8 July 2012

    

This week we stayed in a luxury hotel south-west of Siena which has no bidets. That’s very telling. They are clearly not giving too much thought to Italian trade at the newly opened Castello di Casole, which belongs to the US Timbers Resorts group. It’s an impressive structure, in a stunning location, and once belonged to Luchino Visconti and his brother.

The renovation has been done, in the main, with taste (I could have done without the rather cheap-looking fountain in the main courtyard which is meant to remind us all of the drinking trough which once stood here; and I would have made the colour element in the Bisazza-tiled infinity pool mosaic bottle green rather than the brightest of royal blues). But the garden, as in so many of these luxury hotels, is play-safe dull. What is it with lavander and iceberg roses? Agapanthus, admittedly, are wonderful plants but are they not rather over-used in these settings? Does everyone have to be so predictable?

Not that it doesn’t look nice. It does, in a fairly plodding way. But it screams ‘afterthought’ or ‘frilly decoration’ rather than integrated part of the look and feel of the place. And it’s clearly meant to be walked past and vaguely admired, rather than actually lived in and experienced. Why do so many hotels do that?

If there was  a garden designer involved in Castello di Casole s/he has been sadly neglected in the gushing literature about the place. I suspect, rather, that the garden is the work of a nursery. It has all the hallmarks. There’s no vision. (Why is the cellphone booster right in the middle of the view through the arch by the main entrance? Mind you, it won’t be a problem for ever because they have (re)planted a dense line of cypresses in that same, glorious arch-framed view; for the moment they’re pencil-thin, but it time the view will disappear behind a solid wall of cypress-greenery. Granted, this will take a while but what’s the good of planting major things like cypress trees if you don’t care to look into the future? That’s what I mean about vision…)

You would think, wouldn’t you, with the blanket coverage (books, television, festival fever) given to gardens and gardening in the Anglo-Saxon world, that when it came to getting down to making one – even one in the Tuscan countryside – then that enthusiasm might brim over… especially in a place which has distanced itself so far from all things Italian that it doesn’t even have bidets. But no, the approach here is every inch as look-but-don’t-touch (and don’t look too hard either…) that bedevils Italian hotels. Clearly, the thinking is, as long as it has a bit of vegetation here and there, it’ll do.

On the bright side, I guess it spares us from any out-of-place gushy planting by imported designers with idées fixes and no real concept of how to enhance rather than smother such spectacular Tuscan countryside. But it still leaves me with an unsatisfied taste in my mouth – here and in so many other hotel gardens. If you can’t create something that anyone would want to be in for its own gardeny sake, what’s the point? It’s like restoring the structure then filling it with perfectly acceptable but very dull Ikea furniture – though taking care to choose pieces which aren’t particularly comfortable so that no one wants to spend time in/on them. Inexplicable.

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Our drive took us through the Val d’Orcia which is poetry of a different kind every time one passes by. The wheat is being harvested now, creating crazy swirls in shades of fawn across the landscape. Heart-stopping.

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The Year of the Apricot has claimed a victim. Mario’s old tree by the vegetable garden, which has never had a single fruit on it, has succumbed beneath the weight of its own abundance: half the huge old thing came plunging down, shortly after I walked beneath it to admire the crop yesterday afternoon. It just sheered right off, leaveing me to glean about nine kilos of fruit – a small fraction of what there was, but I rejected the smallest, greenest and most blemished. Now they are spread out on the projection room floor, perfuming the house beautifully while I try to find the courage to begin the jam-making process. The thought of stirring steaming pots is just so painful. I may preserve some of them in syrup too: the peached I did that way last year tasted so deliciously sunny in the depths of our snowy winter.

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It’s so very dry that on days like this, when there’s a fan-assisted-oven wind blowing, I get edgy. It’s easy to think you can smell smoke on the wind. Yesterday,  from up on the hill in our Canadian neighbours’ garden, I could see big clouds of black smoke rising from somewhere along the Perugia road. It’s the first time this summer that I’ve seen that – surprisingly really, given then it’s almost a month since any rain fell. Driving back from Castello di Casole, around Montallese, forked lightening streaked down and the heavens opened: it was like crawling along the bottom of a swimming pool, in very low gear, barely able to see through the windscreen. Five minutes, then out the other end. Just down the road was dusty and burnt still.

My garlic – usually sufficient to see us through until the following year’s crop – is meagre and sad this year. The snow obviously wasn’t to its liking. The potatoes are looking pretty terrible on top but what comes up from beneath is waxy and delicious. My beautiful sculptural cabbages are getting bigger and bigger: in fact, they are cracking open at the top one by one – with a ripping sound which makes you jump if you happen to be close by at the right moment (I was, yesterday). My remarkably efficient watering system along there is giving them slightly too much water for their own good, I think. This may be because it depends on me turning it on and then remembering to turn it off too, rather than on its timer which still hasn’t been attached.

In my long line of obsessions – only healthy ones, of course – this is my latest: I will not use brightly coloured hose attachments, watering system pieces… anything, in fact which adds notes of unwanted, unnatural colour to my garden. Why do manufacturers do that? Why do we accept? The very useful individual-plant-sprayer things I always bought in Leroy Merlin to attach to my watering systems used to be nice, inconspicuous black. When I went to get some the other day, they had become a sickly bright yellow. Why on earth would anyone want that marring their flower beds? Would you want yellow plastic on your bathroom taps?

I have found that I can get those pieces, or similar, in black down in the plumbers’ supply yard in Po’ Bandino. But the pieces to attach the ends of hoses (yellow, oh dear… but the green type is a foul green, and rots in the space of a year) to taps are blue and orange and red and any number of other horrible shades. I need to return to Leroy Merlin or some other homey DIY place to see if I can find the nice simple black ones I was using last year. And an elegant brass two-way tap attachment so that I can have both hose and water timer/system coming out of one garden tap at the same time. Fussy? Why not? Only when I have located these will I definitively finish my watering system at the south end of the house, all looking subtle and sophisticated with unobtrusive black attachments.

Now I have two of the tap-and-hose-holder bins I designed in place in the garden. It took months for Francesco the blacksmith to make them for me. But they are there now and look so smart after years of taps waving limply at the end of bits of plastic tube. I like it when long-term plans finally come to fruition. Now all I need to do is sort all the other waving taps. Little by little.

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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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