Me? Overthinking?

OK, I’m seriously overthinking this.  I’ve been sitting here for an hour or so on a balcony overlooking an ancient sidestreet in Verona, trying to find an engaging angle on a particular garden that I’m capable of navigating in this over-tired, over-wrought state.  

If I try and do my normal from-the-particular-to-the-general, or my what-can-we-learn-from-this?  approach, I’ll get into deep water that I’m currently incapable of swimming out of, or even treading water in, so I’ll just show some pretty pics instead, and write about what I saw.

The garden is Villa Massei, just out of Lucca.  It is, without doubt, the garden of an ex-pat, as if straight out of Charles Quest-Ritson’s The English Garden Abroad.  But it’s a brilliant example, walking perfectly that balance of English flowering froth amongst crisp italian geometry.

Directly in front of the house, having climbed up the steep, straight walk of Italian cypresses, you arrive at this lawn.

It’s a slightly odd and difficult starting point.  The lawn isn’t flat, which it feels like it should be, but the asymmetry and aged charm of the house somehow absorb this, as does the planting, which isn’t strictly geometric in this area.  Geometry really demands a flat canvas.

Up here we spotted a shrub I’d never seen before, which the owner, Paul Gervais identified as Acnistus australis.  The only guess I’d made was Iochroma, and it turns out (happily for my lurking smugness) that Acnistus is currently absorbed by Iochroma, making it Iochroma australe.  Incidentally, the australe bit doesn’t mean that its from australia, but simply that its from the south.  Having said that, it’d be perfect for Melbourne gardens.  Wonder why it’s not around?

A second design challenge on this terrace is that the axis changes part way. but this is validated by that big urn which is placed on the pivot point of the misaligned axis..  The pic on the right is taken looking back on the urn from the other direction.  This pergola is about ten years old.  It’ll improve further with age, but is beautifully made with semicircular bricks.  I loved the idea of using perfectly straight, clipped planting but irregular, imperfect built elements, such as the hornbeam posts overhead.  So wish we could buy something equivalent in Australia.  There must be millions of young eucalypts wasted every year, which would be perfect for the job, if only we could get hold of them.  In this next terrace above this, and parallel with it, was this fabulous avenue…

If I hadn’t seen this, I would have argued that you just can’t do this type of thing without levelling the ground perfectly first.  But I’m quite clearly wrong.  The shaggy grass is simply being romantic, but really helps to mop up a bit of the discrepancy.  Too many Aussies would insist on it being regularly mown.

Further up, there’s views like this, looking down towards Lucca. If I remember rightly, this parterre is on the same level as the avenue above, but is closer to the house.  On the very top level is the swimming pool, surrounded in classic mediterranean shrub planting, all exuding their distinctive aromas – particularly rosemary and cistus.

From this high terrace, there’s inviting glimpses into a deeply shady terrace behind the house.

We eventually made our way down there, and I took this crappy photo of two absolutely phenomenal old oak-leafed hydrangeas in pots, beneath the enormous canopy of an ancient camphor laurel.  I’ve never seen them used potted before, and these would have been at least 2m high and 2m wide.  The flowers had long since finished, but had been left on the plant.  Backlit by the sun, they were a perfect match for the nearby house walls.  It was also the first time I’d ever noticed that their overlapping bracts make a perfect cross..


  1. Hi Michael,
    I used to grow Iochroma, in St Ives in Sydney- flowers were more washed out than your Italian specimen., but it was very happy under a large angophora with cymbidium orchids at its base. I purchased it from Digger’s many moons ago and left it there when we moved to the Southern Highlands 10 years ago. Maybe Digger’s may still have some??

    1. Thanks Lyn. I’m aware of Iochroma cyaneum, with long, tubular flowers. And I love it, when it’s a good colour form. But I really liked the tubby, bell flowers of I. australe. It probably goes no deeper than I loved it more ‘cos I can’t get it!

  2. I gather you are moving posts over from ‘a previous life’, which I love because I’ve long played with the idea of a new, more commercial blog/website, but drawing on the tens of thousands of words I wrote over the years on my Sequoia blog. The problem is that often the quality of the pics is, to quote, crappy by modern digital standards.. Once again you have hooked me with your thoughful, tentative analysis of why a garden works. It is to me one of the most fascinating aspects of studying good (or, for that matter, mediocre or bad) garden design.

    1. PS: in doing that I can draw on my copious notes, vivid memories and 1500 pre-digital slides from my 1995 visit to the UK…

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