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Gardening in the Chianti Hills: A trip to Tuscany

By Thomas Rutter, Horticultural Trainee

As part of the Horticultural Traineeship at the Garden Museum, Thomas has the opportunity to work with experienced gardeners across the UK and overseas. This year-long traineeship has been generously funded by The National Gardens Scheme and the Museum’s Friends Group in Leicestershire and Rutland.

Over the last year I have been fortunate to complete several placements at different gardens across the UK. For my final posting, and after much unsubtle hinting to the Museum’s Head Gardener, Matt Collins, I ventured overseas, travelling south across the continent to Italy. We arranged for me to garden on a private estate in Chianti, Tuscany, working with Head Gardener, Will Smithson, previously of South Wood Farm in Devon.

Perched on a hill, the estate has uninterrupted views of surrounding woodland and vineyards; cypress trees scattered across the Tuscan landscape. Will has been overseeing changes to the gardens for the last 18 months, including a new cut flower garden and productive kitchen garden, in addition to meadow creation and extensive tree and topiary planting that must have taken quite some shifting. Only a handful of buildings can be spotted in the distance, the surrounding views looking out from the estate are exquisite but, I think, uncapturable on camera. A plethora of sprawling greens, yellowing vines, and dark silhouettes of hills beyond.

Time was spent maintaining the pool garden; autumn’s advance marked with falling yellow mulberry and maple leaves. This part of the garden is planted with drought tolerant planting, silver foliage giving the game away. As part of this section of the garden, there are herbs aplenty including a handful of varieties of sage and rosemary, with some superb salvia displays in collections of pots. Pink flashes come from Society Garlic, Tulbaghia violacea, repeated in drifts, and from the rather delicate tubular flowers of Origanum laevigatum.

The Pool Garden, with Tulbaghia violacea

The pink flowers of Origanum laevigatum

On the terrace below, the cut flower garden was full to bursting with cosmos, phlox, calendula, and dahlias. The kitchen garden was also still providing much produce: tomatoes still ripening on aged stems at the tail end of the season; brassicas planted with precision in perfectly measured rows. Moving away from the terrace to the wildflower meadow below, where we spent much time in subsequent days, planting thousands of bulbs for next year. This area of the garden has seen much change in the last year: fields of lavender replaced with wildflower meadows with a mix of native perennial grasses and flowers with some annuals (and many bulbs!) added for colour.

These meadows, intersected by a quintessentially Tuscan cypress-lined driveway, have been planted with downy oak trees, Quercus pubescens, and field maple trees, Acer campestre, an extension of the surrounding woods. This was the area to be planted with bulbs for the coming year, which required some early morning sums (with the use of a calculator, of course). We carefully counted out the bulbs into buckets, seen here, to ensure regularity and consistency as we planted section by section. I was rather fond of the measurement ‘a bucket of bulbs’ at the time of planting and remain so. In the Garden Museum’s journal on The Elphick’s Archive (Winter 2020), I recall the use of a ‘pint of peas’ as a measurement for buying pea seed in the gardening business that remained open for almost 200 years. I hope the term a ‘bucket of bulbs’ would have been an equally useful denomination of measurement in the Elphick’s shop at one time or another.

Species tulips including Tulipa turkestanica, Tulipa sylvestris and Tulipa clusiana formed part of the bulb mixture, likely to naturalise, as well as some hybrids including the white ‘Spring Green’ and the pink ‘Menton’. Digging in the stony earth took its toll by bulb 4000. Now back in London, my hands rested and blister free, I look forward to seeing pictures of the meadows in the spring and summer months, knee-high with grasses, poppies and cornflowers, and rich in tulips.

Finally, we spent my final day olive picking. I was fortunate with the timing of my visit, November seeming to be the time to harvest. Unfortunately, however, the harvest yield was not as prolific as previous years, I was told. Erratic temperature fluctuations, drought periods and spring frosts all causal factors. We did the best with what was offered, however, raking many a tree with tool and hand, gathering fruits in a carefully positioned net below. We eventually filled a fair amount of crates and loaded them into the back of a pick-up wagon, the sun shining on a November day.

It seemed appropriate to end my trip with a visit to a selection of gardens to the North of Chianti, on the outskirts of Florence. The first stop was to Villa Medici, in the Fiesole hills, looking out to the city beyond. Rather pleasingly, no sign or arrows marked the entrance way. Instead, the ringing of an unmarked buzzer, with some words spoken over the intercom, resulted in an eventual slow opening of the large metal gates. Somewhat different to the gardens we might visit in the UK… not a café or shop in sight. On arrival, the shell and stone encrusted walls, as seen here, were grotto-esque in design, full of meaning and reminders of the Villa’s patrons. The Medici family emblem — five red balls and one blue on a golden shield — was, of course, prominently displayed. Once familiar, this emblem can be found adorning so many buildings in Florence.

Villa Medici, in the Fiesole hills, Florence

The location of Villa Medici, on a gradient, inevitably led to the positioning of the house and gardens on three terraces, cut into the hillside, with stairways and ramps connecting. Built by the Medici family in the 15th century, the villa’s reputation is owed to Lorenzo the Magnificent, who turned the Villa into his salon: a meeting place for artists, philosophers, politicians and bankers. Cypress trees, citrus, topiary and low box hedging all feature, as one might expect, mostly green save for a pop of red geranium or amber marigold. Charmed as we might be by these green architectural spaces that we associate with Italian gardens, ‘austere and flowerless’, many of these gardens in their golden age, Hobhouse writes, would have been colourful with ‘exciting exotics recently introduced’ to Europe. The view is the real star here, however. The cupola of the Duomo visible in the city beyond.

Later that day, we visited Villa Gamberaia, a short drive away from Villa Medici. This famous garden has a history dating back to the early 17th century, although much development and restoration has since taken place, parts of the Villa and the gardens severely damaged in 1944.

Villa Gamberaia, near Settignano, Florence
Gabinetto rustic, Villa Gamberaia, near Settignano, Florence

The garden is famed for being intimate yet grand. Something of geometric serenity has developed, with neat hedging, symmetrical walkways and water pools. Elegant stonework is framed by cypress trees and evergreen oaks which connect to the land outside the Villa’s walls. The Gabinetto Rustico, seen here, decorated again in a grotto-esque way, with urns and busts of the seasons. The upper terrace is solely dedicated to the growing of citrus, in large terracotta pots, with lemons large and a scent unrivalled. The views, again, quite something. A perfect end to my Italian trip.

All photos by Thomas Rutter. Follow Thomas on Instagram: @thom_rutter

Follow Head Gardener Will Smithson on Instagram: @solegardener

References:

  1. Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History (1992)
  2. Garden Museum Journal ‘The Elphick’s Archive’ (no.38 – Winter 2020)