4 March 2012

Last week I went to the Pope’s farm. B16 wasn’t about – or if he was he kept himself well hidden. But his chickens and cows were there, and so were his formal gardens – all of which was just as good if not better.

I was there doing a story for Gourmet. Getting into the place at Castel Gandolfo was a challenge: the Vatican is pretty chary of letting outsiders in. But once in, I was given that kind of treatment which feels like coddling but may in fact be straight-jacketing. Perhaps I’m being unfair.

I was allotted a whole morning by the farm and gardens manager – driven around the 55-hectare property at Castel Gandolfo (11 more than the Vatican City, said the man who manages the villa, with glee) and shown the highlights.

Of the farm, I shall write for Gourmet (you can read that story here and see more photos of the place here). But farm and gardens share the same delights and faults. Laid out under Pius XI in the mid-‘30s, the whole thing is on a vast scale. So when you swing around to the top layer of the formal parterre, with the superb cryptoporticus of Domitian’s country villa as its backdrop, and survey the gardens falling away into the distance, it’s hard not to have an ‘Oh my word!’ moment. It truly is magnificent.

And it was, for me, particularly stunning for its starkness. All there was was intricate broderie in box, disturbed only by a team of gardeners turning over the bare earth of the areas in between. It was a study in structure and in green: the freshly clipped late-winter brown-green of the little box hedges, the motley clear green of wrong-season lawns, the brightness of umbrella pines and cypresses compared to the luxurious darkness of ilex on the higher layer.

I felt especially lucky, though, to be seeing it in that state when my guide told me what happens next: thousands of begonias and ageratum and pansies are used to fill the gaps. I blurted out, in my usual diplomatic way, that I think I preferred it bare; luckily, he seemed to find that rather amusing.

But that summed up the problem for me with the garden and the farm. Clearly, the planting plan had been laid down in the mid-‘30s and no one had seen fit to give it much thought since. What has beeing going on in this garden for nigh on 90 years is observing a rigid status quo. Of course, no one wants a garden to follow the dictates of fashion blindly. And when you have a good thing going, why change it? But begonia and pansies – let’s face it – really aren’t a very good thing. So why not innovate?

I had the definite feeling that the properties, at Castel Gandolfo and in the Vatican, were firmly in the hands of gardeners – excellent gardeners, I’m sure, but definitely more given to maintenance than to development. Not a designer in sight. What fun it would be to let rip in those huge expanses, experimenting to make them something truly wonderful on the design level as well as on the sheer emotional impact level. But I’m not holding my breath.

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The last week has been that Indian spring that we often get around the end of February. It’s so odd to think that two weeks ago we were emerging from snow and Arctic temperatures, yet for the last week daytime temps have been at 20 degrees and over. I’m not expecting this to be anything more than a blip on our weather radars. Winter will return before proper spring comes. Hopefully, too, it will bring some rain with it because despite our snow melting so very gracefully – slowly and composedly straight downwards, with no run-off or watery chaos – we’re back in a drought situation. There’s damp deep down. But these two weeks with hardly a drop mean that once again the surface soil has turned dry and parched looking: I had to water my currants and newly transplanted roses yesterday. They had a very droopy air about them.

The sunshine drove us staight out into the open. I finally finished my rose pruning… oh no, not quite true because I haven’t attacked the ones outside the kitchen yet. Damn. I had forgotten about those. And I’ve embarked – in a very early-stages way – on a number of projects.

The steps outside the back door are impassable for pots full of plants – Daphne odora, Viburnum burkwoodii, Potentilla fruticosa Pink Queen and Deutzia x magnifica – bought from Margheriti to replace the roses which are now on the southern side of the house. I’m um-ing and ah-ing about when to put them in the ground: as soon as possible, or after the cold snap forecast for next week? Probably destiny/inertia will step in and take things in hand and I won’t find a moment to plant them anyway.

I also, finally, did something which I’ve been meaning to do for about three years: I’ve cleared out the area at the house end of the car park which was a tangled mass of cherry tree sprouts, creeping lilac and various other less easily identifiable bits and pieces. It all looks terribly bare with just one large and one small cherry tree left: the second ailing cherry tree we cut down all together, while just one spindly and rather sad-looking small cherry tree remains – I’m going to give it the benefit of the doubt for a year or two. The lilac which was getting way out of hand and not flowering nearly as much as it should is now a compact bush with some of its older lumpier branches gone completely. All that remains now is to decide what to do there. The view straight through, right at leaf-level (were there any leaves), into the field maple down the bank is beautiful. And the remaining large cherry looks so good in its splendid isolation. Everything seems to have acquired definition. I need to decide on something elegant but low-ish, beautiful but not so eye-catching that it detracts from the lovely tree shapes that I’ve revealed. All in good time…

And the third thing we’ve done is ordered the wood for a pergola outside the kitchen door. Something tells me that this might turn into one of Anne’s more-than-I-can-chew projects. But bit by bit it will be done. In the mean time, we may find ourselves with a lot of daunting planks of wood lying about for rather a long time. All part of the challenge, I suppose.

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About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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