Mediterranean Garden Society
The Italian Branch of the MGS
In Italy the members of the MGS reside in all the Regions and therefore have very different gardens and types of planting, but we try to manage our gardens in an eco-sustainable way, especially with low water consumption. We offer an annual program of visits and meetings for members to:
Click here for a series of walks in the Sibillini Mountains (in English) where we accompany MGS member Jan Thompson on her hunt for wild flowers.
The photo at the top of this page shows the Piano Grande in Umbria, a large plateau full of wild flowers surrounded by the vast amphitheatre of the Sibillini mountains at 1,500 meters above sea level. In June we see the so-called 'infiorata': meadows splashed with the colors of the crops, including the famous lentils of Castelluccio. The fields bloomed even in 2017 after a devastating earthquake which destroyed Castellucio and blocked the roads leading up to the plateau.
Members enjoyed the magnificent countryside of Umbria while visiting two beautiful private gardens both set off to perfection by the surrounding hills and views.
The first garden of about 4500 square meters has been created over many years with passion and hard work by a husband and wife team who care for the garden themselves. It was truly inspirational to participants as it puts into practice many of the gardening principles promoted by the society in an original and beautiful way.
Started in 1983 the garden benefits from plenty of shade created by a canopy of larger trees and an understory of mid-size Mediterranean natives plus various garden structures which protect and encourage abundant ground level plantings.
Shrubs and perennials have been packed tightly together to save on evaporation and to keep out unwanted weeds. Everywhere desirable weeds, together with garden plants who have self-seeded in unplanned places, are left undisturbed and add amiable disorder to a lush and verdant haven.
There were a couple of very small lawns near the house and ‘lawn alternative’ grass around the swimming pool but elsewhere gravel has been used between plantings.
All of the paths were laid out and constructed by the owners themselves and along them are dotted lovely home-fashioned garden seats which invite one to rest.
There seemed no end to our delight as winding paths led us on and on to yet more plant-packed beds.
The second visit of the day provided a total contrast. This was a professionally-designed, modern, architectural garden created around a new home with ambitious ecological credentials (green roof, geothermal heat pump, photovoltaic panels, solar tube lighting, vertical water treatment plant). Set high up on a hillside with magnificent views over the countryside the garden invites you in with sweeping views to the woods on the left and to the house in front.
Along the drive several Fraxinus ornus trees are linked by garlands of vines – a customary agricultural feature from times gone by. All rainwater is conserved in huge underground cisterns but well water also serves for irrigation. Moving out from the house are planted swathes of repeating mediterranean natives (Elaeagnus ebbingei, both Phillyrea angustifolia and latifolia, Pistacia lentiscus plus several Cistus varietals) interspersed with sweeps of lawn.
The transition thereafter out towards the surrounding woodland has been managed by re-creating a woodland edge with a mixed hedge comprised of all the plants that would normally be found in nature: Rosa canina (dog rose), Spartium junceum (Spanish broom), Crataegus monogyna (common hawthorn), Prunus spinosa (blackthorn or sloe) and Cornus sanguinea (common dogwood).
Gardens of Springtime Florence
An enticing programme which started with a visit to both art collection and garden at Villa La Pietra. The garden is one of the most celebrated in Italy. A renaissance revival garden, it reflects the tastes of the large Anglo-American community that lived in Florence at the turn of the nineteenth century. Laid out by the Acton family from 1908 until the outbreak of the second world war, the garden’s design is much influenced by original Renaissance gardens of Florence although it also contains elements reflecting later gardening fashions. The priceless Acton Collection decorates the interior of Villa La Pietra with more than 6000 objects from a wide range of styles and media (no photos were permitted).
The following day we were accompanied by Count Torrigiani in his wonderful garden at Villa Torregiani. At 10 hectares this is the largest private garden in the world within the bounds of a walled city.
It features a romantic 19th century English Garden complete with mature trees, spreading lawns and various follies topped by a 40m-tall tower – symbol of the family. Then, as was the fashion, there is also an Italian garden with antique greenhouse of over 200 square meters and a pretty parterre garden in front of it.
Transferring to Piazzale Michelangelo (and the classic view of Florence’s Cathedral) we then walked back down to the city first through the Giardino dell’Iris where magnificent varietals of iris - entrants to the annual international competition which has been held here since 1954 - are planted in beds organized by year. Then still further down through the Giardino delle Rose– magnificent in May bloom.
After lunch in the historic quarter of San Niccolò we were accompanied by a landscape architect on our afternoon visits. First to the recently restored gardens at Villa Bardini, worth a visit for the views of Florence alone, it is a steeply terraced late-18th century garden, replete with statuary, an Anglo-Chinese garden and more horticultural interest than at most historic Italian gardens. We enjoyed the collection of irises lining the baroque staircase and the wisteria tunnel underplanted with 60 varieties of hydrangea.
On foot we then proceeded to the Giardini di Boboli to appreciate highlights of one of the first and most important examples of the "Italian Garden”. Originally designed for the Medici, Boboli served as inspiration for many European courts and in particular, Versailles. The park hosts centuries-old oak trees, fountains, mazes and statuary both ancient and Renaissance. Particularly beautiful the Grotto created by Buontalento – a mannerist masterpiece.
Gardens, Landscapes and History of the Bay of Naples
MGS Italy and numerous members from other branches enjoyed five days of visits in the Bay of Naples area. Based in Sorrento, the tour included botanical, historic, romantic, private and productive gardens plus several historic attractions.
On the island of Capri we walked on Monte Solaro, visited San Michele Church, enjoyed lunch on the terrace at Axel Munthe’s masterpiece Villa San Michele and savored the verdant silence of the thirteenth-century Certosa di San Giacomo.
A day on the Sorrento peninsula featured a visit to a centuries-old productive lemon grove “Giardino Il Vigliano” and a nature walk on Punta Campanella with wild orchids, asphodels, cistus, broom and magnificent views over the Bay of Ieranto.
Next up was a panoramic drive along the Amalfi Coast, a vertical landscape between mountain and sea and the very essence of “mediterranean”. We left the coast to arrive to romantic, cliff-top Ravello and visited the gardens at Villa Cimbrone and Villa Rufolo. On our way home we crossed the Monte Lattari mountain range, dropping in to visit “Il Giardino Segreto dell’Anima” en-route.
Two days of visits in the Vesuvius area focused on the legacy of Roman nobles and Bourbon kings. They included the Pompei UNESCO ruins, the stunning Villa Di Poppea at Opplontis, the Royal Palace at Portici with its historic botanic garden and Villa Campioleto one of the Vesuvian Villas on the Golden Mile from the Bourbon era.
Branch Annual Meeting and Plant Exchange, Torre di Sopra, Bagno a Ripoli (FI)
This year’s venue for our Branch Annual Meeting and Plant exchange was Torre di Sopra (the Tower Above), Italy Branch member Jane Sacchi’s magnificent and unusual medieval property lying 10km to the south of Florence around which she has developed a lovely garden. Low hedges of bay, oak, oleaster and rosemary are clipped to form clean horizontal lines and within these olive trees, vines and fruit trees flourish. Flowering shrubs – salvia, catmint, rosemary, agapanthus, cosmos - in blues, oranges and whites provided color accents which are repeated in the interior decorations with exquisite taste. The vegetable garden, in a beautifully-constructed medieval layout, provides ample vegetables all year round and is much loved by guests, family and friends. The garden provides a perfect setting for the house and tower and a glorious place to sit and enjoy magnificent views over Tuscany and the city of Florence.
Palaces and Historic Gardens in and around Caserta
A delightful two-day itinerary around our visit to one of the marvels of Italy – La Reggia di Caserta -included two other private historical residences and gardens in the area: the Giardino Dei Duchi Guevara di Bovino with its Italianate and English gardens (which features in the book “Italy’s Best Gardens”) and Palazzo Mondo with its stunning art, exquisite interiors and historic courtyard garden typical of Southern Italy.
We began however with an interesting visit to Casino Reale del Belvedere and Museo della Seta at San Leucio where we encountered the old looms of the silk factory and visited the royal apartments where the vast marble bath in beautifully-frescoed bathroom of Maria Carolina impressed us.
The Garden of the Dukes Guevara di Bovino was built in 1781 by Annamaria Suardo Guevara, Duchess of Bovino. It extends for 1.7 hectares and is designed in part with avenues with shaped hedges in the Italianate style and in part with an ancient oak forest, originally intended for hunting and then converted in the late '700 into a romantic walk.
At the Reggia di Caserta we started with a visit to the Royal Palace, one of the largest and most majestic buildings in Europe (1200 rooms served by 34 stairs and 1970 windows), the masterpiece of the architect Luigi Vanvitelli. On the ground floor, the elegant and harmonious Court Theatre was a particular delight.
Inside, the grand staircase to the first floor is surmounted by a double elliptical vault in which musicians were placed to greet the arrival of the King and his guests.
We proceeded from there to the beautiful Palatina Chapel and the sumptuous Royal Apartments with rooms full of furniture and decorations from the 1700s and 1800s.
Once outside in the Royal Park, our horse and carriage ride allowed us to visit a little-known area of the Park, the Royal Forest. Here was a large fishing lake with a wooded island in the middle, and deep in the trees is the Torre Prenesta or Castelluccia, an octagonal building surrounded by a moat, built for education and recreation of the young Princes and Court.
The Italianate Park (covering over 120 hectares with a 3 km long central axis) has amazing water games, pools arranged at different heights and fountains that culminate with the Great Waterfall. The latter plunges 78 meters, framed by tall woodland, into a large basin enriched by a superb sculptural cycle depicting Diana surrounded by nymphs and dogs driving away Actaeon, who being transformed into a deer, is attacked by his own dogs.
Now on foot we encountered the English Garden, located in the western part of the park, constructed by the English botanist G. Andrew Graefer on behalf of Queen Maria Carolina, under the supervision of Carlo Vanvitelli who succeeded his father. The garden occupies an area of over 25 hectares and has ancient trees, ponds, rare plants and ancient greenhouses. There we admired the archaeological remains from the excavations of Pompeii and other picturesque artificial ruins. A most beautiful feature was the statue of Venus kneeling on a rock surrounded by a tranquil pond.
Originally all water features in the park were supplied by Carolino Aqueduct, 40 km long and traversing five mountains, designed by Luigi Vanvitelli himself based on the architectural model of the Roman aqueducts. Today water from the aqueduct is diverted to the town of Caserta and the fountains and pools function on pumps and recycled water.
Palazzo Mondo: we lunched downstairs before visiting the historic first floor apartment which is now preserved as a house-museum dedicated to the ‘fresco’ painter Domenico Mondo. The delightful courtyard garden is enclosed by high walls of tufa and shaded by Aralia papyrifera. Oranges and tangerines, laurel and philadelphus plus climbers of jasmine and clematis give perfume and form while the loggia where we had our coffees was dripping in strawberry grapes.
Our trip was organized in collaboration with the cultural association GIA.D.A (Giardini e Dimore dell’Armonia) which was founded to preserve and promote historical gardens and villas in the area.
Photographs by Sergio Ungaro
Assisi: In the footsteps of Saint Francis
We started our day with a guided visit to the specialist rose nursery ‘Quando Fioriranno Le Rose’ set against the stunning backdrop of Assisi.
The name of the nursery comes from a story about St Francis. He went to visit Saint Clare in her convent in the town of Assisi during winter with snow on the ground. As he was leaving, she asked him when he would return. His reply was Quando fioriranno le rose (‘when the roses bloom’), upon which roses grew up out of the snow and came into bloom and Saint Clare presented him with a bouquet of them.
Owned by Paola Bianchi and run together with her husband Fabio who is also a professional photographer, the nursery features a rose garden full of antique and English roses which have been selected for multiple flowering, colour and fragrance. The guided visit was an excellent way to develop our knowledge of roses and to get to know some stunning varieties.
We then moved to the Bosco di San Francesco. While the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi is no doubt one of Assisi’s major attractions, few know of the nearby woods or venture along the trails where Francis himself and his friars walked in nature and dedicated themselves to contemplation.
After a light lunch we enjoyed a guided tour of the complex by the resident head gardener. We visited the garden around the ancient Benedictine monastery and the historic woodland park recently restored by FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano). Our walk was followed by an interesting presentation of traditional cooking from the time of the Benedictine sisters (1200-1300) to today.
For older reports and articles please check out the archived (non-responsive) Italian Branch page.
Branch Head, Angela Durnford writes "I am English – born in Kenya and educated in the UK - and I lived and worked in London for many years marketing for organizations such as Amex, the BBC, the FT and The Economist. I met my husband Sergio and moved to Italy in 1996. In 2004 we bought and restructured our house in Montemarcello (SP) on the west coast of Italy in the bay of La Spezia and I began working on the garden, which is dominated by a magnificent view over the bay and the Montemarcello Regional Park. The plot is about a hectare with half given over to olives, and we produce about 150 litres of punchy, green oil every other year. At the beginning I knew very little indeed, but I was fortunate to receive a copy of Heidi Gildemeister’s book Mediterranean Gardening as a gift, and so began my gardening journey…"
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