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The renaissance of a Sicilian garden

by Lesley Dellagana
photographs by Lesley Dellagana

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 92, April 2018

Lesley writes: It’s nearly four years since we bought our small house in the remote countryside of the Ragusa region in the south-east of Sicily. Although it is clear that the half-acre garden had been dearly loved by the original owner, when we took ownership it had been more or less abandoned for ten years… In spite of the damage and neglect, we were captivated by the garden when we first viewed the property in early February 2014.

"the wild almond blossom was sparkling in the late winter sunshine"

…we began slowly watching and waiting to see how the garden would reveal itself to us during the first year. In the spring the olive grove to the south of the house and the garden to the north with most of the fruit trees turned into wild flower meadows.

A small patch of wild flowers from a whole meadow

By the first autumn we began to focus on what we call our front garden, a long strip less than four metres wide, immediately beyond the veranda, to the west of the house. Two small Pittosporum tobira trees that produce gloriously scented white flowers in the spring already provided a focal point, underplanted with a large lavender (Lavandula dentata), beyond which was a climbing rose, oleanders and an exquisite Salvia microphylla growing around a rather old juniper. Building on all this, we introduced various cistuses (Cistus ladanifer, C. parviflorus, C. × purpureus and C. ‘Sunset’), a small palm bought at a market in the local town, cacti, irises, an agave (which we transplanted from the edge of the olive grove where a small plantation of agaves seems to be forming), Perovskia (Russian sage), Cytisus (broom), Lantana, Santolina, marjoram, jasmine and various lavenders. All these plants seem to be surviving and in most cases thriving in this challenging climate.

Front garden in 2014

Front garden in 2017

Planting is an enormous task in these conditions. Our intention was to incorporate a thick mulch of gravel once the planting holes were filled in with soil, to help contain the weeds and to retain moisture, but what we hadn’t considered was the persistence of the invasive plant, Oxalis pes-caprae, otherwise known as Bermuda buttercup. We concluded that the only thing to do was to install a layer of membrane before adding the gravel on top of that. Many of our plants – cistus, lavender, lantana – exhibit allelopathic properties (a phenomenon by which other plants are prevented from germinating underneath them through a biochemical process) and this seems to have also worked quite well for us by inhibiting to a degree the dreaded Oxalis pes-caprae.  Of course the oxalis are so dogged in their determination to find any nook or cranny to inhabit, even in spaces where membrane has been laid under the gravel, that we still have to spend time removing them by hand, but this method has certainly made the task much easier and we are able to focus on more pleasant gardening jobs.

Iris growing through the gravel in the front garden

Cistus in the gravel garden

As we got to know people locally, two in particular befriended us… Peppe has given us help and advice about pruning and restoring our olive trees and cutting our meadow in late spring/early summer before the grass grows so long that it becomes a fire risk. This autumn, for the first time, thanks to Peppe’s invaluable help, we had our first olive harvest – only 70 kilos of olives, producing 10 litres of oil but it was 69 kilos more olives than we achieved last year. The process of restoration is slow and it will be several years before we can expect a big harvest, but we have been greatly encouraged and indeed proud, to have been able to go to the local frantoio (olive press) and see our olives turned into our own olive oil.

Olive grove in 2017

An expanse of prickly pears (Opuntia ficus-indica) marks part of our eastern boundary along the edge of the torrente. Great care needs to be taken when harvesting the fruit because of the spines that can penetrate even the thickest gardening gloves and cause great discomfort. Although delicious, they are difficult to eat because they contain many rather large unchewable seeds, and David has discovered that the best way to eat them is to remove the seeds by passing the fruits through a sieve and using the flesh to make ice cream. The leaves can be used medicinally: spreading the juice from a cut leaf on to a wound really does appear to aid the healing process.

Prickly pear flowers in June

During the time we have had our Sicilian garden we have continued to add to the planting, introducing Rosa banksiae, Lonicera, Jasminum officinale (locally known as Sicilian jasmine) and Trachelospermum jasminoides (star jasmine) to scramble over a pergola.

Pergola area in 2014

Pergola area in 2017

It has been an enormous privilege taking on the guardianship of this garden. It provides us with endless contentment, planning the next stage in its development, or “renaissance”, with all the challenges that entails.
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