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The Moscatella Garden

by Filippo Marroccoli
Photographs byFilippo Marroccoli

Published in The Mediterranean Garden No 84, April 2016.

This is the text of a talk given by Filippo Marroccoli at the 2015 AGM, Ischia,

Translated from the Italian by Edith Haeuser.

Speaking about one’s own garden is not an easy affair, but having been asked to do so, I cannot avoid the issue.

Like many newly-wed couples, Silvia and I moved into a flat on the edge of the town, nothing exciting really. It had a long balcony exposed to the north and a tiny one which was always in shade. Within a few months both balconies were brimming over with potted plants, and we were about to have a marital crisis. But Silvia, a very patient wife, knew how to cope with the problem. Instead of removing the plants to make space for our two children to play and our laundry to dry, we simply moved house.

In 2009 we were walking in the Apulian countryside, when a few kilometres from Altamura in the National Park of Alta Murgia we discovered a white and yellow house with a small copse of Aleppo pines. It was for sale. Silvia reacted spontaneously: “This is where I want to live.” “But how?” I replied. “We don’t have enough money.” However Silvia was determined, and within a few months, thanks to the generosity of my parents and our modest savings, the house and its garden were our own property. The house dates from the early twentieth century and has traditional blinds and an attic.

But as in every nice fairy tale, there is always a wicked witch or villain; in our case it was buried in the garden. It was February and in our region all the plants are green at this time of the year, a lush, green northern landscape so to speak. The garden around the house was a meadow, and we were not aware that the grass was concealing the wicked witch: a thick layer of tarmac and concrete.

I began to attack the tarmac with a pickaxe, but the result was damaged tendons in my arms and a visit to hospital. Then I decided that I would use a scraper to deal with the “witch”. I had expected to find soil under the top layer of asphalt, but nothing of the sort appeared: only stones and sand, more than a metre deep, which had been used as filling material. With no water, no money, no soil, what should I do? All my confidence as a professional landscape designer and agronomist collapsed. I knew that I could not order either truck loads of soil (too expensive in economic and environmental terms) or tank loads of water. At that time I was designing conventional gardens with a lawn and all the rest, and I was also specialising in Japanese-style gardens for companies. But then the economic crisis struck, and projects became scarce.

No one was able to give me any advice at all, and moreover the plants available commercially were not suitable for my project. Then I asked myself what my grandfather would have done in my place, since he hadn’t had any water for plants either. My garden has changed me, has changed my way of thinking and looking at things. I suddenly understood that I could give ornamental value to plants and that also wild ones would become part of my garden. But the water? How could I do it without any water? I began to look closely at the surrounding area in order to find my grandparents’ plants among those I had known since my childhood. I walked over the hills in the countryside, searching for wild flowers suitable for cuttings and seeds, but I also looked in mature local gardens. I collected local ornamental grasses and other Mediterranean ones, as well as exotic grasses from Texas, South Africa and California. All of them were planted when they were tiny, practically invisible, from seeds or cuttings. I planted small areas in autumn with large planting holes and I watered them by hand with twenty-litre cans, but only in the first year; I brought this water from the town on the twentieth of each month. It was an immense amount of work. After the first summer I therefore decided that no plant would be given any more water, and any plant which died would not be replaced by the same kind. The space would be used for a different one… Basically the hills around our house are a natural garden which is watered only by rain.

After the terrible first three years, when many of my friends and relatives laughed at me for my madness, the first results became visible: the first lavenders in flower, the first rosemary plants covering the soil, and the wonderful grasses with their surprising textures. Now 80% of the 4500 square metres of my garden is covered by plants. There are many different blossoms and fragrances, and I limit myself to integrating and polishing where necessary, and to contemplating the plants. In short, I am delighted with my garden.

Phoeniculum vulgare and Sedum telephium: 'Matrona

Sedum species, in the background white Iris germanica

Stipa tenuissima

Phlomis fruticosa

Stipa tenuissima, in the background a Stipa gigantea

Scabiosa spp and Merxmuellera macowanii

Cynara scolimus, Scabiosa spp. and
Ampelodesmos mauritanica

Iris germanica and Ballota pseudodictamnus

A wonderful mass of Iris germanica

An equally magical garden on a wintry day
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