"This is just the kind of garden I want" said our eldest daughter, looking out from the terrace of the Cerbaia, the house near Siena where the whole family had gathered for a week's holiday last autumn. Her two sisters instantly looked up from their mags. Oenone, the eldest, makes her living as a stylist. Anything she has to say about clothes, shoes, handbags, spas and eyebrow plucking is always taken to heart. But on gardens, until this moment, she had always remained silent.
Her sisters waited, as did I. A breeze riffled the pages of a brick-like edition of Vogue, which Oenone had been whipping through with the practiced eye of a professional shopper. "The trouble is," I said finally, "there's a lot here you can't buy." She knew that of course: the view, the lie of the land, dropping in a series of stone-retained terraces to the magnificent Renaissance gardens of Cetinale below, the quality of the light. But, returning to the theme over dinner that night, it seemed to be the pared-down nature of the Cerbaia garden that attracted her. No complicated flowerbeds. Unselfconscious. And yes, stylish, in a very laid-back way.
If you are starting from scratch with a plot, that unselfconsciousness is the most difficult trick to bring off. You want to cram too much in. The garden, instead of being a restful place, as the Cerbaia's was, becomes over-crammed with incident. Few materials had been used in the making of the Italian garden and all of them were local. That was an important part of its charm. The whole place looked as though it had just humped itself slowly out of the landscape. The house was stucco, the walls propping up the terraces were stone, the steps and terraces had been laid with thick terracotta tiles. Lesson number one. Don't use too many different materials.
Most evenings we sat just below the house on a terrace, surrounded by a low retaining wall, no more than 50cm high. The terrace extended away from a stone outbuilding which provided one backing wall. A rough shelter jutted out from this wall, supported on three pine props. The roof was made from rolls of reed, two thicknesses with plastic sheeting in between. You couldn't see the plastic, but it made the roof more waterproof. Lesson number two. All gardens need somewhere welcoming and practical to sit.
The Cerbaia terrace worked because it was generous and comfortable. A three-sided seat ran round under the shelter at the same height as the retaining walls. Big cushions covered in tough ticking were spread over the seat. Drinks, lanterns, dishes of grapes could sit safely on a stone table, topped with terracotta tiles, which filled in the space in front of the seat. From the terrace and the house, the garden stretched away to a pool at the far end. Two columnar cypresses suggested a kind of entrance to the pool, with a floppy, lolling hedge of rosemary stretching away either side. "You could do that bit," I said. But for the style queen that wasn't the point. It would be like having the handles without the rest of the handbag.
"It's about editing," she said. Editing is what she does with people's wardrobes. They pay her to tell them what to chuck. Here though, it wasn't exactly about editing, because the Cerbaia garden had never been cluttered up in the first place. But I knew what she meant. Not a lot happened in the long grassy stretch between the shady place where we sat and the pool at the end of the garden, but what did happen was pleasing: olives on the rough grass terrace above, more olives on the grass terrace below, an old fig tree twisting away from the house wall, vines plastered with bunches of black grapes. Much of the delight came from the changes in level between one terrace and the next (another good lesson in garden making).
We scarcely remember now how much English gardens owe to Italy – in terms of design that is. But we can't resist packing in plants. A rosebush here, a clematis there, a puff of petunias under the grape vine, I can see how fatally the Cerbaia would lose its distinctive quality if I were ever to live there. The barrier between garden and setting is never as strong in Italian gardens as it is in English ones. The distinctions aren't as firmly fixed. The olives that marched in straight rows over the hillsides around, were planted along the garden terraces too. The cypresses standing by the pool were the same trees that lined the dusty track down to the village. The cyclamen scattered in the grass under the trees in the garden were just as prolific on the banks of the country roads.
The Cerbaia olives were not actually very old. An Italian agronomist I met down in the Cetinale garden said that all the olives in that area were cut down in the tough winter of 1984. Eventually the trees gathered enough strength to shoot again from the base. A few of the strongest growths were selected on each tree and those have already grown into reasonable, though not yet venerable trunks. Last winter, he said, the temperature at night regularly dropped below -10C, but the trees were saved by the fact that during the day, it was usually a few degrees warmer. They suffered peripheral damage, but that now scarcely shows.
In England, the damage would be terminal – as it was for so many olive fanciers this last winter. But nothing – not silver-leaved elaeagnus, nor willow-leaved pear, nor sea buckthorn – can do what an olive does in an Italian garden. No other tree can quite match the two-tone glinting silver of the olive leaf, the vigorous sparkle of new growth that clothes even the oldest, most decrepit-looking trees each season. This remains the greatest stumbling block for anyone wanting to lay out a Cerbaia lookalike in England.
"Mmmmm" said Oenone, who keeps a pair of mop-headed young olives in wicker baskets either side of her front door in London. "I'm sure there's a way round that." Optimism. It's a great weapon.