Tag Archives: Mark and Abbie Jury

Around the Barbican (part one of observations on the Sheffield School of planting)

The Barbican plantings by Nigel Dunnett

After a week in Italy and a week in Normandy, we hit the ground running when we landed in Britain. This is familiar territory. We can find our way around without too much stress and we know how most things work. Even the traffic comes from the side we expect so the risk of being run over crossing the road is greatly reduced. And we were very focussed on what we wanted to see. The contemporary directions. The modern trends.

When I use words like contemporary and modern in connection with gardening in New Zealand, I fear people may instantly think of hard edged gardening with mirrors and stainless steel, all those colourful cushions on hard concrete benches and mass plantings of a single variety that used to be seen in UK show gardens. No. No. And no again. Consign that back to the turn of the century, which is nearing two decades ago now. It is time to wake up to the new directions in gardening and in spaces both public and private.

The new face of sustainable and ecology focused gardening

The new focus is about ecology, sustainability, good environmental practice and creating eco-systems that support the diversity of nature – a worthy if didactic approach to gardening for this new age.  The unspoken aspects are where design and aesthetics fit into this somewhat radical approach. That is what we wanted to see.

At one end of the spectrum is the so-called ‘Sheffield School’, under the leadership of professors Nigel Dunnett  and James Hitchmough.  The work coming out of the Landscape Department of Sheffield University is exciting. In a nutshell, this is about lower input, low maintenance plantings that will co-exist with some level of harmony, develop ecosystems and bring visual delight. The skills lie in the range of plants selected (plant communities) and getting these established in the first place. That is a simple summary but if you want to know more, google them.

We first saw the Sheffield School signature plantings in the Missouri Meadow at the RHS Garden Wisley in 2009. I will return to that because in 2017, it is a little problematic and raises some interesting questions.

While there were a lot of kniphofia and phlomis in bloom when we visited, this is layered planting to take the garden through the seasons.

The first place we went to on this visit was the Barbican, having read about Nigel Dunnett’s new gardens there.  I have not been to the High Line in New York yet but I am guessing this is something like the smaller London version of that. A planting in a public space one story above the street. It is more about informal herbaceous planting as derived from New Perennials or the new naturalism than prairies or meadows. The new casual take on the classic, colour-toned and graduated herbaceous plantings that used to typify the best of English gardening. Meandering paths and seats through the garden encourage people to get in amongst it, rather than viewing from the side. We thought it was great. Full of movement and colour and more inviting in this day and age. There was no “amenity planting” look to it, although obviously it is in that category.

Mark went looking for evidence of irrigation to save you having to tramp on the garden yourself, should you visit

We were told that there were weight restrictions that reduced the number of substantial trees that could be used on this elevated site. It was also whispered to us a little later that the maintenance is not quite as light as claimed and that a team of volunteers put in work to keep it looking as good as it does. It is surrounded by high density housing and if some of the residents choose to take ownership of this communal space and keep it looking good, that is surely a benefit. Unlike most of the other Sheffield School planting we have seen, the Barbican must have used plants to start with, not seed. It gives a very different effect. Mark went looking to see if it was irrigated and found only the most perfunctory hose so our guess is that it was watered to get it established but the long-term hope is to follow the principle of planting to the conditions and avoiding a reliance on irrigation. How realistic this is with a limited depth of soil remains to be seen.

I have too many photos to post here, so have put an album up on Facebook if you want more details of this Barbican garden and its environs.

Next post is on the Olympic Park plantings. More prairie than New Perennials.

Postcards of Normandy

Potted colour in Rouen

One wonders – well, I wonder – if the person who did the sign off in at Rouen’s town council realised the scale of the planters to be installed at that railway station. “Let’s pretty up the area with some potted colour,” I imagine somebody saying. The result was the BIGGEST examples of potted colour that we have seen. Clearly hand watered – Mark checks these things out.

Same city. Not quite like the railway station planters.

Further down towards the River Seine was an example of amenity planting without irrigation. Not even the modern style prairie plantings can get established and flourish without added water. The idea may have been good but most plants bolt to flower and seed when put under extreme stress in an attempt to ensure their continued survival. Much of Europe was experiencing a heat wave when we were there. Both in Italy and in France, locals told us that it most unusual for the temperature to be sitting well into the thirties (Celsius) in June.

Potted colour in Pont-l’Évêque

While on the subject of urban plantings, the planter boxes on the bridge at Pont-l’Évêque made up for their lack of sophistication with exuberance. It was just that we were in Pont-l’Évêque that I thought I would photograph le pont but then I worked out it was in fact les ponts – there were many bridges and I have no idea which one gave its name to the area.

A pharmacy on every corner

Our second daughter joined us in France and it was she who marvelled at the fact there appeared to be a pharmacy, or chemist as we call them, on pretty much every corner in Rouen. Why so many, she asked. I have no idea but it reminded me of a useful skill French pharmacists have. They are trained to identify edible fungi – as in wild collected mushrooms, toadstools and the like. So if you are not sure of the safety of what you have gathered, you can pop in to your friendly local pharmacy. I do not think this is a service offered at our local Waitara chemist’s shop but there are times it would be handy.

We stayed in another Air BnB place in Camembert – in this case a Norman barn that had been converted to a large apartment. Some of the conversion was a little curious but we did not electrocute ourselves and the opportunity to sleep in an adult-sized cradle created from a half cider barrel may never come my way again.

Crouttes, near Vimoutier

The whole area around Camembert and Vimoutiers was extremely charming and picturesque. However, we were puzzled at the lack of the French equivalent of country pubs and eateries and also at the apparent emptiness of many of the villages. I think it comes down to issues of personal space and population density. In areas with very dense housing such as Tivoli and Sermonetta in Italy where we had been a few days previously, everybody comes out of their apartments to socialise on the streets and the plazas, especially as late afternoon meets early evening. In the UK which also has high density housing, people are often out and about. This area of rural Normandy was more like Tikorangi – big personal spaces and homes with land attached. Given the luxury of both indoor and outdoor private space, people stay at home more. At least that is my theory.

The green circle…

We went to a garden. I do not need to name it but it was advertised on the tourist trail. The welcoming sign was perhaps a giveaway that we should not set our expectations too high. What was quite interesting about this garden was that it had all the trappings of a comprehensive modern garden – the romantic rose garden, the new perennials garden, a “Japanese” garden, a productive kitchen garden, a traditional, medieval physic garden that harked back to the magnificent old buildings that gave the place its structure, even the enclosed green circle or rondel garden such as can be seen at Sissinghurst and many imitators. It was all there. Sort of. What was missing were gardening skills and flair. Particularly gardening skills. And any eye for detail. There is a lesson there somewhere.

Posted withour comment – the Japanese garden from the aforementioned garden.

The fruit of the mandrake! Mandragora officinarum, to be botanical. This is not something one sees often. It is apparently the root that is harvested for whatever purpose one harvests mandrake, but the fruit are certainly eye-catching too. I think it was in the physic garden.

La Plume! Romantic summer France

Next post will be the summer glory that is La Plume, a modern French garden in a country better known for its historic gardens than modern innovation.

I found the hollyhocks!

Five years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “But where are the hollyhocks?”. Occasionally a garden visitor sears him or herself on the brain and on this particular occasion, a gentleman came out from our garden and asked that very question, declaring that he could not find any hollyhocks. I have never forgotten because it was such a bizarre question. Until that point, it had never occurred to me that anybody might regard a garden as seriously deficient for the want of some hollyhocks. We failed that test.

When our children were young and had their own little gardens, one of them at least grew a few hollyhocks. But in our humid climate, the foliage gets ugly rust and if the flower spikes are not staked, they are inclined to fall over. They have not felt like a core plant for us.

But we found the hollyhocks in London. An entire block of them growing wild. This was part of the Olympic Village plantings. Most of these plantings were prairie-flavoured while hollyhocks are pretty much traditional cottage-garden plants. This may be why they were kept separate and all on their lonesome. They made us smile. I am only guessing that the other plants like the mullein and Verbena bonariensis have introduced themselves to the hollyhock party.

The Olympic Park plantings are five or six years old now because the London Olympics were held in 2012. There has clearly been a light hand at most on maintenance. More on the current delight of these naturalistic plantings soon.

As a postscript, once we had our eye in for hollyhocks, we kept seeing them in the south of England, seeded down and naturalised by motorways as well as on traffic islands and on street verges. There is no shortage of hollyhocks there. Mark is now very tempted by some of the buff shades, if he can find the seed.

Mostly Villas d’Este and Adriana – Postcards of Italy 2.

This Italy actually exists

Cliched though this scene may appear, it is not contrived. I just came across the view as we walked from Villa Adriana to the nearest coffee shop five minutes up the road. We wanted our morning caffeine hit before we tramped the ruins. Not only were there red poppies growing wild in the barley crop, the blue chicory and white convolvulus (field bindweed) were flowering alongside the stone wall that edged the road. I probably laughed out loud in delight.

Villa d’Este in Tivoli is known worldwide as one of the great Italian gardens. Built by The Man Who Would be Pope to compensate his thwarted ambition, it dates back to 1560. It was grand then. It is still grand today and water features throughout. His land excavations to achieve this garden would have put Capability Brown into the shade.

Formal but not strictly symmetrical at Villa d’Este

We have looked at some of the great Italian gardens on previous visits and had come to the conclusion that it is the settings, the hard landscaping – particularly the stonework – the history, the handling of space and proportions and the symmetry that makes these gardens endure as monuments to wealth, power and sometimes grace down the centuries. It is not so much to do with the plants or the maintenance. In a moment of profundity, as we walked through Villa d’Este, I noted that the symmetry is achieved through repetition, not through slavish measurement. It is that repetition and symmetry on a large scale that makes them so pleasing to the eye.

Attention to detail is not a strong point in Italian garden maintenance. Plants are not required to be immaculate. Irrigation hoses are often visible. It is okay to have plastic pots visible inside the terracotta pots. Water quality can leave a lot to be desired. Lawns are impossible in their climate. Some coarse grass kept green by watering is the best that one can hope for. The big picture is what matters. But, should you have grand visions of creating an “Italian-style” garden at home in New Zealand, maybe be aware that there is not one skerrick of tanalised timber – be they posts or plywood edgings or pergola beams – in any of these originals. Personally, I do not think that you can be Italianate or even Italianesque and use undisguised tanalised timber as a substitute for stone and terracotta. Ditto modern ‘dragonstone’ urns. And imposing suburban New Zealand values of pristine maintenance and velvet lawns takes such gardens even further away from the originals.

The straw broom brought a smile to our faces. Regular readers may remember me posting about the making of these in China.  Sometimes there is a charm to old ways. Besides, as Mark points out, these brooms work very well. Our first ever visit to Italy was back in the early 2000s when we went on an IDS tour of northern Italian gardens. It was there we first saw the widespread use of leaf blowers and came home and bought one. These days, Mark is using ours less and less. He is a bit of a purist, our Mark, and has become concerned at how dependent we have become on the internal combustion engine to maintain the garden.  If somebody would just make him a few straw brooms, he would be a happy man.

I am sure it takes a great deal of work to look like a modern-day princess, even more so when the temperature is over 30 Celsius and the location requires walking down and then up hundreds of steps. Mark noted that she was also behaving like a princess – the one with the pea under the mattress. I couldn’t possibly comment. Even when I was considerably younger, I do not think I ever managed the princess look.

Real life nymphs at Villa d’Este

I preferred the real-life nymphs. It transpired they were American art students doing an art history semester in Italy. Mark discreetly walked past them as they sketched and reported that they were extremely competent at drawing.

Villa Adriana – just one small view of a huge complex

Villa Adriana surprised us by its scale. It is the Emperor Hadrian’s retreat dating back to 200AD. The word villa encompasses a range of building styles and scale in Italy. The one at Villa d’Este is more akin to a palace. Villa Adriana is an entire small city of largely unrestored ruins encompassing about 250 acres. What is more, you can walk amongst them. I found a Roman toilet and an ancient olive grove that was simply astonishing. More on the olive grove another time. This was the Roman empire but it had an air of abandoned desolation even today, as though the tourist plans and archaeological aspirations of even a few years ago had fallen on hard times.

There was a fair amount of statuary of the armless, legless and formerly white variety but I think most of it was more recent reproduction already in decay. Much of the surviving, original statuary and marble had been raided 500 years ago by Cardinal Ippolito ll d’Este and relocated to his nearby pad but we did not know this when we went around Villa d’Este.

The wildflowers in the ruins of Adriana had a simple charm. In those drought-like conditions, the spring rains must bring a short-lived surge of germination and growth. The plants shoot straight into flower but conditions prevent them becoming invasive problems.

Finally, fields of sunflowers on the road to Ninfa. All facing the wrong way for the picture book image with the house and hills behind. Viewed from the other side, we lost the landscape context.

The light is so different in Italy

Postcards of Italy

The reflecting pool at La Torrecchia

While the visit to Ninfa was the reason that took us to the area around Latina, south of Rome, we were also fortunate to get to the nearby garden of La Torrecchia. It, too, is created around the ruins of a medieval village, though a smaller one than Ninfa. It is a much more recent garden, dating back to 1991, and it remains gardening on a private, domestic scale. Much of the design can be attributed to the English landscaper, Dan Pearson, whose style interests us a great deal. While this is early Pearson (dating back almost 25 years now), the reflecting pool above is his work. Surrounded by a riot of self-sown seedlings, it was a delight.

The cork oak, Quercus suber

In New Zealand, it is rare to see a wine bottle with a cork these days and most of those will be plastic. This is the land of the stelvin screw top closure. But I give you the curious cork oak, Quercus suber. This fine specimen is in the garden of La Torrecchia. The switch to screw tops has done much to relieve the pressure on these trees which had, apparently resulted in too many inferior corks. It is a curious fact that many restaurants here still pour a mouthful of wine to be sampled by the patron when, as I understand it, this tradition came about because of wine being tainted by the original cork.

The cork dog kennel stood by the gardener’s cottage at La Torrecchia. Whether a resident dog lives in it remains a mystery but I can tell you that we saw a big as, bigly even, huge hornet fly into the cork. We don’t have hornets at home, let alone these scary specimens. If I was a dog, I would be refusing to share my quarters with a hornet like that.

It is always a slightly strange feeling to encounter one of our plants across the world so I made Mark pose by the specimen of Magnolia Atlas in La Torrecchia. This one was bred by his father, Felix, and it felt very personal that there was a little bit of Tikorangi even in an Italian garden.

Mark beside Atlas at La Torrecchia

Kiwi fruit (actinidia) may have originated in China but we pretty much claim them as our own in NZ. And the commercial product now bears little resemblance to the wild species in their native habitat. It is one of our horticultural stars and a linchpin of our economy. So we were more than a little surprised to see the extent of kiwifruit plantings in Italy. Apparently it is now greater than in this country and a fair acreage of it was in the area around Cisterna di Latina. It is all irrigated which may prove interesting in the future if water becomes an issue.

Vast kiwi fruit plantations in Italy

At the local supermarket in Tivoli, we saw fruit being sold. So I can tell you that the green kiwifruit imported from Chile retailed at 2.99 euros a kilo (Haywards variety). The Zespri Green variety grown in Italy retailed at 4.99 euros a kilo while Zespri Gold sourced from New Zealand was 5.99 euros a kilo (which is a little over $9NZ a kilo). We did not buy any, preferring the big beautiful cherries we could buy at the morning market in Tivoli for a little less than that price.


Gardening in the old town of Tivoli

We used Air BnB on line to book most of our accommodation and this proved a huge success for us. In Tivoli, we had a charming one bedroomed, full self-contained apartment with a large garden, right in the heart of the old town.  All this for just over $70 a night which seemed astonishingly good value to us. Just down the road from us was this apartment which clearly lacked any outdoor space so the owner could only garden around her door. I always find the urge to grow plants in the most constrained circumstances affirming. At the same time, I felt a twinge of shame and sadness that I doubt such a publicly exposed private garden would even survive in the country I call home. It is more likely that the pots would be smashed and the plants vandalised within days. Or stolen. Sometimes I wonder how civilised we really are.

I give you the inquisitive man to whom I am married. He does like to look closely. In this case, he was interested in the construction of the bamboo door to the tool shed that he spotted at Ninfa. The bamboo will have been harvested from their own plantations in the garden and are a creative solution to crafting a door to fit a non-standard entry which likely dates back to the Middle Ages when the buildings of this town were largely constructed. I hasten to add, the door was left open. Mark may inspect but does not usually pry.

The bamboo grove at Ninfa, not unlike our own one.

Looking back at the entrance way to La Torrecchia, also built around the ruins of a small medieval village

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.