|Mediterranean Garden Society|
A Garden in Apulia: In Search of the Genius Loci
by Marco Martella
In 2007 Marco Martella acquired a property lost in the midst of olive groves in the Apulia region of southern Italy. He set out to make a garden here that would be in harmony with the genius loci, the spirit of the place.
The site, two and a half hectares of farmland, was in a bad condition. All around the simple peasant house were olive trees which quite clearly had not been pruned for a long time. The place had remained uninhabited for several decades and the land had become a sort of dump for discarded electrical goods, old tyres, bottles, plastic bags and scrap metal. Lentisks, myrtles and oaks (Quercus pubescens and Q. trojana), buried under Smilax, were growing among the stones of the walls.
The first question was severely practical: water. Since there is no mains water supply and the sole water resource, like that of all country properties in the region, consists of an underground cistern to collect rainwater, it was necessary to create a garden composed entirely of drought-resistant plants. Hence the plant palette to be used would consist essentially of the local flora. As far as composition was concerned, it seemed right to leave as much room as possible to the voice of the place itself, modifying as little as possible its basic structure and maintaining the coherence that existed between the site and the surrounding landscape.
Martella decided to restore the central part of the property, consisting of about one hectare in front of the house, to its traditional management. From now on, local people will undertake the cultivation, pruning and harvesting of the olives. Thus its heart is now an olive-grove garden, poor, sun-baked and swept by the winds. The other parts of the garden will be developed around this section.
Over the course of the centuries Apulia, like other Mediterranean regions, has suffered an impoverishment of its natural flora as a result of the increase of cultivated land at the expense of sclerophyllous woodland, maquis and garrigue. In addition, the wide use of pesticides and herbicides leads to a constant reduction of biodiversity. It was thus decided to reafforest the sections around the perimeter of the garden. These re-created natural habitats will provide shelter for beneficial insects and for birds, making it easier to convert to organic cultivation of the olives in the rest of the property. With a bit of luck, the rare orchid of Ceglie (Ophrys oxyrrhinchos subsp. celiensis), under threat of extinction, may reappear here.
For the other areas of the garden, ideas are still taking shape. They will certainly include very dense masses of vegetation and fewer openings on to the landscape. Cistuses will probably be planted (and in particular the species that grow locally: Cistus monspeliensis, C. incanus, C. salviifolius) and Rosa sempervirens, which is also found locally. As for decorative elements, there may be some sculptures created out of the stones on the site and specially out of the scrap metal which was strewn everywhere, particularly the old broken garden tools – for these too tell of the history and character of the place. These sculptures will resonate with the mood of the garden and surrounding landscape, harsh and sweet at the same time.