Deep thoughts of depth

This has to be quick.  I’m writing between itinerary items on a USA garden tour, and there’s only ever snatched moments.

I had reason yesterday to wonder again about the challenges of translating distinct styles or design ideas from one country to another.  I was browsing an American book on Provencal gardens a few months back, which flipped back and forth between the true item and American copies of it.  You never ever had to read the caption to know the difference.  But it is always difficult to put your finger on exactly what makes the fakes look…well….fake.

For the purposes of brevity, I’d like to put forth one major point of difference, and that’s the amount of surrounding greenery.

A couple of years back I stood with a group at Eyrignac (see above – the exact spot where the discussion arose), and we wondered how it was that any attempt at translating the exact same precise geometric structure to an Australian garden was almost certain to fail.  Part of it, we decided, was the critical nature of the deep surrounding green.  French gardens of this style almost by their nature appear carved out of forest (one of the essential points of differences, according to ol’ Dame Sylvia Crowe, between French and English country gardens ie the density of the background green from which they were carved).  You can imagine gardens like Vaux le Vicomte (below) resulting from a simple digital process of selecting huge geometric swathes of forest and then pressing the ‘delete’ button.  Whilst we think we’re reading the clipped and highly contained planting in these vast areas of deleted forest, we’re just as strongly reading the tall, rich forest that surrounds them.

On the other hand, when you visit a garden like Longwood, as I did yesterday, and have explained to you by our guide that this series of fountains was modeled on those at Villa Gamberaia, it takes you a while to see any real likeness.

The original – the water parterre at Villa Gamberaia

In this case the very opposite is true, and the ‘copy’ at Longwood is deeply surrounded in green – it’s like there’s just too much surrounding green in comparison to the spare austerity of the Tuscan hillsides that surround the original at Villa Gamberaia.  This background dry is what gives the water parterre in Italy part of its essential power – the water and its vitality in an otherwise harshish landscape – a subtle ‘oasis-ness’.

The ‘copy’ at Longwood

Strongly linked to the depth of greenery is the fact that the water parterre at Villa Gamberaia is virtually on a hilltop, while that at Longwood is in one of the lowest parts of the garden, deep inside a verdant valley.   One is on a crest, the other in an inversion.  Nothing could be more essentially different.  That’s not to say that its invalid, or that it is incapable of providing pleasure.  It was kind of fun, watching the constant changing of the fountains.  But it doesn’t gain any validity or pleasure from its comparison with the original.

There’s also the perfectly painted bright blue pool lining at Longwood compared to Villa Gam’s rather more charming shagginess, but that’s an entirely different matter.  I wanted to stick with a single aspect, so I should stop right now.


  1. As always Michael, a really interesting insight into how gardens make us feel as they do. I’m keen to hear if there are parts of Longwood that are so authentically successful that they, like Villa Gamberaia, inspire the flattery of imitation?

    1. There sure was, Robin. If I can’t sleep (ie if things are normal), I’ll post some more on Longwood o’night. It’s a bit unfair, isn’t it, to start with what will inevitably be interpreted as a criticism, when there was so, so much good stuff there? Everyone on tour, including me, absolutely loved it. But it just so happened that I had the chance to take a pic to illustrate a point I’d been pondering for a while. Trilliums and sheets of woodland phlox to come…

  2. I agree with Robin, these are very interesting thoughts you have put down. I’m always trying to keep the bigger picture in mind and the ‘feel’ of different areas . Thanks for such a positive analysis of why things look the way they do!

  3. Great insight Michael. Slavish copies rarely do justice to the original or to themselves. Inspiration on the other hand can lead to and produce incredible results.
    On a quick aside regarding a previous issue: reading ‘Dear Gardener’ the other day, I was interested to note Christo mentioned Viola rivinana as a potential companion ground over for Colchicum speciosum ‘Album’ – pgs 219-220. Kind regards Helen

    1. The viola also acknowledges the moister/shadier preference of Colchicum that Marcus Harvey pointed to. But would you release the thing into your garden? I’ve always really liked Viola riviniana ‘Purpurea Group’, but have so far avoided the call to ownership. I would own it for a few months, after which it would own me.

  4. I feel a garden, can never be truely copied, in many ways they are similar to a human being in that in a gardens’ infancy it is sculpted by those who love and tend to it, but as time passes it will adapt and change to the unique environment that it is surrounded by, these little differences are what make it so wonderful, they create the individual personality and the chance for it to tell its own story.

  5. Hi Michael, this is why I have a big problem with Rousham, the Italian-style shady garden plonked into cold England; I saw it on a chilly day and it seemed utterly inappropriate. Similar gardens in warm Italy can be sublime. Cheers, Jill

    1. I’ve yet to get to Rousham, but I can so see what you mean Jill

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