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“Today, when visitors first encounter the charm and elegance of Tuscan villas and gardens, they see what they want to see—Renaissance beauty—not recognizing that they are admiring is the work of a 20th-century English architect.  In 1986, I was one of these starry-eyed admirers, gazing out over the Florentine landscape in awe and ignorance, which was about to be remedied. It was my first visit, made in the mold of The Grand Tour, but rather than travel with a retinue in a horse-drawn carriage, I was with my husband and 6-year-old son in the family Volkswagen. It was a self-guided tour to improve and expand my knowledge of garden history; I arrived in Florence, clutching my copy of Georgina Masson’s 1959 classic, Italian Gardens, with Edith Wharton’s Italian Villas and their Gardens written in 1903, as back-up, and managed to visit the highpoints. Villa Gamberaia, with its garden plan a perfect progression from light to dark, rustic to classical, left me speechless—and at my first sight of its famous water parterre I burst into tears. At the Villa Medici at Fiesole I became curious to learn more about the history of Italian gardens, because from its tiny giardino segreto, (secret garden), a true relic of the Renaissance, I caught a glimpse of another, even more charming garden, which I later learned was Villa Le Balze, and one of Pinsent’s earliest Florentine gardens.

That visit laid the foundations for my book The Gardens of Tuscany[1], and introduced me to Sir Harold Acton. We met in the salon of his home, Villa La Pietra. He sat in a rather dilapidated wing chair that was covered in faded silk damask. I perched on an armchair into which, in a more relaxed frame of mind, I might easily have slouched. Sir Harold was graciousness personified. I was tongue-tied. But then, serendipitously I mentioned that I was originally from Park Forest, Illinois. “But my mother was from Evanston!” he exclaimed. “I used to visit there regularly as a child, and adored Marshall Fields.” So, two expatriates found common ground, exchanging reminiscences about the Walnut Room (what would he think about Macy’s takeover and the loss of the Marshall Fields moniker, a byword for quality? He’d probably be as saddened and incredulous as I was).

During the interview, Sir Harold described how his father, Arthur Acton, designed garden surrounding the villa to be a showcase for his parent’s immense collection of classical sculpture and talked of garden design in Tuscany during the late Edwardian period. He mentioned that his father had consulted Cecil Pinsent about the addition of a small garden building at La Pietra, a project that was never pursued. Pinsent, he explained, was the architect of many of the villas and landscapes built by the Anglo-American expatriate community, which included some of the most notable members of the expatriate literati in Florence, and that these villas and gardens are today among the most admired in Tuscany. Sir Harold brought his palms together as if in prayer and resting his chin on delicately poised fingertips fixed me with a steady gaze. “You know,” he said, “You really ought to find out everything you can about Pinsent. So little about him is known with any accuracy.” You hold in your hands the results, to date, of that bit of advice. When someone of Sir Harold’s stature makes a suggestion, you’re well advised to listen.”

Sir Harold Acton walking in his garden at Villa La Pietra, 1986, by Ethne Clarke.

Excerpted from the introduction to my soon-to-be published book (by W. W. Norton), which has been in the works for at least six years, but I have an excuse since I did bring out a new edition of ‘Hidcote: the Making of a Garden’ and take on a full-time position as the Editor in Chief of Organic Gardening magazine, published by Rodale, Inc. and the first publication to introduce organic practices to American gardeners, some 70 years ago.

You also read about Cecil Pinsent’s Tuscan Villas and Gardens in “Cecil Pinsent and his gardens in Tuscany” papers from the symposium, Georgetown University, Villa Le Balze, Fiesole, 22 June 1995, which is the first place my biography of Pinsent and a thorough examination of his life and work was published by me, Giorgio Galletti, Vincent Shacklock and others.


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My late lamented mother was fond of saying, “Everyone has to eat a peck of dirt in their life.” As I grew up, that was the refrain each time I dropped a slice of peanut-buttered bread, upside down on the floor. Five second rule? Fegeddaboutit. Straight in the mouth, having first removed the most obvious chunks of gravel and wisps of dog hair. When her beloved grandson, my boy, put his first worm between his teeth she was nearly apoplectic…with joy. “He’ll grow up fine and strong,” she forecast — the Irish soothsayer in her coming out. Guess what. She wasn’t wrong, (DG).

So imagine my delight, and my own touch of smug Irish granny showing, when I read in today’s New York Times how microbes are good for us! Told you so. And that sanitized and steam-cleaned children are more prone to allergies and immune weaknesses.

As a gardener I know how good microbes are for the soil: they make compost from kitchen waste, improve soil texture, and generally keep plants healthy. Lose them, lose the garden’s sustainability. So it stands to reason, if we lose ’em in our gut, we lose a margin of our own sustainability.

Worms, too, are especially important to soil viability; in my sticky yellow clay garden I rejoice at the sight of a worm; their numbers are growing, but still I’ve been seen scaring off robins as they tug those little rubbery guys from the soil. According to several doctors consulted by the NYT’s reporter, it turns out worms are good for us, too. Pig whipworm, which is not long-lasting in the human body, has beneficial effects treating Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and some other inflammatory bowel diseases. Children raised around farm animals and so exposed to a variety of worms, not to mention good old dirt, are less likely to develop allergies. In her book, Why Germs are Good, author Mary Ruebush explains why dirt is important, or at least not something to be afraid of. Our bodies are full of microbes and we should keep it that way to stay healthy. Put away the antibacterial handwipes and pick up a bar of soap. Don’t freak when Jr shines a dirt-begrimed smile at you. It part of the peck. But I think I’ll leave the worms in the garden.

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