Thursday 31 July 2014

Gardens: Interpretations of Nature

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. - Cicero

[Part of the garden of Villa Carlotta, Lake Como, Italy] 
There are sounds we shouldn’t be hearing; feelings we shouldn’t be feeling. It’s still July, supposedly deep winter here in Tasmania. Yet there’s the unmistakable pee paw call of a spotted pardalote; the mating call, the one I associate with spring. That’s when large numbers of these little spotted birds migrate back from warmer parts to join the hardy individuals who have stayed here.

And I’m sure I’ve been hearing male blackbirds calling too, mostly tentative churrs and chips, but occasionally that elegantly fluid warble that surely must impress any female within earshot. There’s been sunshine too, warm and welcome on some of our still, cloudless winter days.

At times like this the garden calls, begging us to delve into its neglected dirt. Our excuses – it’s been raining; it’s too cold; we’ve been away; it’s such a mess – melt into the warming air. I start by ripping the rankest weeds from the raised veggie bed, then scrape a hoe through the tiddlers, and mattock the most resistant. It’s hard work, and something I can’t achieve without bending my back.

But the feel and the smell of fresh earth, and the winter sun on my bent back, reward my labours. When the bed is finally cleared of weeds I barrow in some compost. It’s distinctly second-rate: I’ve never mastered the dark art of composting. But a bag of sheep manure covers a multitude of sins. And when that mix has settled in and I’m ready to plant, a good dose of worm “juice” will top it all off.

* * *

A year ago we were also neglecting our garden, ‘though with the reasonable excuse that we were travelling in Europe at the time. Yet even there the urge to touch the earth was strong. Two particular gardens helped answer that call, though in different ways.

Claude Monet believed his garden at Giverny was his most beautiful masterpiece. Given his superb artistic output, that is debatable. Yet unquestionably the garden is magnificent, even 88 years after his departure.

[A living masterpiece: part of the water garden at Giverny, France] 
We joined the throngs who had travelled the hour or so from Paris to see the garden; to see if we could gain a sense of how it inspired some of his work. Our own inspiration was limited by the need to shuffle and negotiate our way around so many other visitors. Even so we managed to find brief moments, small spaces, nooks in which time stood still, allowing the dazzling colours, shapes, shadows and scents of the garden to enrapture us.

We half-expected to see Claude himself shuffle around the corner, painter’s palette in hand, muttering about his urgent need to capture another “free and emotional interpretation of Nature” (to use his words).

[Part of Monet's cottage and garden at Giverny, France] 

That may have been Monet’s definition of impressionist paintings, but it works well for Giverny too. And for at least parts of the stunning garden we found in the grounds of Villa Carlotta in northern Italy. The opulent late 17th century villa was built for the then marquis of Milan. Its 17 acre grounds contain an amazing garden, half the area of Hobart’s generous Royal Botanical Gardens, and every bit as complex. Its lower slopes, closer to the imposing villa, feature formal gardens and paths, with fountains and annual flower beds.

[Looking from Villa Carlotta over Lake Como, Italy] 
But it was in the “back yard” that we began rejoicing in the freer impressionist style: gardeners as artists. Up the steep slope from the villa they had created a marvellously incongruous blend of semi-tropical, woodland and flowering plants: bamboos here, palms there, ivy and rhododendrons everywhere. Here it was shades and colours and textures than mattered most, not botanical provenance.

[A shady "creek" with Tasmanian man fern, Villa Carlotta gardens, Italy] 
In the hot and humid conditions we gravitated towards the shady paths. And there, as though to turn our minds towards home near the end of our trip, we found some Australian man fern (Dicksonia antarctica) in a marvellously cool artificial gully. Surrounded by ivy, hydrangeas and busy lizzie, and over-towered by exotic trees festooned with elk-horn, “our” ferns were thriving, adding a beautiful southern hemisphere touch to a gardener’s interpretation of green absolutely worthy of Monet.

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