Tag Archives: wildflowers

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

Summer meadow gardens (and why they don't work here)

Enchanted by the native orchids growing wild at The Garden House in Devon

Enchanted by the native orchids growing wild at The Garden House in Devon

Surely the two most romantic sounding gardening styles are meadow gardens and woodland gardening. Woodlands will have to wait because summer is for meadow gardens, though not without difficulty in our climate.

Meadow gardens are based on the attempt to re-create and manage the wildflower meadows and we don’t have these in abundance in this country. Generally, one seems to go to Western Australia to catch the blooming of the wildflowers and that, I am told, can be a hit and miss affair. Timing is critical and some seasons are much better than others. In New Zealand we have natural alpine meadows (the Mount Cook lily, gentians and the like) but in such difficult, inaccessible and vulnerable environments that they do not lend themselves to garden tourism. Countries with naturally occurring wildflower meadows share several things in common – a much harsher, drier climate, and a lack of intensive, pastoral farming. Intensive dairying and wildflower meadows are an oxymoron. And most such areas will have an abundance of annual native flowers which leap into growth en masse, usually triggered by seasonal rains. Our native flora is unique and fascinating but not rich in pretty flowers of the field. So, by definition, wildflowers in this country tend to be invasive weeds. The lupins of Central Otago and the perennial sweet peas of Marlborough are a case in point. As indeed are gorse, broom, Kelly thistles and ragwort, all of which can have a blooming season which is showy. Not for us, thank you, and more than one New Zealander has been shocked to see gorse used as a garden plant in the UK.

Simple flowers like this white cosmos look best in meadow-style gardening

Simple flowers like this white cosmos look best in meadow-style gardening

All our garden plants, of course, originated somewhere so plants such as the species cyclamen, the deciduous ground orchids like dactylorhiza and anacamptis, even the Black-eyed Susans, echinacea and cosmos are native wildflowers somewhere. Just not here. I have never seen the North American prairie gardens, nor the wildflowers of South Africa but it was exciting (believe it or not) to see the ground orchids that we treasure as choice garden plants growing wild in England and in Italy.

Having decided that naturalised wildflowers in this country are more often noxious weeds, how about the controlled alternative of the managed meadow garden? Bad news. All the characteristics which make Taranaki prime dairy country mitigate against meadow gardens. Our grasses grow too well, our soils are too fertile, on top of that we fertilise too heavily, our rains come too readily all year round and our temperatures are too even. The grasses will swamp out all but the most aggressive of the wildflowers. Gardeners right on the coast in the north and in the drier south in the Hawera to Waverley stretch may have more success because their conditions are a little harsher. But it is not just conditions that one needs to get right. Meadow gardens require a bit of an attitude shift, we now realise, and it is a theme that we keep returning to in discussions here. Weeds. Meadow gardens require a high tolerance level for weeds and that is a problem for most New Zealanders. We have an ingrained antipathy to them. The worst crime an open garden can commit is to have weeds. Whether this is a reflection of our farming background, of the DOC position (our weeds are all introduced plants) backed up by our local councils, our high tolerance level for the use of chemicals in gardening and agriculture (and indeed in conservation), or an innate value placed on tidy suburbia, we do not like weeds. Because meadow gardens rely on letting plants grow naturally, you can’t control weeds. Once you start intensive control and management, your meadow garden becomes a cottage garden, and that is a different kettle of fish altogether.

We may need to reconsider our antipathy to weeds. Mark recalls the late Peter Winter, one of our leading environmentalists locally, commenting that the riparian plantings being fostered so actively by our regional council and indeed by Fonterra, are a positive move but that we will have to accept that a certain amount of weed growth is inevitable. The riparian plantings are the ribbons of mixed plants being established along all waterways, fenced off from stock. Done properly, they will filter run-off from farm land and reduce the amount of nutrient being washed into waterways. But they are not going to be a healthy environment if farmers expect to keep them weed free which, for the vast majority, will mean the repeated use of chemical weed killers.

A field of flowers in its first season

A field of flowers in its first season

But back to meadow gardens. It is the very simplicity of the meadow garden that lends it so much charm but it takes a little more skill than just standing and broadcasting a meadow mix of seeds in early spring. Amongst other things, the birds will pick off a fair portion of the seed and the germinating plants unless you take precautions. Then there are strategies for managing a succession of flowers through the seasons from spring to autumn and to ensuring that the garden lasts for more than one year. If you are willing to kill out all the grasses and competing plants before you sow a very generous amount of seed, you can manage a field of flowers in the first year. By the second year, the grasses will have crept back and the weeds will also be germinating and seeding. Weaker performers in the mix will have been beaten out by the competition. It will be more akin to the wildflower environment and it will have rank and unkempt times of the year.

If you want to try a meadow, pick an area which is in full sun and with poor soil. Don’t feed it at all. You want the plants to flower and seed, not to make a lot of leafy growth so they need to be on the stressed side. At the end of the season, you mow the meadow (one man went to mow, went to mow the meadow…) and leave it all lying on the ground for two weeks to allow the seed to fall out. Then you rake it all up because you don’t want to fertilise the ground by letting the clippings rot down. And you live with the weeds which will also be colonizing the area. The meadow should come back into growth when triggered by seasonal change. That is the theory of it, more or less.

We would love to grow a meadow garden but each time we look at it again, we figure the climate and conditions which make it possible for us to grow lush and verdant gardens mitigate against the meadow concept. It is why we continue to work on naturalising selected plants in designated areas instead. It is not at all the same thing, but it is what we can manage here.