Tag Archives: romantic gardens

Romantic gardening

“He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”

                Horace Walpole from ‘On Modern Gardening’ (1780)

In New Zealand, we tend to place a very high value on tidy gardens. Edges, hedges and lawns, as I once heard a prominent gardener espouse. Attend to those and the rest of the garden will look fine – although, if it is a garden open to the public, it must also be weed-free.

I call this garden grooming, the outside equivalent of housework. It is a never-ending task to keep a garden manicured, but it is a matter of pride for many. You will likely be judged by your neighbours, relatives and visitors on how tidy your place is.

All those sharp lines and tidy edges give a high level of definition to a garden that makes for good photographs but they do not make my heart swell with joy.

Helianthus and large grasses swaying in the autumn breeze here at Tikorangi

When I set out in 2009 to get to grips with contemporary summer gardens, primarily in the UK and parts of Europe, I was jolted out of that preoccupation with orderly, tidy gardens. There is a whole lot happening there and not much of it has to do with tidiness. I saw a generous profusion in the modern plantings, a fresh energy and vitality in the scale, the colour and the size of the plants that were never going to straitjacketed into obedience in a nice, orderly manner.

Current trends overseas are referred to as the Dutch New Wave, New Perennials, the new naturalism, naturalistic gardening, Piet Oudolf-inspired, prairie planting, the meadow revival, the Sheffield School movement and more. They all share certain features which come down to a principle of gardening with Nature, not gardening by controlling Nature. Many gardens sit on the landscape; these gardens sit within the landscape.

My gardening and life partner, Mark, and I landed on the term of ‘romantic gardening’ – a softer-edged, more naturalistic style that blurs the lines between the garden and the wider landscape. It is a different way of looking and it takes a different approach to managing the garden.

Ninfa Giardino di Ninfa, south of Rome, is sometimes described as the world’s most romantic garden.

“You must go to Ninfa,” English friends and colleagues said to us when we first started talking about romantic gardening. The English love Ninfa, which is in southern Italy near the charmless city of Latina. Sometimes it is even described as “the world’s most romantic garden”. Essentially, it is a looser, voluptuous style of gardening set within the ruins of an entire small town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. How can the result not be romantic? It was very different to all the classic, grand Italian gardens where formality and structure gives the framework and the planting is largely an afterthought.

Torrecchia Vecchia is a modern example of what the Italians call the romantic, English style.

We also visited Torrecchia Vecchia nearby: a smaller, private garden which emulated some of the Ninfa style. It, too, was created around ruins, this time of a small village. On the day, I admit I was not blown away by its beauty, although it had some lovely areas. In retrospect, it has given me more to think about because it was a modern interpretation of what the Italians call the ‘romantic English style’. This is not surprising when you know it was created in the mid 1990s by leading English designer, Dan Pearson.

Given New Zealand’s distinct lack of abandoned villages, small towns or anything in ancient stone, we need to strip away the underpinning physical structures of these gardens to see what could work here. Trying to re-create the magic of historic Italy in tanalised timber or ponga logs is really not going to cut the mustard.

Wildside in Devon, UK, shows how a romantic garden can be created without hard landscaping

Without the human-made structures, the layers of history and romantic back stories that typically characterise ‘romantic gardens’ elsewhere, we looked to the natural landforms, plants and management strategies instead. “Enhancing Nature”, Mark likes to call it.

The simplicity of an early spring scene in the Wild North Garden is more romantic than stylish.   

For us, a romantic garden is one where the overriding sense is of being in the garden, rather than looking at the garden. English garden writer, Tim Richardson, talks about the difference between pictorial gardens and immersive gardens. Pictorial gardens are those where your eyes take in a pleasing view, where design and structure are usually the key elements. That is why they photograph well. Immersive gardens are more about the wrap-around experience, enveloping you in the movement, texture and colour of the close-up view.

This softer-edged approach of working in cooperation with Nature is underpinned by increasingly important principles – sustainability, support for natural eco-systems, better environmental practices, harmony and respect – while placing a high value on both prettiness and beauty. It is sometimes a celebration of the simplicity, rather than grandeur.

Softening hard surfaces by allowing plants to colonise the cracks and gaps

Romantic gardening is not tied to a particular garden design style: it can work with cottage-style, woodland, meadow, sunny perennials, or even just a suburban section. The exception is a formal garden which requires strict maintenance and precision for its impact.

It is a way of looking with different eyes and a different mind-set translating into gentler ways to maintain the garden. Moving away from sharp definition and excessive tidiness means a softer-edged garden, a blurring of hard lines so paths and garden are more seamless, where plants are not corseted into submission but allowed to festoon – but within reason.  Instead of focal points, we limb up taller plants to create views through and to highlight the play of light and shade. In some areas, we let the grass grow long and just mow  paths.

We still have parts of our garden that are maintained to a high level, but not too many and generally closer to the house. I may look at the tidy areas with satisfaction when they are looking spruce but it is the looser areas that can make my heart sing.

Japanese Higo iris flowering in the meadow in Tikorangi The Jury Garden

The Higo iris in the meadow down in the park, the flowering cherries in the Wild North Garden dropping their petals on the water, the voluptuous helianthus with the tall grasses flowering in autumn, the disorderly jumble of colours and blooms in the bee and butterfly garden – all these make me happy in ways that tidy formality does not.

First published in Woman Magazine March 2022 and reprinted here with their permission

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.

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


Romantic Gardens (part 2) – the grand, historic and famous

???????????????????????????????My first encounter with a garden strongly promoted for its romanticism was in northern Italy – Villa San Remigio. If you have ever been to the Italian lakes district, you will nod in agreement when I say that the whole place seems impossibly romantic. Stresa, Mennagio, Bellagio (the Lake Como one, not the Las Vegas one) – in the right circumstances these are places of charm bordering on enchantment.

Villa San Remigio had a wildly romantic back story – the love affair between a Neapolitan poet and musician and an Irish artist. If my memory serves me right, there was some sadness, earlyish deaths and childlessness. It had the mandatory handsome villa and a particularly lovely old church along with beautiful views across Lake Maggiore. But were the gardens romantic? It was all gentle decay when we were there, especially of the old concrete (and there was a lot of old concrete in larger than lifesize shrine-like constructions and terraces) and whoever managed the place was hoping to get grants for a major restoration. It may have been done by now but competition for restoration money is stiff in a country with such a long history and so many things in need of major investment.

The gardens at the Alhambra are re-creations. Note the gentlemen on the left, politely trying not to intrude on my photo.

The gardens at the Alhambra are re-creations. Note the gentlemen on the left, politely trying not to intrude on my photo.

I searched on line and found an article in the UK Telegraph, listing their pick of the ten most romantic gardens. Villa San Remigio wasn’t on it, but the Alhambra in Grenada, Spain and Monet’s water lily garden in France were and I have been to both of those. The Alhambra is an amazing place but the gardens are a modern re-creation. It is the whole package there that makes the romance – the history, the beautiful palaces which are on quite an intimate scale, the light, the view across to the Albaicin (or medina)…. The garden enhances but does not generate the romance. The most recent. modernistic gardens at the Alhambra were anything but romantic.

There is nothing romantic at all about the latest, hard-edged modern garden addition at the Alhambra.

There is nothing romantic at all about the latest, hard-edged modern garden addition at the Alhambra.

Monet immortalised his garden in so many paintings which imbues the place with added mystique. An analysis of the garden itself rather belies that. However the water lily garden is loosely maintained and in a naturalistic style which contrasts with his more rigid stripes in the upper garden.

Monet’s waterlily garden is charming enough, as long as you don’t mind sharing it with many strangers.

Monet’s waterlily garden is charming enough, as long as you don’t mind sharing it with many strangers.

What these gardens have in common is a rich history, age and gentle decay, some solid architecture of note and romantic back stories. The gardens do not necessarily stand on their own merits. And let’s face it, in this country we lack most of the above although some of us can manage some gentle decay. But age is measured here in decades, not centuries.

These gardens – and most of the ones on the Telegraph list – are all well out of private ownership now but the love of romantic gardening dates back to the original visions of private owners, albeit generally ones with considerable personal wealth to achieve their dreams. These days the romance is a product of sophisticated marketing. I am yet to be convinced that an institution or business ownership model is capable of generating a romantic garden.

But private individuals can and do. I would disagree with the Telegraph’s list but that is because I am interested in the modern return to romantic gardening – what is being done here and now, not what was done last century or the centuries before.

The soft-edged naturalism, helped by French village style, showed romantic gardening at a very domestic level.

The soft-edged naturalism, helped by French village style, showed romantic gardening at a very domestic level.

We spent a couple of nights in the village of Giverny where Monet’s garden is located. I am quite willing to admit that our delight in the charm of the village may have been influenced by the departure of the daytime crowds, the soft evening light and the consumption of the fermented fruit of the French vine, but we found ourselves more engaged with the village scenes than we were with the star attraction. This was romanticism on a very personal, domestic level. The soft-edged naturalism, often with charming detail, has nothing to do with great wealth, grand vision and power. It is equally within the reach of the individual.

In the village of Giverny, even le chat français and le yellow plastic pot had a certain romantic charm in the evening light.

In the village of Giverny, even le chat français and le yellow plastic pot had a certain romantic charm in the evening light.

The Romantic Garden Part 1

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

The Romantic Garden (part 1)

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

Good bones help but the contrast of plants and the simplicity of the daisies would work even without the hall in the background.

We have been talking about romantic gardens here. Not that commercially packaged ‘romantic’ imagery of twilight, candles, a bottle of wine and two glasses. No, we are looking back to the European Romantic period from the late 18th century onwards blended with what is often called naturalistic and gardenesque styles of gardening, but in the 21st century.

The gentle, at times sentimental soft focus of ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett has stayed with many of us all our lives. It was something of an anticlimax to me when I finally discovered that the history of those walled gardens in Britain has rather more to do with growing fruit and vegetables than roses. So too have I never forgotten the image of Elnora Comstock in ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’ though I admit I mentally had her in an arbour, not beneath a willow tree*.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

Gresgarth offered many small pictures of subtle detail.

How does this translate to gardening? Forget the twee, the naff, the contrived sentimentality. That is romantic gardening in the hands of the wannabe. It started to fall into place for us when we visited Arabella Lennox Boyd’s garden called Gresgarth in Lancashire, north west England. The pictures today tell the story. It was wildly romantic though not, I would guess as a deliberate contrivance. Lady Lennox Boyd is renowned as both a highly skilled garden designer and a plantswoman. This is her private garden and a reflection of her personal tastes. Unfortunately she was away the day we visited. We would have liked to have met her because we loved her garden.

It was not a show garden designed to impress. We have seen enough of those to pick them instantly. This was a garden with soul, underpinned by a very deft hand and eye. There were many detailed little pictures as well as the grand views, a marriage of formality and informality with areas of gentle abandon. It was a garden which served multiple purposes including supplying the house with produce and replenishing the soul. It wasn’t perfect. There were a few areas which were certainly not above criticism. In short, it was a garden to be lived in.

It wasn’t until later that we came to the conclusion that the best descriptor was “romantic”. This was despite the coach load of visitors and others who were there at the same time. I can tell you that garden coach loads do not vary a great deal whether they are in New Zealand or overseas. There is a certain herd tendency to tour groups. But even their intrusive presence did not detract from our enjoyment.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

I think it was the gardener’s cottage in days gone by, located in the walled garden.

Gresgarth gave us a reference point as a romantic garden. Even if the handsome residence and the old stone and brickwork were stripped out, it would still retain that sense of romance because it lay in the garden, not primarily in the wider architectural or landscape context. Though it certainly makes life easier if you start with some good bones, as they say.

Romantic gardening is pretty much at the far end of the spectrum from hard-edged contemporary garden design with shiny stainless steel, matt black and sharp white structures and plants selected solely as soft furnishings. It is also well away from austere, classically derived formality although it may have some formal elements.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

It wasn’t all pastel and white at Gresgarth.

What else defines it other than that distinctly nebulous and subjective description of having ‘soul’? We are still unravelling this here but romantic gardening brings together a number of threads we have been discussing in recent years – sustainability, support for natural ecosystems, better environmental practices in gardening, a respect for nature which involves a cooperative relationship, some level of prettiness, often a celebration of simplicity rather than grandeur. None of this is a surprise when you consider that the Romantic era originated as a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and the elevation of science and reason above nature.

Maybe it is time for Neo-Romanticism or maybe the Romantic Revival as a response to the elevation of economics and self interest above nature and community? Only time will tell.

* “One afternoon early in July, Ammon came across the fields. He inquired for Elnora at the back door and was told she was reading under the willow. He went around the west end of the cabin to her. She sat on a rustic bench they had made and placed beneath a drooping branch. Ammon had not seen her before in the dress she was wearing. It was clinging mull of pale green trimmed with narrow ruffles and touched with knots of black velvet; a simple dress but vastly becoming.”

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter (1909)

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