Tag Archives: formal gardens

Not Exactly Italy. Despatches from Heroic Garden Festival 2.

“Against the uniform sheet of snow and the greyish winter sky the Italian villa loomed up rather grimly; even in summer it kept its distance, and the boldest coleus bed had never ventured nearer than thirty feet from its awful front.”
Edith Wharton The Age of Innocence (1920)

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide

Coleus, I regret to inform you, appear to be staging a comeback if what I saw in Auckland at the weekend is any guide


I have done two trips to Italy. The first was a major garden tour in the north, in most elevated international company so it was the full immersion experience where we got to meet head gardeners and, in some cases, garden owners. Why, we even had a reception with the Principe and Principessa Borromeo on Isola Bella. For those not in the know, the Borromeo family have an aristocratic pedigree, wealth, power and influence even today which is beyond the average New Zealander’s comprehension.

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

Villa del Balbianello on Lake Como

On my second Italian trip, we were in the south travelling from Sicily to Rome with some incidental garden visiting along the way. The Italian gardening that most of us see is historical and traces its origins to times of much greater personal wealth and power. Yes it is hugely impressive but not, generally, because of the actual plants and gardening. It is the magnificence of the stone structures, the grandness of the villas – which can be very austere – with imposing formality in garden design. Most of it rests on the confident use of space and proportion, delineated in stone. Literally. There is not a hint of tanalised pine to be seen anywhere. The quality of light is also very different to our hard, bright light in this country.

Yes, there tends to be a very restrained plant palette and the same plants are seen in most gardens. I remember writing at one point about the ten plants that show up in every garden. Many of the historic gardens are clipped and groomed to within an inch of their lives and plant health isn’t always great.

Talking to the head gardeners and garden managers, the restricted plant palette is largely climatic. It is not an easy gardening climate, being cold and dry in the north in winter and hot and dry in summer. Further south, it tends to be just dry and dusty. If they could, they would grow a much wider range and that is evident in some fine gardens like Isola Madre and Villa Taranto.

Villa Cimbrone  in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

Villa Cimbrone in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast

The recently-retired head gardener of Ticino Botanical Park on the Islands of Brissago in Lake Maggiore sought out Mark at the time of our visit. He then stunned us a couple of years later by pedalling in here, unannounced, at Tikorangi. He was biking the country. We really liked Ticino. It was a small island with a villa that seemed more domestic in scale and it had a fine stand of Taxodium distichum growing on the lake edge. His comment to Mark, when he visited here, was: “You must have been very disappointed in Ticino.” He was looking at the range of what we grow compared to the conditions he knew.

So it is a mystery to me as to why New Zealanders, in their quest for “Italian styled” gardens would want to take that restricted plant palette as a mandatory, defining characteristic. This is a country where we can grow almost anything.

The grand historic reality

The grand historic reality

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world

The modern domestic reinterpretation on the other side of the world


And can you achieve a domestic version of the grand, historic Italian gardens In New Zealand without the pivotal grand villa and the grace and proportions of a major estate let alone without the historic stonework? I mean, Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como has a genuine Ancient Roman fort in remarkably good condition at the top of the garden. Difficult to top that as a garden feature. And the grand gardens often have landscape vistas of astonishing beauty.

I don’t know anything about contemporary Italian garden design but neither, I suspect, do most New Zealanders. I can say that my limited experience of current domestic gardening in Italy showed a certain leaning towards what they saw as the “romantic English style” – less formal, more frothy and trying the broaden the plant palette.

Not only do New Zealanders on the quest for an Italian-style garden go for a limited range of plants, with the historically questionable exclusion of colour and bloom, they take a simplistic interpretation of hard-edged formal design without acknowledging that this is the garden design of the super powerful and super wealthy Italians in centuries past.

I could suggest that the Italianate gardening that I have seen in this country is to Italian gardening as a dinette is to a dining room, a kitchenette to a kitchen or as marblette is to marble.

All this is because I visited a garden during the Heroic Garden Festival that billed itself as “transport yourself to Italy…”. I don’t think so. It was a beautifully presented, immaculate garden, very hard edged and clipped with “a controlled palette of plants”. The fact that it is not to my personal taste is completely irrelevant. I can respect the determination and focus that goes into creating and maintaining that sort of garden and it was done to a high standard. I am sure the owners are very proud of it.

But Italian, it is not. I think what we bill as Italianate in this country is more Miami hotel-style reinterpretation of Italy. The Italian inspiration is distant at best.

The real deal in Italy

The real deal in Italy

More Miami than Italy in Auckland

More Miami than Italy in Auckland

Ideas for very small gardens

Synthetic grass has come a long way in recent years and can look surprisingly like the real thing. In a few circumstances, it may even be a better option.

Synthetic grass has come a long way in recent years and can look surprisingly like the real thing. In a few circumstances, it may even be a better option.

Camera in hand, I was thinking of you, dear Readers, on my recent trip to Sydney and Canberra and I gathered up three examples of very small, urban garden spaces.

Artificial grass or synthetic turf is often a source of much derision. The common name of Astro Turf is in fact a brand name of one of the early pioneers of this product. Given that I live in a place where we have green grass all year round, I have been guilty of sniffing snootily at the mere thought and indeed the examples I have seen have been such luminous green as to shout, let alone the nasty, rough nylon texture which bears no resemblance to the real thing at all.

The front apartment next door to where I stayed in Coogee on Sydney’s eastern beaches had artificial grass. I knew it had to be artificial because it was a uniform green with no weeds in it and everywhere else was turning brown. But I had to touch it to confirm. And it made me think that this product has come a long way from the early days. I reviewed my blanket dismissal. I won’t be rushing out to buy any, but in this situation, it had a lot going for it. If you have lawn, you have to own machinery to mow it. If you have lawn on sandy soils, you have to water it just to keep it alive. Where space is small and accommodates an outdoor dining setting and barbecue, the furniture has to be moved to mow the grass and the sections subjected to shade or constant scuffing will suffer. If you lay pavers instead, the area will get hotter and that is not always desirable.

A little leaf and soil litter from the surrounding plants gave this synthetic lawn a far more natural look. I could see why the owners had made that choice and I thought it looked fine.

The gothic revival courtyard had a sense of romantic abandon at odds with its Coogee Beach location.

The gothic revival courtyard had a sense of romantic abandon at odds with its Coogee Beach location.

Further up the road was a front courtyard that had me entranced. Gothic revival, I decided. It wasn’t an area to live on. Nor was it tightly manicured for kerb appeal. It was a courtyard that could have come from a story book. Stone steps led down to a simple, geometric space which, despite its austerity and laissez faire maintenance, had an air of romantic abandon. It is hard to beat stone for long term landscaping. It ages so gracefully. Mind you I have a penchant for Gothic lines which I have to keep suppressed here because there is not a Gothic hint to build upon.

Note the very modern row of wheelie bins to the right. It is a bit of a shame about those but rows of wheelie bins are a fact of life in high density urban situations. The shared bins of apartment living may be necessary but they have the interesting side effect of absolving the residents from knowing how much waste they generate individually. We are so close to our household rubbish at home that I know exactly how much we generate when I carry the bag and the recycling out to the roadside each Sunday evening. Not these city dwellers. All they do is separate their recycling and load out to common bins with no investment in reducing their personal waste.

Simplicity, formality and immaculate presentation gave kerb appeal although there is little to appeal to the creative gardener

Simplicity, formality and immaculate presentation gave kerb appeal although there is little to appeal to the creative gardener

Up the road from my Canberra daughter’s home, I had to photograph a new property. It stood out on that street with its immaculate presentation. The roses were at their peak and there was a seductive simplicity to the scene. The standards are good old Iceberg. I don’t know what the shrub roses were – something similar to one I have here that is a low-growing, white single. There were only two rose varieties plus the clichéd standby of buxus hedging. It bore all the hallmarks of being professionally designed, installed (and I use that word deliberately) and maintained. I am pretty sure that road verge is irrigated and sprayed to keep it looking that good. On the day, I would have to give it full marks for kerb appeal though it was totally derivative. The problem is what it would look like when the roses are not in flower – dull as ditchwater, I suspect. This is not gardening for gardeners. It is gardening for property owners who place a high value on external presentation and there is nothing wrong with that.

This particular property confirmed my thinking that if you are not a keen gardener, opting for a formal layout and a very limited plant palette is a safe choice that, when maintained well, can look most effective.

I just preferred the Gothic revival courtyard but that is personal choice. On which note, I wish all readers a safe and happy festive season.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.