Glam Gardening with a Nod to Things Italianate

Anything La Bella Italia is the New Cool.

Glam gardening is the fashion of the new millenium.

I decided this, dear Reader, based on rather slender evidence but everywhere I look, I see confirmation of these two conclusions. Time was when anything from France was the height of sophistication and style but these days it is Italy that is in vogue. Italian gardening, Italian cooking (anything with olive oil and sun dried tomatoes), to Italian shoes and handbags, to clipped cypresses and tiled entranceways – all add up to Italian style. And we want it, indoors and out.

When I coin the phrase Glam Gardening, I don’t mean as in Glam Rock, typified by Garry Glitter – all the extravagance and bad taste of transvestitisim. I mean Glam as in the coveted sophisticated style, preferably Italian. The seventies may be remembered for conifer gardens, the eighties for English styled cottage gardens and the pretty tree and shrub gardens still showing the English tradition, the nineties morphed into the tropical garden before the takeover by pretentious landscapers where the height of cool was boulders, pebbles, one cycad, the odd aloe and clumps of sanseveria. Do we see the minimalist desert garden as cutting edge now? No, it is minimalist Italianate. Form and structure are all, plants are soft furnishings only. Colour is optional, but preferred in green.

Nowhere is the love affair with all things Italian more obvious than in the olive tree. I would not deny at all that the gnarled old olive tree, with a century or two of aged character, can be splendid. Its soft grey colour fits in with the muted Italian light. In New Zealand the young olive is, dare I say it, inclined to resemble a utility phebalium. My inbox last week yielded up a spec email from somebody in the Hawkes Bay who has an overplanted commercial olive operation and they were looking for “expressions of interest” in mature olive trees to be removed. I expect they will get a lot of interest from trendy landscapers but I read on and found that these mature trees are six years old. We may have phenomenal growth rates in New Zealand but maturity in six years?

When we were in Italy, we saw mature trees being dug out and sold to landscapers for overseas markets – mostly the UK. These trees were 150 to 200 years old. That is mature.

I have not, I admit, looked at gardens in the south of Italy but we did get to visit most of the notable northern gardens. At the time, I wrote about the lack of variety in plant selection – the landscaper might call it a restrained selection but to the gardener or plantsperson it can equally be described as repetitive and lacking in interest. But in part the limited plant palette was climatic and most gardens were striving to grow a wider range and to treasure the unusual, even if their efforts paled into insignificance beside the range we can manage in this country.

Pondering all this, I figured the height of Italian Glam Gardening is Isola Bella, the summer palace garden in Stresa on Lake Maggiore. It helps to have a small island with a grand palace. The garden is constructed to resemble a boat, shaped forward to the prow. The hard landscaping, all beautifully crafted in stone on a grand scale, is just to die for. And so is the setting.

And therein lies the rub. Glam Gardening takes Big Money. I watched a lightweight piece on TV recently where Susan Wood investigated jeans. I confess I don’t wear jeans myself but the parallel was interesting. Jeans range from the $800 Stella McCartney designer type right down to the Warehouse $20 cheapies with a whole lot inbetween. I figured that the genuine Glam Gardening in Italy is the equivalent of the $800 jeans. In this country, Glam Gardening is currently favoured by the mid price jeans wearers – the ones who will spend at least $180 on a pair and it is just not the same. Watch it get adopted by those who think that the $20 Warehouse jeans are just as good and nobody can tell the difference. Glam Gardening highjacked by the proletariat? One can not bear to think….

I have been watching the new lifestyle programme on TV1 entitled “House and Garden” where we are served up New Zealand glam. Most of the people featured are probably in the $300 plus class of jeans wearers. The cooking programme which follows it is an interesting juxtaposition. It would be hard to find anybody less glamorous than Richard, exploring New Zealand cooking throughout the country with no pretensions and showcasing some very typical (dare I say, ordinary?) New Zealanders cooking basic fare. I bet most of them wear Warehouse jeans. Apparently down home proletariat cooking is acceptable on TV while proletariat gardening is not. Bring back Reg Chibnall?

A colleague of mine blames the Five Plant Creed currently being inculcated to landscape students in certain institutions. This new breed who are being unleashed on the unsuspecting public, firmly espouse a plant palette so restrained that it can hardly be classed as gardening.

Italian gardening looks best in Italy, in my opinion. If you covet the Italianate look, at least be prepared to import an Italian stone mason. Glam gardening needs a suitably large budget. But how I wish the gardening media (particularly TV and the glossies) could celebrate New Zealand gardening rather than elevating Glam to a pedestal well above other gardening styles.