|Mediterranean Garden Society|
The Italian Branch of the MGS
The tour comprised nine days with visits to 26 interesting and diverse gardens and landscapes.
We then made our way up the beautiful coast to Harold Porter Botanical Gardens, which is a beautiful, secluded garden set between mountain and sea in the heart of the Kogelberg Nature Reserve. It consists of ten hectares of cultivated fynbos garden and 190 hectares of pristine natural fynbos encompassing mountain slopes with wind-clipped heathlands, deep gorges with relict forests, flats and marshes with restios, sedges and bulbs, as well as dunes adjacent to the beach with specialised salt-adapted plants.
Next up was a private garden, which was an interesting, totally indigenous and waterwise garden where we learned how rare Proteaceae species are propagated and met a renowned South African botanical artist and teacher who has artwork in collections worldwide.
Day 2 started out at the Stellenbosch Botanical Garden, which is located in the historical centre of Stellenbosch and is the oldest university botanical garden in South Africa. We were shown around the compact garden houses with an enormous diversity of plants, both indigenous to South Africa and some exotics. Then we moved onwards to a MGS member’s garden in the Devon Valley area just outside the town of Stellenbosch where, after exploring, we enjoyed lunch in the beautiful garden. From Devon Valley we made our way to Paradyskloof to visit the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden, a seven-hectare sculpture garden around the artist’s studio in the foothills of the Stellenbosch Mountains which has been developed over the past seven years. The garden hosts upwards of thirty sculptures and has been mainly planted with indigenous plants. A full report will follow.
Day 3 commenced just outside Stellenbosch at Old Nectar Gardens, the creation of Una van der Spuy, doyenne of South African gardening, during the 71 years that Old Nectar was her home. Set among the magnificent sandstone mountain ranges of the Jonkershoek valley and among 200-year oak trees, they extend over two hectares, comprising a collection of individual garden areas, each with its own character. Since 2012, Una’s son Peter has been developing the garden, adding an indigenous garden and a woodland terrace garden. Then we moved on to Babylonstoren, a historic Cape Dutch farm which dates back to 1692 and boasts one of the best preserved werfs (farmyards) in the Cape. The new gardens are laid out over eight acres and have been developed since 2008 by a dynamic young team hired by the new owners. They are divided into 15 sections that comprise fruit, indigenous plants, fragrant lawns, a prickly pear maze, a clivia tunnel, a cycad collection, a newly-introduced rockery and a plethora of trees with historical and botanical importance. So much to see, so many ideas to steal and a really inspiring place.
In the afternoon, we turned back time with a visit to the Rustenberg and Schoongezicht gardens. The wife of the current owner of the Rustenberg Estate undertook to regenerate and restore both gardens. The planting can be described as English, with roses, foxgloves, salvias, agapanthus, sedum, anemones, day lilies and much more - really a plant lover's dream. We were served tea and scones under ancient oaks amid the enchanting old Cape houses and farm buildings.
Day 4. After an hour’s drive, we arrived in Elgin where the cooler climate favours gardeners, and us, and where we visited four very diverse gardens, each distinctive and beautiful.
Fresh Woods is a rambling, romantic garden with major collections of heritage and species roses and many rare trees and shrubs.
Fairholme - a large and many-faceted garden with a magnificent view of the valley. The garden is attached to Fairholme Nursery, which specialises in perennials, grasses and lavenders (if only we had room to take some of them home with us). Keurbos Nursery Garden - a garden designed for birds, with both indigenous and exotic sections as well as a nursery area. Auldearn - a plantswoman’s hilltop garden that skilfully mixes unusual indigenous and exotic plants. Here the planting combinations received our highest praise.
Day 5. In the morning we visited a private garden situated in a dramatic, mountainside setting on a steeply sloping one-hectare site. The use of natural stone, indigenous plants, clipped shrubs and winding paths provided much colour, texture and form and participants were wowed. We lunched at Delaire Graf, an impressive estate where we enjoyed both really delicious food and dramatic views over the Simonsberg mountain and rolling vineyards. The garden has a fusion of indigenous and mediterranean plants, of formal symmetry and wilder plantings, creating a colour-saturated garden of awe-inspiring dimension and effect. Participants chose to walk the kilometre or so along the drive to the exit to enjoy the plantings and views, causing a bit of a traffic jam as our bus followed at walking pace. Our last visit was to a large private garden where many unusual trees, clever plant combinations, water features and mountain views create a special retreat for the family.
Day 6. Our first visit of the day was to Green Point Biodiversity Showcase Garden set in Cape Town's Green Point Urban Park (built for the 2012 World Cup) and boasting a selection of 300 local plant species. Our visit was made special by the talented and passionate designer Marijke Honig, who took us through the ups and downs of creating – and maintaining - the garden. Next came The Company’s Gardens, which takes its name from the Dutch East India Company who started the garden in 1652 for the victualling of their ships that plied the spice trade route between Europe and the East Indies via The Cape of Good Hope. Here in this leafy city garden we walked through the city’s roots and its history.
Day 7 and tour members were able to choose between two walks – either to search for wild flowers in the Silvermine area of the Table Mountain National Park or to enjoy more gentle exercise at the Upper Liesbeek River Garden (ULRG), where Dr Joan Parker is the instigator and driving force behind this hidden gem of a valley in suburban Cape Town. She inspired the residents’ association and gained some sponsorship, and working with the municipality and plenty of sheer hard work, transformed a steep, overgrown alien-covered wasteland bordering residential houses into a beautiful river valley community garden where residents and visitors can meet, share a drink or a picnic under the trees and enjoy the space.
Day 8 and finally the amazing Kirstenbosch National Botanic Gardens, which lived up to its reputation as the most beautiful garden in Africa and one of the great botanic gardens of the world. Few gardens can match the sheer grandeur of the setting of Kirstenbosch, against the eastern slopes of Cape Town’s Table Mountain. Lunch was served in the Kirstenbosch Tea Room and we moved on afterwards to visit Soil for Life, which is a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation that assists communities in the Western Cape to overcome hunger, poverty and unemployment through the establishment of community and home food gardens where people are being taught to grow their own food using environmentally sound methods, to understand their own health and nutrition, and to gain skills with which to generate income from gardens. A really worthwhile project.
Day 9 and our last day and the last three gardens of the tour. First up, The Stellenberg Estate, one of Cape Town’s finest country estates from the 18th century. It is an internationally acclaimed garden with its old-world dignity and ancient oak trees, and contains many garden rooms, including a White Garden, Garden of Paradise, Vegetable Potager, Parterre Garden, Aromatic Herb Garden, and many more areas to explore. Then we moved on to Greystones, a historical property which is planted with wonderful collections of “exotics” from abroad in the old colonial way. However, since inheriting the garden, the current owner has gradually also introduced a wide selection of indigenous plants to the established garden. This is definitely a plant lover’s garden.
And finally, a new private garden designed by the owner in collaboration with a landscape architect in a stunning setting. It had parterres, mediterranean plantings, hot-climate roses, and an eco pool with indigenous plantings.
Day 10 - Time to go home and ponder on all the amazing things that we saw. What a fantastic garden tour!
The event was held in Castel Rigone and kindly hosted by Alistair and Juliet Chilton.
We learned a great deal from this experience and now all have very different views on dealing with our own olives in the future.
Johnny has been a resident of the Lazio region in Italy for over 30 years. He is the only Englishman on the tasting panel of the Slow Food olive oil guide and he judges in international olive oil competitions worldwide. He is also a member of EVA - the Extra Virgin Alliance, which represents producers of genuine extra virgin olive oil from around the world. You can read more about them here.
After the formal Branch Annual Meeting, we went into the delightful garden of our hosts and in the sunshine we found plant bargains galore and delicious homemade fig jam, made by Juliet. The event concluded with an appetizing lunch served at restaurant Rosso di Sera in San Feliciano, down by Lake Trasimeno, where Johnny provided specialist olive oils to pair with the different foods.
On the well-cultivated hills which surround the fertile plain of Lucca, scattered among vineyards and olive groves, are over 300 fine villas built by the Lucca aristocracy. Here, between the 15th and 19th centuries on income derived largely from the silk industry, international trade and banking, these wealthy families organised their lands around their country residencies – built first and foremost for agriculture but also to host and show off to dignitaries visiting the Republic of Lucca.
Our group met up in the late morning for a guided visit to the Parco della Villa Reale di Marlia. This property has been enjoyed by the great and the glamorous for centuries and it was home in the 19th century to Napoleon’s sister and Duchess of Lucca Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi. The 16-hectare estate includes numerous gardens as well as majestic buildings created over centuries. We saw the Water Theatre, the Green Theatre (where the composer Paganini often performed for Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi), the Lemon Garden, and the Spanish Garden in Art Deco style. The 16th-century nymphaeum attached to the Villa del Vescovo offered us cool respite as it would have done in the past - hopefully the new Finnish owners, busy restoring the whole estate, will also be able to restore the water games so beloved of the Baroque period.
After lunch we visited Villa Torrigani di Camigliano dating from 1593 and still home to the descendants, through marriage, of Nicola Santini, who remodelled the south façade in the Baroque style in imitation of the architecture of Versailles where he was ambassador of the Republic of Lucca. The garden too was originally Baroque in layout with complex parterres which today have been replaced with lawns. We loved the well-preserved secret Garden of Flora with its Grotto of Winds and the Nymphaeum and marvelled at the symbolism embodied within the statuary.
Moving just up the road we took take advantage of late afternoon sunlight to enjoy a very special private garden which boasts nearly 300 species of roses and over 400 mediterranean natives or adapted plants which was a veritable plant lovers’ paradise. Indeed, several of us came away with plants in hand thanks to the generous owner.
On Friday morning a three-hour city tour comprised a visit to the city’s monumental walls which form a four-kilometre-long perfect ring around the city. At parts more than 25 metres wide, they include several imposing embankments planted with trees which make this a wonderful green space with centuries-old trees and ornamental species. We moved on to the Cathedral of San Martino to enjoy its Romanesque façade and two extraordinary monuments inside – the Volto Santo, a venerated wooden portrait of Jesus on the cross, and Ilaria del Caretto, a marble sarcophagus by Jacobo della Quercia. We finished with a visit to Palazzo Pfanner. This is a valuable example of a Baroque garden set in the heart of medieval Lucca, which has grassy lawns, ornamental blossoms, tall shrubs and lemon trees in large earthenware pots interspersed among the monumental rows of eighteenth-century statues depicting the Olympian gods and the four seasons.
The annual Murabilia Flower show opened its doors at midday and participants made their way to do some plant hunting.
We began our day at Vivaio Salto del Prete, which offers an excellent selection of plants from the Mediterranean or adapted to its climate.
Eugenia Natalino demonstrated how plants adapt to the long summer drought in the mediterranean-climate regions by their shapes, colours and leaf forms. On our way down to the propagating greenhouse we were able to see a 7 x 7 m example of an alternative lawn planted with Zoysia tenuifolia.
Once established, a Zoysia lawn has the following advantages: it boasts low water consumption and has no need of chemicals, it requires less mowing than other grass types (every 21 days instead of every seven), it thrives in heat and does not die in winter, although it will go dormant, turning a golden brown when the first winter frost arrives, it tolerates traffic, wear and shade as well as being resistant to salt and animal waste. It is also excellent for erosion control.
Eugenia then demonstrated how to propagate plants from softwood cuttings. She uses an organic potting mix made up of 50% potting soil with peat, enriched with 20% of a lovely product called La Terra di Gaia, a natural fertilizer composed of humus from worms, and 30% of perlite, granules of expanded volcanic rock which render the potting mix extremely light.
Some tips on taking softwood cuttings: take cuttings when plants are not in flower so that their energy can concentrate on forming new roots, use stems that are near a joint on the main stalk as it is in the “heel” that the most reproductive cells are concentrated, choose young, vigorous plants from which to propagate so that the new plants will be an exact DNA copy of the mother plant.
After our practical lesson a lovely lunch was served in the ornamental vegetable garden.
In the afternoon we visited the beautiful garden of MGS member Yvonne Barton at Panicale, who collaborated with Vivaio Salto del Prete during its construction. Yvonne explained how she drew her inspiration from the surrounding nature, where the spontaneous flora flourishes without irrigation.
In her garden new plants are rigorously selected to survive hot, dry summers and the rather cold Umbrian winters. They are planted small, which makes them much more adaptable to their location and they are planted in the autumn to give them time to put roots down during the winter rains. Those showing signs of stress receive long, deep irrigation every 14 days for the first two summers – after that they are ready to survive with no irrigation.
Plantings over the terraces and slopes of the terrain are in relaxed swathes; here and there a weed shows through, but this only adds to the natural feel of the garden. Many varieties of Teucrium, Cistus, Scabiosa, Phlomis, Santolina, Helichrysum, Euphorbia, Centranthus, Salvia and Achillea blend perfectly under the olives and if we had visited earlier we would have enjoyed the thousands of bulbs which are planted throughout the garden too. To the west, a mixed border of Sambucus, Perovskia, Cornus, Phillyrea, Ceanothus, Cotoneaster, Buddleja, lentisk and large roses delineates the edge of the garden and blends into woodland, while to the east plantings flow out to the surrounding olive groves.
Two splendid features are a marvellous collection of China and tea roses concentrated in the dell just under the house and a large swimming pond covered with water-lilies. Many extremely gregarious frogs kept up their loud and happy chatter while we relaxed over tea in this glorious garden.
Our spring visit was based in the charming seaside resort of Menton. The town was popular in the 19th century with English and Russian aristocrats who built the many luxurious villas and palaces which still grace the town today and with gardeners who were able to create flourishing gardens due to a mild microclimate.
All of the gardens we visited were in fact in Menton or nearby Ventimiglia, but on day one we dropped in to Alassio to see the glorious wisterias at Villa La Pergola. The villa was bought in 1922 by Daniel Hanbury (son of the founder of the Hanbury Gardens) and his wife Ruth, who created a beautiful garden mixing Mediterranean natives with exotic species. No fewer than 28 varieties of wisteria were planted and spring parties were held here to celebrate their flowering until Ruth’s death in 1982. Thankfully, the villa and garden were rescued from property developers in 2006 by the Ricci family. They commissioned Paolo Pejrone to restore the garden to its former glory and today maintain it as the perfect backdrop to the villa, which runs as an exclusive hotel. It is an intimate and beautiful garden and the many wisterias were in full flower.
On day two we were accompanied by Paul Thomson, a former horticulturist and gardener who spent a year working at Hanbury as an RHS intern. We made our way on foot to visit Jardin Exotique Val Rahmeh. This garden was established in the late 19th century by Lord Radcliffe, a former governor of Malta, and it was used to grow subtropical and tropical plants. It passed to Miss May Sherwood Campbell, a rich English lady, and then to France's Natural History National Museum. For all that it is a botanical garden, it retains the feeling of a private garden and boasts more than 3000 plants.
A short coach drive took us back into Italy to visit La Mortola – Hanbury Gardens. This world-famous garden was made by an English family (the Hanburys) on a steep promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. The site is dramatically beautiful, with steps, paths, pools, fountains and garden structures, and the plant collection (now managed by the University of Genoa) is exotic and vast. We enjoyed iris, scilla, cistus, echium, wisteria and Rosa banksia, and the wonderful Rosa laevigata – a fragrant rose with large, flat, white flowers. We enjoyed tea and cake with Carolyn Hanbury, who still resides in the Hanbury villa, and she gave us a fascinating talk on the family’s history.
In the morning of day three we divided into two small groups to enable us to better visit two smaller private gardens:
Le Clos du Peyronnet has been made by three generations of the Waterfield family and is, in effect, an English Arts and Crafts garden transported to the Riviera. Some of the terracing survives from when the garden was a citrus grove. It has a pergola, graceful steps, excellent planting and a stairway of successive pools, of which the last is the ocean. The garden is enchanting and we were guided by the owner, William Waterfield, who impressed us with his plant knowledge and entertained us with his wry humour.
MGS Italy member Alexandra Boyle has built a garden over 32 terraces on a very steep hillside: Le Jardin des Antipodes. On some terraces rare and heritage vegetables and fruit are grown to supply to Monaco’s top restaurants. On others Alexandra has created an outstanding collection of plants from her homeland New Zealand, all benefiting from the microclimate in the bay of Menton. We inspected a variety of micro vegetables beautifully packed on their way to their respective kitchens, and we were served delicious slices of Alexandra’s organic grapefruit – dramatically different from the commercial varieties we are used to eating.
After a really good buffet lunch on the beachfront, we transferred to Serre de la Madone. This is Lawrence Johnston's French garden. Best known for making Hidcote in England, Johnston was a wealthy American. He employed a dozen gardeners to maintain the large plant collection and brought plants from around the world, including from Burma, China and South Africa. As at Hidcote, the garden is divided into compartments with hedges and walls. The climate is exceptionally gentle and sunny so that many tender and exotic plants can survive. We were guided by the head gardener first into a vast shady mediterranean forest banked with swathes of the very tall Iris confusa. Making our way past pools and statues we ascended to the very sunny top terraces where Greek irises, Tasmanian mint, South African proteas and Australian grevilleas were flourishing.
On our last day we departed to Ventimiglia to visit Villa Piacenza Boccanegra. The garden extends over four and a half hectares and expands along sheer terraces leading down to the sea. There are three main areas: an olive grove, a rock garden with succulents and an acclimatization garden which is being enriched with specimens that originate from dry climates with seasonal patterns that are similar to those of the Mediterranean region. The park provides a perfect mixture of spontaneous plants and cultivated plants, and thanks to the variety of Mediterranean species it maintains its incredible charm in all seasons. Winter/spring is however its “moment” according to the owner Ursula Piacenza, who guided us with all her usual charm and gave us exceptional plant suggestions and cultivation tips. Cuttings were taken home.
After lunch locally, we departed for Camporosso for a visit to Vivaio Noaro. This specialist nursery offers gardeners a veritable cornucopia of mediterranean plants. The nursery is normally shut on Friday afternoons, but the mother and son team had agreed to open specially for MGS members so that we could explore the vast and excellent plant stocks which was a very worthwhile final stop.