In Persephone’s gardens
II. And so to the gardens of eastern Sicily. You may wonder what this has to do with sustainable gardening in Egypt. In fact it was incredibly helpful to learn how expert gardeners had visualised and realised their Mediterranean gardens, how they manage them – and how they meet the ongoing challenges.
We saw many plants that grow readily in Egypt. Sicily is the only place in Europe where papyrus grows in the wild. It was present in most of the gardens we visited, usually in small ponds or water features; and in the famous Fonte Aretusa in Ortigia, where it thrives:
Our first visit, to a noble garden adjacent to a citrus tree estate at Villasmundo, began with a flourish: The gates opened to reveal Chorisia speciosa in full bloom, prefaced by a bed of sturdy cacti.
With its wide lawn, fringed by succulents and planted with eye-catching pines and Australian grass trees (Xanthorrhoea arborea), the garden is full of delights.
Most appealing to me – because I simply love secret gardens – was the giardinetto, reached through a little gate and down some steps.
Divided into four small plots each planted to a different theme, it has tropical plants, a pergola supporting a fragolino vine (Vitis lambrusco: the grapes taste of strawberries), and myriad citrus trees from bergamot to pomelo. I had never seen a bergamot (Citrus bergamia) before. Gloriously scented, its essential oil is used in the perfume industry to fix fragrance, and as the foundation of eau de cologne. Tea drinkers may be more familiar with it as the flavour of Earl Grey. I wonder if it would grow in Egypt…
I was fascinated by the stone irrigation channels. I had seen similar ones in Cordoba, but this was the first time to encounter them in Italy. Water storage tanks and irrigation systems were introduced by the Arabs, who conquered Sicily in the C9 and cultivated the land intensively, introducing many new crops.
A garden on the outskirts of Catania took us on an imaginary soul journey through a series of stanze in fiore or rooms in flower. We braved densely planted tropical forest and pools before emerging into a world of eastern philosophy, with a Japanese-style Zen garden leading to a symbolic crossing to the “other side” via stepping stones in water.
Planted with astonishing flair and a collector’s eye for flora from across the world, this intriguing horticultural adventure brought to mind Andre Heller’s lakeside botanical garden in Gardone Riviera. Highlight for me was a stunning frangipani (Plumeria rubra), sensationally perfumed, its cream and yellow flowers tinged with pink. We have two quite young frangipanis in our garden, but my goodness was I tempted by this one!
Perhaps my favourite garden was at Le Case del Biviere: “The garden that wasn’t” in the words of its creator. It is a serene oasis planted in and around what was formerly the ancient harbour of a now-drained lake; fifty years ago it was a desolate ruin.
A wide, green lawn is shaded by towering jacarandas and edged by low stone walls (the harbour quays) planted with a variety of succulents. Through a stone archway you find a Jerusalem thorn (Parkinsonia aculeata) bending its green branches to the ground. The lawn is edged by enormous agaves, but seasonal colour is introduced by the considered positioning of the white-flowering Rosa banksia fortuniana, plumbago, bougainvillea and hibiscus.
The garden is at once incredibly attractive and – well, comfortable. It’s a perfect blend of open space and inspiring planting, neither too much nor too little, with form and colour to keep the eye engaged. Unforgettable!
One final thought: all the gardeners who showed us around, and who either created or manage the gardens (or both) were women. I find that very interesting.