A gardener’s pilgrimage to Ninfa

“You must go to Ninfa if you are interested in romantic gardens,” I was told very firmly by One Who Knows. So I obeyed. That was the prime reason we went to Italy as part of our trip just concluded. And because Ninfa has very limited opening days, the entire itinerary was organised around one of those dates.

In the event, that became irrelevant. For reasons too complicated to explain, we ended up on a hot Thursday afternoon entirely alone in il Giardino di Ninfa with the run of the place. We were shown how to operate the exit gate in order to let ourselves out and left to it. To understand the nature of this privilege, I should explain that Ninfa is only open for 17 days a year for a grand total of 111 hours and that casual visitors like ourselves are generally accommodated by a one hour escorted tour.

Herbaceous planting in the rock garden was a delight

Ninfa is often referred to as “the world’s most romantic garden” – a phrase first ascribed to UK garden writer, Charles Quest-Ritson and latterly also taken up, I think, by leading gardening broadcaster, Monty Don. It would not be exaggerating to say that it has achieved international cult status and there aren’t too many gardens in that particular basket. Dating back to the early 20th century, the garden is continued these days by a foundation set up by the originating Caetani family.

It is not your classic Italian garden full of intersecting axis and formal spaces. Not at all. Indeed, it is described as being English in style – a descriptor I have met before in a northern Italian garden described to us as being in the “romantic English style”. By this is meant soft edged, informal design with more focus on plant variety, seasonal change and groupings of plants – more frou frou, as I call it, than the heavily clipped and controlled style of the usual Italian gardens of stature.

The garden of Ninfa is built around the ruins of an entire town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. The scale of the ruins is nothing short of astonishing to a New Zealander unaccustomed to centuries of visible occupation. To create a garden around such imposing structures is a dream situation. In a hot dry climate, water is even more important and the abundance and sound of flowing water is integral to the magic of Ninfa, blessed as it is with the river of the same name flowing through the garden. Irrigation is necessary to achieve the lushness and growth in what is a harsh, dry environment.

A late blooming rose – most were over

I knew we would be too late for the roses and if you plan to visit this garden, if it is possible to time it right, that would add a great deal. But I imagine in these conditions, peak rose season is measured in a few weeks of May and any garden needs more to it than a short peak season based on a single plant family. And that was the case. Ninfa has a feel of its own. The water views are beautiful. We loved the soft herbaceous plantings of the area called the “rock garden”. The structure of the ruins gives a breath-taking framework. To be alone in this garden was a grand experience.

Most of Ninfa is truly romantic. This new path, not so much.

Is it a romantic garden? Yes, without doubt it is. Is it the most romantic garden in the world? I would not go as far as that but others clearly think it is. Is it flawless? No, but what garden is flawless except a static one? And that is a contradiction in terms. We were disturbed by the new lavender walk which, while well executed, was rather too amenity in appearance compared to the gentle naturalism of the rest of the garden. We weren’t too sure about the blue haze from copper spray on the ruins behind every climbing rose. If the roses had been in bloom, we probably would not have found our eyes zeroing in on that blue background. It adds a certain patina to history if you don’t know that it is caused by spraying.

The blue patina

In terms of planting, Ninfa has a much wider plant palette than most Italian gardens which tend to rely on the repetition of about 10 key plants. By international standards, it is not a hugely remarkable plant collection but in an Italian context, it is and it shows a measure of gardening skill that is not often evident in many of the famous gardens of that country. These are harsh gardening conditions which is why so many Italian gardens rely on structure, design and space for their impact, rather than plants.

The view out to the surrounding countryside

It amuses me that the Italians credit this romantic, naturalistic style to English gardening while the British (and other nationalities) flock to Italy for its romance. It is such a beautiful country. I kept thinking I was in an E. M. Forster novel (though A Room With a View was set in Florence, not nearby Sermonetta). Ninfa sits like an oasis of soft green lushness within an age-old landscape rich in history and possessed of its own natural, harsh beauty. Even the light is different in Italy.

If you want to know more about Ninfa, the official website is http://www.fondazionecaetani.org/ but a general search on Ninfa will bring up a wealth of material. It is located in the area of Latina about two hours south of Rome and requires either hiring a car (!!!!)  or sorting out a taxi transfer.

Look! Just look at the centuries old wall panels in the roofless church which may even be the one where Pope Alexander 111 was consecrated in 1159

The modern orange rose beside the moat worried me but not Mark so much. I just felt that the softer shrub and climbing roses fitted the environment better than this one.

Despatches from Camembert

This! This really is the village of Camembert. It exists and it is the origin of the cheese. It is picturesque but small these days containing a church, a carpark with two charge stations for electric cars, a museum to honour Camembert cheese that has limited opening hours and a tourist shop. And some houses, but not many.

The tourist shop sells cheeses and I am not sure that they were much dearer than the same local brands at the Carrefour supermarket in nearby Vimoutiers. European cheeses are so very good. And it is interesting that most of the local market appears to be supplied by small, local producers. We would call these artisan or boutique producers at home and pay a huge premium for their products. Our mass market, such as it is in little New Zealand, is supplied by an indistinct, pretty average range of cheese, most of which comes through Fonterra, our near monopoly dairy company.

At the crossroads, leading up to Camembert, there is an obelisk commemorating Madame Harel, or Mrs Camembert as some may call her now. That is a pretty major legacy to leave.

Mme Harel’s obelisk faces but in no way equals the startling rendition of Christ. We have seen many other statues of both Christ and the Virgin Mary in this area, reminding us that this is a Roman Catholic country. But few statues equal the grandeur and prominence of that in little Camembert.

I like travelling with Mark because he is observant so of course he spotted the bees congregating around the nether regions. What is more, be cast his eyes around the base until he found a dead bee, in order that he could determine that these are small, dark French bees of a sort we do not appear to have in New Zealand.

The roses were finished last week in Italy, still blooming beautifully in Normandie this week and we may even catch them at their peak in England where we cross to today. We saw a most interesting contemporary French garden near Rouen and a not so great garden near here, but more on gardens later. Our arrival in Camembert on Wednesday was, apparently, the hottest June day since 1945. 38 degrees Celsius. That is very, very hot. We are not expecting a repetition in England.


The old and the new. Roof tiles in Italy.

We have moved on from Italy and are now hanging out in Camembert in Normandy – and yes, Camembert is the original home of the cheese that bears its name. But that is another story still to come. Back in Italy, looking out over the mellow tones of the tiled roofs is part of the landscape.

I can understand that not everybody is as interested in roof tiles as we are. This is because we live with a fragile concrete tile roof that needs Mark’s constant monitoring. Italian fired terracotta tiles seem altogether more romantic, especially with the tonal variations. These are laid in the classic over and under construction – alternating face up and face down.

I will admit I had not really thought about the shape and the laying pattern of this classic terracotta tile until I can across this little bundle of replacement tiles on our hotel “balcony” in Sermonetta (where the roof top views were also photographed).

Alas, there is nothing like modern suburbia to cause a rethink. And modern suburbia in Fiumicino gave a different view. These tiles have the gully between the tiles attached.

Coming from a climate where torrential rain in combination with high wind is not uncommon, we were unconvinced that the overlap of these modern Italian roof tiles would be sufficient to stop the water getting blown over the ridge in our conditions. Besides, where is the romance, La Bella Italia? But then, where in the world is there environmental romance in modern suburbia? It is just an interesting aspect of travel to see beyond the picture postcard scenes, sometimes.

A rental car in Italy

No filters. Just the fading lights as we walked back from dinner

While the main purpose of our current travels is gardening, it takes time to process what we have seen and the photos – the many photos – are best sorted on my home PC with its big screen. So the gardening content will have to wait. But allow me to tell the tale of renting a car in Italy. And because cars are so dull, I did not bother taking a single photo of our little Peugeot. Instead, I give you the unrelated glory that is the hillside village of Sermoneta.

We could not get to Sermoneta, or indeed to the gardens of Ninfa and La Torrecchia without a car. I said I would drive. Not from Rome. I have seen Rome traffic and I do not have a death wish. The town of Latina looked more manageable and I booked and paid for a car on line, even doing an advance check-in, to save time when it came to collecting the car, the company site told me.

We transferred by trains from Tivoli to Latina Scalo. I say trains, plural, because it took three, though the distance is but short. We have learned how to manage the Italian rail system with some confidence. I bought the tickets for the local bus from the railway station to the centre of Latina, thereby saving what seemed an exorbitant taxi fare.

But pride comes before a fall. Getting onto a local bus is easy. Getting off in the right place is something else entirely. We should have been able to alight a few hundred metres from the car hire company. By the time we actually alighted, we were 3.8 km away. Latina is a charmless 1930s city, built by Mussolini and off the tourist trail. This means no taxis to be seen and very – very, very – little English is spoken. I never criticise that. After all, we do not speak Italian so why should we expect them to understand English? But it can make life challenging.

This IS a road in Sermoneta. Cars went up and down it. But we just parked our car and left it by the city walls.

No taxis, no rescue, the temperature was over 33 degrees Celsius, maybe 35 or more, and we were standing by the road with a trolley case and day pack each. Fortunately we travel fairly lightly. Mark grimly declared the distance of 3.8 km as “do-able”. As in walkable. We had no other options. We trudged the 3.8km in about 35 degrees of heat.

Never have I been so pleased to see a destination as the car hire place. Rarely has my relief been so misplaced.

The hire place was staffed by two men. The senior man was tattooed and utterly disinterested in us. The younger of the two was startlingly good looking and claimed to speak English (trouble was, he did not actually understand English and could not read English) and we could only assume he had just started work there. Not only that, when the gods annointed him as the Adonis of the car hire world, they decided to ensure that he not become conceited by removing any vestige of cerebral capacity. 

Remember, I had a confirmed booking number for an automatic car, pre-paid, pre-approved, level of insurance cover selected, my driver’s licence verified and approved. It should have been a 3 minute task to copy my credit card details, get my signature and hand over the keys. Or so I thought.

It took an hour and twenty minutes to break me. An hour and twenty minutes of me standing at the counter while Adonis sat squinting at the computer screen, brow knitted in puzzlement. Repeatedly, I supplied my documentation, gave our physical address in NZ, my mobile phone number, refused exorbitant additional insurance (they tried to tell us that my pre-paid 70 euros did not include any insurance at all), refusing to authorise them billing all the car charges to my card a second, third and fourth time. At the end of 80 minutes, I cracked and lost my temper. This happens about once a decade. I shouted, I swore.

It worked. About 10 minutes later, I got the car keys. It was not an automatic but I was beyond caring. Adonis wanted me to smile and say that all was fine but I was past playing by his rules. It wasn’t okay at all.

Two days later, when we returned the car, Adonis was waiting. All I wanted was the insurance excess hold lifted from my credit card. He tried to charge me yet again the 70 euro charge I had pre-paid. Of course he did. But I am made of sterner stuff. I did not yield. He did try a weak attempt to make us suffer by refusing to call us a taxi, just handing me the number instead but a kind Italian gentleman helped us out and called the taxi for us.

We are not likely to ever try renting a car in Italy again. But tomorrow we fly to France where a rental car should be waiting for us in Rouen. It could not be worse that Latina. Truly, it could not. Sometimes travel can be difficult.

But look at Sermoneta! And the countryside of Lazio and gardens of Ninfa and La Torrecchia will follow.

Shady broms



We are not big on low maintenance gardening here, though I know that many others are. It has always seemed like an oxymoron to me. But as I looked at the bromeliads flowering beneath our stand of rimu trees, it occurred to me that here was a genuinely low maintenance area of the garden. As long as you don’t mind the prickly nature of many of the bromeliads, they are extremely undemanding plants.

About twice a year, I don gloves and home-made lower arm puttees (to stop my skin being shredded) to go through removing fallen debris and dead leaves or dying rosettes from the plants. That is about all the maintenance they need which is pretty astonishing for such an exotic planting.

We are not quite frost-free so we grow most of our bromeliads in the high shade cast by huge trees. Some varieties, particularly the ones with red foliage, lose the colour intensity in shaded conditions. Some just turn green, in fact, but at least they never get frosted. Because we are detailed, mix and match gardeners, we don’t only plant bromeliads. They combine very well with ferns, dendrobium orchids, clivias, begonias, hippeastrums and a host of other choice, shade-loving plants.


Mark’s father planted the first stretch of this sub-tropical woodland area back in the 1950s, when the use of bromeliads as shade plants would not have been common. He was working with very few different types but over the years, as a wider range has become available, we have added variety. Most of what we grow are epiphytic so they don’t have much at all in the way of root systems and they gather all the sustenance they need from the air and rain. The majority of them increase steadily by putting up two new rosettes at a time to replace the main one which, having bloomed, will slowly die. In the right conditions, these are truly self-sustaining plants to grow.


I have to make an admission. Neither Mark nor I have any botanical expertise in bromeliads – though we can claim to have gardening experience with them. Neither of us have ever felt drawn to unravel more of their botany. It is a big and complicated family – close to 3500 different species and goodness only knows how many hybrids from crossing the species. The best known member of the family is the pineapple while at the other end of the spectrum, tillandsias (commonly called Spanish moss) are also bromeliads which seems pretty surprising. In the middle are the ones most of know and grow – the alcantareas, bilbergias, neoregelias, vrieseas and the like. A lot of what we have in the garden will be named hybrids though the names have long gone.

If you are more dedicated to the botany of this family than we are, track down the books written by Andrew Steens which are even more useful in that all his experience is based in this country, not overseas.


A fair number of bromeliads come into flower in winter and their exotica is unmatched by any other plants at this somewhat gloomy time of year. Not only can the colour be startling, so too is the huge range of flower form and texture. Some, like vriesea, can resemble flat two dimensional wax creations and these blooms can last months. Others, like the bilbergias, are more abundant but over much more quickly.

If you are willing to tolerate the prickly foliage, the only other downside to my mind is that many hold water in their centres and that can breed mosquitoes in summer.

That opinion was not shared by a cantankerous garden visitor. Notwithstanding that she had managed to get into the garden without paying, she stood in the middle of the Rimu Avenue, looked around and rudely declared, “I hate bromeliads. They look so fake and artificial.” I just left her to it.

First published in the June issue of New Zealand Gardener and reproduced here with their permission. 

Up, up and away. In search of modern romantic gardens.

We are off today on one of our garden visiting trips. For the first time, I have felt sufficiently unnerved by international events to register our trip on the Safe Travel site run by our government. That is so they know roughly where we are in case of catastrophe.

Overseas readers may not realise that for New Zealanders, almost every overseas flight is long haul. It is only 3 hours to Australia so that doesn’t really count and some of the Pacific Islands are not so far away. Anywhere else, it is basically 12 hours and that only gets us to refuelling stops in preparation for the second leg which is more or less another 12 hours. Unless you want to fly via the Arab states of Dubai, Qatar or UAE in which case it is over 17 hours plus a shorter long-haul leg after that.  Being an economical traveller, I have transited most airports on offer – Los Angeles, Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Guangzhou. They blur in the memory.

But this trip, I am really glad that we are not booked via the US (might get code-shared with United Airlines!!! Nor do we want the grief of their new visa regs), South Korea (I really like Korean Air but that is altogether too close to the odd gentleman with the bad haircut and despotic tendencies just across the border) and now via the Arab states which are looking altogether too volatile. Our Hong Kong stopovers may be hot, colourful and crowded but they don’t seem anywhere near as threatening.

We are not visiting Italy to see classic gardens of the Villa Cimbrone class this time

Wild flowers at the Palatine are more the style we are looking at these days

We land in Italy and the reason we start there is because I have been told very firmly that if we are interested in romantic gardening, we absolutely must go to Ninfa. I am obeying orders. Ninfa and La Torrecchia nearby are not the classic, formal style that most New Zealanders think of when it comes to Italian gardens. Those are the historic gardens of the rich and powerful and we have seen some of them in the past, and will go and see Villa d’Este because we will be in Tivoli some of the time. Ninfa and La Torrecchia are much more recent creations, renowned for their soft-edged profusion of flowers and foliage set amidst ruins of earlier eras.

Charmed by the villages of France – Giverny in this case. Look at that little bus shelter!

and wooed, so to speak, by the food

Then it is up to Normandie in France, to stay in Rouen and (believe it or not) in the village of Camembert. We were utterly charmed by our visit to Giverny which we tacked on to our last UK trip. Not so much by Monet’s garden itself as by the village, the countryside, wildflowers, the friendliness and the food and wine. That ooh-la-la French style is so unique. Again, we have plans to visit a modern French garden or two rather than keeping to the big budget historical attractions. I am rather hoping for some time admiring wild flowers in the land of Calvados cider and camembert.

The South African meadow was in its first season at Wisley when we visited in 2014

Crossing to the UK, we have a busy eight days planned. Again it is the modern directions that interest us – gardening in sustainable eco-systems, gently guiding nature rather than forcing it into the strait jacket of human expectations. We are really keen to see how some of the plantings we saw in 2009 and 2014 have matured over the intervening years – the Missouri and South African Meadows and Oudolf borders at Wisley for starters. We also plan to get back to Bury Court and Wildside – two of the best private gardens we have seen – but the rest will be new to us. The naturalistic plantings around Olympic Park in London have had five years to mature – we want to see how they look now that time has passed and also to see the recent public plantings around the Barbican and Kings Cross. The time of floral clocks and garish bedding plants has long passed in favour of a whole new genre of softer-edged, lower maintenance public plantings. We want to see some of it.

There may be a lull in posts over the next few weeks but we expect to come back brimming with ideas and enthusiasm.

Bury Court


Just a recipe – delicious cheese puffs reputed to be of Brazilian origin

On Radio Live yesterday morning, Tony Murrell and I were having a free range conversation about flowers, foliage, seed heads and ongoing harvesting in what is now early winter when Tony asked me for this recipe for cheese puffs. I had whipped up a batch for an impromptu lunch when he called in on Thursday.
The Brazilian Cheese Puffs
Preheat the oven to 160 or 170,
Put into the bowl of the food processor:
2 eggs
generous 2 cups of tapioca flour
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup milk
pinch of salt
generous amount of cheese (any cheese or mixture of cheeses) – one cup grated or half a cup packed.
Whizz it up. Pour the batter into muffin pans (makes 12) and bake until they have puffed up and sound hollow. The finished result should be crisp on the outside with a slightly chewy, almost hollow centre.
I adapted the recipe from one on the internet but I did not record the source so I can’t credit it.
Nor can I vouch for its authenticity in terms of being Brazilian but they are delicious.
I suspect the critical ingredient is the tapioca flour which neither of my usual supermarkets stock but I find it either at the delicatessen or Asian supermarkets. As far as I know, tapioca flour is gluten free, being cassava-based. In texture and consistency resembles finely milled rice flour or what we know as cornflour.
If you have never worked out the differences between tapioca, sago and semolina and their close relatives of couscous and corn grits, I once unravelled the various base ingredients here.

Mark’s tumbler pigeons and the persimmon tree – entirely unrelated but they fit the colour scheme.