoat and I asked him: “But this thing is great, where did you find it?” This is how I came to hollington. I hate collars; I put on a tie three times in my life. I hate suits because I don’t look good in them. If I put on a suit I look silly. I really fell in love with the materials, the colours, and the cuts. Well, every now and then I am disloyal to the brand, but my personality is reflected in hollington clothes.
What do you love most about hollington?
What I like is the fit first and then the materials. For the colours, there is a wide range; one always finds a colour that one likes. I told you I love black, but I don’t dress in black all the time… And I love your linen shirts. I'm not eccentric after all.
If we had to design a waistcoat especially for you, what would it look like?
Patric made it two years ago! There was the small hook to hang the secateurs. hollington waistcoats are a perfect fit for my lifestyle. When designing a garden, it is a success if it corresponds to the way of life of the people who will inhabit it. Well, this hollington 20-pocket Waistcoat is the same. There are a lot of inside pockets, see: a pencil, a notebook, pens, glasses… because as you get older you need them.
Photos : Clément Vayssieres @clement.vayssieres