Flower power: A trip to Italy provides Anna Pavord with a riot of inspiration. But how to translate the glory of Tuscany to a British setting?
Saturday 30 June 2007
I have a new mission. It is to walk every footpath shown on the superb maps produced by the Club Alpino Italiano. We made a small start this month using just one of the maps, grandly headed "Itinerary of Montagnola Senese and the Lecceto Wood". We were staying in a farmhouse at Cetinale and this map alone, covering the region west of Siena, gave us 18 different route marches.
The scale is large - 1cm to 250m - which makes losing yourself difficult. The maps are beautifully drawn and lettered in loopy Italian script with the footpaths marked and numbered in bright red. On the back of the map is a description of each walk, the length, and the amount of climbing you'll have to do. They also give brief notes on places of interest: an Etruscan settlement, a monastery of AD1112, a Romanesque church. My apologies to readers who think they've stumbled into the wrong column. I'm mad about maps and this series delivers me just where I want to be: inside a painting of the early Renaissance, the bit beyond the Virgin and Child, where the artist takes us into a landscape of hills and fortified settlements, cypresses and olive groves. That's the bit I always look at longest.
The verges in Tuscany were still studded with flowers. Ours, in Dorset, are lusher, but not so diverse. We have thick green grasses, docks, nettles, hogweed. In Italy, the backdrop was often a tall wild oat, already bleached cream, with red poppies, yellow corn marigold ( Chrysanthemum segetum), the sky-blue flowers of chicory, deep pink sainfoin, scrubby pale cistus, a tall slender plant like a pink Petrorhagia prolifera, pale flax, Orlaya grandiflora (very chic) and wispy spires of Anthericum ramosum. Our wild rose is the pink-flowered Rosa canina. There, a much more vigorous white-flowered rose they call the Rosa di San Giovanni ( Rosa sempervirens) clambered out of hedgerows and up into evergreen oaks and cypresses. It can get as high as 16 or 20ft. Our native rose is never as ambitious.
Seen with the light falling straight on to it, the wild oat is pretty. Seen against the light, it is spectacular. It's the same with the grasses that I've been planting in a new part of our garden: Calamagrostis x acutiflora ' Karl Foerster', Deschampsia cespitosa and Stipa gigantea, which is perhaps the closest to the Italian wild oats. They, too, are much better seen against the light. In silhouette, you appreciate the airy panicles. Otherwise, unless they are set against a chunky background of stronger, bolder foliage, the general effect is too wispy. The much-hyped 'Karl Foerster' is anyway a mean grass; the panicles, though tall, stay buttoned-up, ungenerous.
The most spectacular spread of wildflowers came on a walk to Celsa, where builders were turning a ruin into yet another over-finished home, with swimming pool and globular lights. In the churned-up earth, red field poppies grew with thrilling abandon, partnered by a deep blue larkspur that we had not seen before. Both are annuals, bolting up to flower before the heat of July shuts them down; then they concentrate on ripening their seed. But next year, the growing conditions might not be so propitious. The builders will probably have poured concrete over this newly churned earth. The evanescent optimism of annuals is what makes them so enchanting. They party hard while they can.
The yellow corn marigold is the European equivalent of the yellow annual daisy, Lasthenia glabrata, that garden designer, Kate Frey, used in her Fetzer Vineyard garden at Chelsea this year. She combined it with Californian poppies, a marigold called 'Touch of Red', brilliant blue Phacelia campanularia, the yellow and white poached egg flower and a fantastic scarlet flax, Linum grandiflorum rubrum. I liked it a lot. It was sunny, cheery, cheap to copy and a welcome relief from the Stipa tenuissima and purple alliums that seemed to dominate the planting at the recent Chelsea show. There is nothing wrong with either stipa or allium, but given that there are 70,000 different plants listed in the new Plant Finder (Dorling Kindersley, 14.99) it seems a pity that designers at the moment go for such a narrow selection. The present diktat is that you can't go wrong with alliums and stipa. And that's precisely what is wrong. Plantings become tediously predictable.
In her Chelsea garden, Kate Frey was mimicking the spreads of late spring flowers in her native California. But she also suggested a mix that would work in gardens here, where the earth is generally richer and the summers not so hot. You need to choose a patch in full sun and spend a summer cleaning it of annual weeds. Then in late September or early October you can broadcast seed in irregular patches (mark the shapes out in sand first) to get a head start the following year. This timing mimics what the flowers themselves do in the wild, but if it doesn't suit, then sow in late March or early April and expect a slightly later spread.
Kate Frey's list suggests a base of Californian poppies (types of eschscholzia) which are available in a wide range of colours from cream to a deep burnt umber. To that, she adds Collinsia bicolor, with lippy two-tone flowers of white and rosy purple, Layia elegans or Tidy Tips with bright yellow flowers tipped with white, the poached egg flower ( Limnanthes douglasii) also in yellow and white and vivid blue Phacelia campanularia. None of these grow taller than 12-15ins. All are available from Chiltern Seeds.
Last year I experimented with various annual flowers to cover the areas where I grow species tulips and other slightly demanding (and expensive) spring bulbs. They do well on a piece of sloping ground at the front of the bank, held up by a stone retaining wall. The soil is poor, the drainage is good, and the slope faces south, so the bulbs get well baked during the summer. They are quite thickly mulched with 6mm gravel which helps the drainage, deters slugs and keeps the flowers clean when they first emerge. But when the bulbs have finished, the area is naked.
So I started scattering seed of annual flowers that could cope with the same conditions and that would never need watering. Many of the best kind of bulbs (but not daffodils) need to stay really dry through summer. That baking initiates the flowers for the following season. In this situation, Californian poppies have been winners for me too. The foliage is light and airy, so allows heat through to the ground below, and the flowers seem to go on for ever. I used 'Tropical Punch Mix' (Suttons 1.75), 'Golden Values' (free with a copy of Gardens Illustrated) and 'Summer Sorbet' (Thompson & Morgan 1.99). Sowing couldn't have been easier. I just chucked the seed about on the gravel among the dying leaves of the bulbs, then mulched with a bit more gravel. The display now is spectacular.
Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria LA12 7PB, 01229 581137, www.chilternseeds.co.uk
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