Posts Tagged ‘Gardens’

“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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I have no doubt that improving my property is worth every penny spent. Especially in these down-turn times. Of course I want to spend my pennies in the garden—it’s what I do. But Himself would rather build shelves to hold his collection of CDs, which is really what he’d rather be investing in, because it’s what he does (write about music). But the way I look at it, CDs and books, you take ’em with you when you move, but the garden stays put. So it’s worth making it look terrific.

According to surveys done in the not too distant past, by august bodies like the National Gardening Association  and the National Association of Retailers, I learn that:

The average cost of landscaping is 5% of a property’s value, but can add up to 14% to its sale price. And a pretty garden can knock 6 weeks off the length of time it takes to sell.  20% of buyers say that landscaping is “very important” to them when considering a house purchase, and that trees alone add up to 7% to a home’s price. That’s all very well, but I rather suspect that landscaping to some means green lawns and evergreen foundation planting and would not mean the perennial border I planted last autumn under the front windows using a plan that Piet Oudolf designed for me to share with Trad Home readers, but which never made it into the magazine. It should look quite magnifique what with all the blues and mauves set off by splashes of shocking pink and blurs of white. Much if it was native, too, which will suit the Iowa zone. But, I digress….

More stats are just as impressive, because they’re about lowering utility use and cost. Planting shade trees on the south and west sides help to keep your home cool and can lower costs by up to 20%. Keep the aircon unit shaded too and increase its efficiency by 10%, and lower its use by 15%.  Now that is truly something we can all relate to; save energy AND money. Need I say more? I imagine not, other than to claim that’s my perfect excuse to put my money in the soil.  Ka-CHING!

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I love it, and once wrote a book on it, titled English Topiary Gardens, for which I traveled the length and not-so-wide breadth of England hunting for topiary gardens. topiary-cover1They weren’t hard to find since topiary breeds a showmanship of sorts, with the best examples of the pruner’s art ghettoed in the front garden, framing front doors and generally shouting, “OVER HERE.”

Topiary lends itself to strong emotion. It’s a pure art, and as such appeals to emotions. Hence the phrase, “I know what I like,” which is generally followed by “You call that art.” So, topiary. Love it or hate it. And when a gardener loves topiary watch out, as I witnessed on an Ovation TV program that aired last nite (and will air several more times this month; Ovation is rather new, I think, and programming is a work in progress). Titled A Man Named Pearl, the story is about the redoubtable Mr Pearl Fryer who embarked on his topiary path as a personal statement about the fallacies of racial stereotypes. A proud African American man who lifted himself out of poverty, Mr Fryer learned the art by watching a few nursery demos. The rest, as they say is history. Today, Mr Fryer’s suburban garden, in a financially challenged South Carolina community, is a stop on the garden-visiting, red-hat wearing, tourist-in-search-of-the-“real America” trail. He keeps his garden gate wide open, and his tractor and trimmers buzzing until all hours; the neighbors used to wonder, what could he be doing by floodlight?

Resistant at first, the same neighbors now ride the topiary bandwagon, firing up the trimmers to add yet more topiary texture to their trim ranch houses. A local diner-owner asked Mr Fryer to prune up her shrubs in the parking lot. Now he tends them weekly, and Mr Fryer, and the charming Mrs Fryer, dine there for free once a week. Gardeners are such good people…and Mr Fryer is extremely fortunate in his tolerant wife: as she says, “if he’s happy, I’m happy.”

Now, anyone reading this who calls themselves a gardener will renember that they learned their best and most valuable lessons at the knee of an older gardener. In that spirit, as well as sharing his skill and knowledge with anyone who visits, Pearl Fryer visits local schools and brings the kids into his garden. There they learn lessons about more than topiary and gardening, absorbing from Mr Fryer and his obsession the virtues of patience, tolerance, diligence and belief in one’s own self worth. And that, in my opinion, meanshe has accomplished his mission, and made something beautiful in the bargain.As well as earning his name; he’s a real pearl among gardeners.


Click here to watch the Ovation TV online video of A Man Named Pearl.

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“I work in the garden, I look at the flowers and shrubs and trees and discover in them an exquisiteness of contour, a vitality of edge or a vigor of spring as well as an infinite variety of color that no artifact I have seen in the last sixty years can rival….Each day, as I look, I wonder where my eyes were yesterday.”  Bernard Berenson

Welcome to my new blog site. I have migrated from the web pages of Traditional Home magazine, where, for the past nearly six years I’ve been the Garden Editor. There, I used my space and enthusiasm for all things garden-centered to expand the content of the printed page. I intend to do the same here, but with more vigour and with a much wider scope. And that’s where cyber publishing as it all over the bricks-and-mortar guys. With blogs like this one, each person becomes their own publisher and editor, filtering their own information bundle and shaping it to best suit their needs. Each person, too, becomes a reporter, some with greater success than others, but what I’ve always enjoyed about the community of gardeners is their willingness to share their knowledge. It’s how we learn to become gardeners. Is any other enterprise as open-platform as gardening? The only one that I can think of is the internet. Making the two a perfect and complementary pair.

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