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A Garden by Lake Como

by Marlies Petersen
photographs by Marlies Petersen

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 89, July 2017

A neglected garden full of treasurers planted years before by an enthusiastic amateur botanist drew Marlies Petersen to it, or ‘him’ as Marlies puts it. Happily enslaved she describes how she has created her personal paradise.

Marlies writes: …gardens in the North Italian lakes region are not strictly speaking Mediterranean.
For instance there is no lack of rain here and the soil is well-drained and fertile. Temperatures rarely exceed 30°C in summer or go below zero in winter and snow is rare.

The first years saw the renewal of completely abandoned parts of the garden (it took a couple of seasons for us to work our way up to the top terrace of the steeply sloping site), collapsing stone terracing was repaired, an equally collapsing greenhouse removed, new stone terraces integrated, pergolas and theme gardens added, while at the same time we had a firm schedule for visiting parks in order to see and learn. Finally our new garden began to take shape. New is not quite the right word: its structure has not been fundamentally changed but has been modified in parts to create what we felt was a harmonious relationship between us and nature.

Pergola with cypress trees

Marlies leads our tour, starting in the gently sloping lower site.

She writes: Soon we pass through the old wrought-iron gate, hidden beneath the branches of a weeping willow (Salix babylonica). Camellias (Camellia sinensis) to the left and right indicate our direction. Where they end the terrain widens and the visitor finds him or herself surrounded by a subtropical jungle. Only rows of palm trees (Trachycarpus) bring some order to its unorthodox mixture: Catalpa bignonioides, Ginkgo biloba, mimosas, Osmanthus fragrans, Carpinus betulus, Liquidambar styraciflua and amidst them a grove of Phyllostachys bamboo with impressive 15m-high canes.

These bamboos have a story all of their own, involving flexibility and the ability to meet any challenge effortlessly. For example, they don’t resist wind but on the contrary move with it, in small waves during gentle breezes and in large waves during heavy storms. Or take an unexpected snowfall in winter: how intelligently they confuse this troublemaker, first by surrendering to it, then by rising from the ground like a phoenix from the ashes.

Bamboo, Phyllostachys

In early April the new shoots emerge from the ground in telescope-like fashion and push upwards 20 to 30cm a day in height and diameter. Once they have reached their final height after six to eight weeks they unfurl their new leaves. After this period they do not increase further in height or diameter. So much for their visible parts – their underground root system (80% of the plant’s mass) is just as amazing. Bamboos get their nourishment from their rhizomes. Unfortunately these spread outwards rapidly and are very invasive. Today ditches are dug round groves of bamboo to contain their roots but decades ago no one seemed to care about this, with the result that we are stuck with the problem. But didn’t I just speak of flexibility? At any rate when at night the bamboo grove becomes the home of hundreds of birds which cheerfully serenade us to sleep and wake us in the morning any problem seems to fade away.

Let us now go up the zigzagging steps to the ‘magic garden’ – slowly in order not to trip up over a creeper or fern – and ponder the happy coexistence of such a diversity of plants: mahonia, Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), choisya, rhododendrons, azaleas, hydrangeas, Ilex aquifolium, aucuba, gardenia, pieris, a group of conifers on the right, viburnums, ruscus, Fatsia japonica, terrestrial orchids, grasses, ferns…

Magic garden: azalea, laurel, Japanese maple

Japanese maple, aralia

Let us walk back in the shade of the wisteria-covered pergola. It is not the typical and popular wisteria that flowers in spring but a summer-flowering wisteria called “chicken blood vine” in its native China.

Wisteria pergola

…we pass another Magnolia grandiflora, clerodendrums, tree hibiscuses, an Acca sellowiana, a collection of Cycas revoluta, Camellia sasanqua, Lagerstroemia indica and an enormous camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora).

Cycas revoluta

Lagerstroemia, palm and cactus

Lagerstroemia and tree hibiscus

Camellia sasanqua
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