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Arabella Lennox-Boyd: Gardens in my Life

A few weeks ago we were joined at the Museum by legendary garden designer Arabella Lennox-Boyd. Celebrating the publication of her new book ‘Gardens in my Life’, Arabella looked back over her extraordinary career, taking us on a tour of the gardens that have had a particular interest or meaning to her. As we now release a film of the talk to watch online, we are very happy to share this extract from Arabella’s book, in which she remembers her first garden at her childhood home, Palazzo Parisi in Italy: 

Most of the other gardens in this book begin with a point of reference or an inspiration of some sort, but the garden at Oliveto, where I spent much of my childhood, is inspired only by a reaction against the severity of its location and by the landscape surrounding it.

My parents separated when I was very young and my mother moved there, to the fifteenth-century castle. My mother, my Scottish nanny and I would be driven out from Rome on the Via Salaria for about 50 kilometres to a small shop where we would find mules and donkeys waiting to take us to the village – a journey which took most of the day.

A wonderful break in the journey was lunch at the mill we owned at the bottom of the steep valley, next to flowing water and a fishpond with chickens and geese running about. A large basket would appear and in it would be delicious pasta, bread, ham and salami cured by the miller. We would reach the house in the late afternoon, covered in dust and a few scratches because of the brambles by the side of the steep path.

Although the house was grand – in size rather than architecture – it was incredibly primitive, and initially lacked mains water, electricity and curtains. We lived in just three of its forty rooms, coming and going through dark corridors and rooms whose furniture was covered in dust sheets as bats fluttered at night from behind the paintings.

The position of the house, built on top of the highest hill between Rome and the Apennines, seemed to emphasise its extremes. The views were as incredible as the climate was harsh, with terrific storms and freezing winter temperatures.

My mother’s focus was on running the surrounding farm and trying to make it profitable in whatever way she could. She was completely uninterested in decoration, which she thought was a waste of time. The same went for the garden; we had a crop of chickpeas or corn outside the door rather than flowers. I do remember she tried to grow geraniums, but never with any success, and when I once expressed an interest in having a climbing rose, I was told firmly, ‘No. We don’t look after flowers here. We look after olive trees.’

Though Oliveto was undoubtedly dour, I adored it and still do. There, away from Rome and school, I was free and, even though I was forbidden to go into the village, I frequently did, I seemed to always be outside, looking at the wildflowers when I was supposed to be inspecting the olives with my mother, or exploring with my friends. I remember we would walk for miles to swim in a lake, to pick blackberries or go to the woods looking for mushrooms; there was always something to do.

I also remember the rhythm of the seasons. Threshing the grain in June was a big event for which everyone from the village turned out for a wonderful picnic. Women arrived with huge baskets full of pasta and vegetables balanced on their heads, walking majestically. In September the grapes were harvested and the plumpest women were chosen to tread them. In December, it was time for the olive picking. Ours was the only olive press in the area, so my other would sit there all day and all night watching the olives come in to be pressed, and making sure that everybody received the oil from their own fruit.

Even after my mother died I spent all my holidays at Oliveto and my children have been brought up to know it well – one of my daughters was married there. As my father grew older, I was finally able to put my mark on it, to soften it and make it feel more welcoming. I resolved to make the whole place hugely comfortable, with appealing bedrooms, a convivial kitchen, a drawing room one really wanted to be in and a huge covered terrace called ‘il loggione’ – and, of course, a garden.

I extended the garden from the house, next to which I had designed a box parterre in memory of my mother, but as a I often do, I left the entrance simple and elegant – as a fitting welcome to a home which has hidden beauties for the visitor to discover. I built the swimming pool and surrounding large flower beds first, which allowed me to rent the house out for holidays. It was situated on a hillside where my mother was once convinced we would make a fortune if we bred snails.

Fortunately that idea was never pursued and the site proved perfect for the pool its lower elevation ensuring that it was not visible from the house. Pool areas can so quickly become ugly. Around the pool I planted olive trees and oleanders and, in the borders, Phlomis, salvias, lavender and clumps of Ampelodesmos mauritanicus, a local statuesque grass with huge, airy panicles of silver plumes, and prostrate rosemary to creep over the walls. There I established a huge collection of beautiful Paeonia rockii seedlings, some bought from a fantastic nursery near Orvieto called Moutan Botanical Centre and others grown by me from seed. In addition, I planted a large variety of roses, different-coloured lavender plants, Mexican salvias, different cultivars of Perovskia and Caryopteris, and various shrubs that flower throughout the season.

This left a huge area of ground between the house and the chapel, and above the pool, with very little in it except for a deodar cedar my father had planted many years before and which thankfully died of misery in the unhappy conditions it found itself in. There was also a very ugly thicket of conifers my mother had been given by the local forestry commission. She planted them to provide shelter from the north-east wind that blew directly from the Apennines in order to protect the front of the house where she had planted her chickpeas and other useful crops.

Arabella Lennox-Boyd in conversation with Alastair Layzell is available to watch in our Film Library now: buy the film