November 8, 2013 6:42 pm

Killer insects and volcanic eruptions – gardening Sicilian-style

English gardener Rachel Lamb is the complement to Marchese Giuseppe’s thoughtful vision at Villa San Giuliano
The garden at Villa San Giuliano near Catania, Sicily©Adriana Manzella

The garden at Villa San Giuliano near Catania, Sicily

Under a hot blue sky among scented orange groves my flowery season has come to a finale. Many good gardens run best as a duet between two people. When I last visited the Villa San Giuliano in eastern Sicily, in the citrus groves near Catania, I met the main half of the combo. Its remarkable private garden belongs to Marchese Giuseppe, head of the Paternò Castello di San Giuliano family. I still relish our first exchange, as it silenced me.

“How long has your family been here?” I asked the Marchese, who had come to greet me by the villa in jeans, no socks and a pair of old brown suede shoes. “Eight-hundred years,” he replied and turned away into the courtyard. We then had a fascinating time, as he took me round a superb range of planting, from yuccas to grapefruits, in his beloved seven-acre garden. On the terrace below the swimming pool, he explained that he now ran the garden with an English lady head gardener, but, unfortunately she was away. Would I like to come back and meet her too?

Head gardener Rachel Lamb©Adriana Manzella

Head gardener Rachel Lamb

The idea of a faraway English lady gardener in Sicily has intrigued me ever since. San Giuliano looks out on first-class, blood-orange trees and a prospect of volcanic Mount Etna frames the distant view. In January the winds are ferocious. In summer the heat is intense. Sometimes there are dust storms and sometimes there are hailstorms. How ever can an English gardener adapt, even when the volcano is quiet? I now understand because I have met her. Whereas I run a college garden in Oxford, she trained in Cambridge. She then worked as an assistant gardener in the gardens of Cambridge’s Selwyn College. After raking the college leaves and cosseting the tutors’ lawns, she moved into Mediterranean gardening. She is far better at managing a palm tree than I am at managing an Oxford holm oak. Rachel Lamb is the complement to Marchese Giuseppe’s thoughtful vision for his villa’s garden. Nothing stands still, least of all in Sicily. The Marchese set the pattern of cacti, succulents and rare yuccas around the side of the farmhouse which visitors first confront. Then, below the swimming pool, a charming terrace-and-pergola garden gives flowery variety, before a final long view over the orange trees and an avenue of tall Washington palms towards Etna as it smokes in the distance. “Palms are so messy,” Rachel remarked to me, “we spend ages tidying up what they drop. And now they are infected with killer insects.” It is a far cry from the open grassy spaces of Cambridge’s Botanic Garden.

She left Cambridge after answering an advertisement for a head gardener to make an “English garden” for an important political family in the Lebanon. I am a man but even so, it is not a vacancy which I would have clamoured to fill. She recalled to me how she packed her bags in her family’s Suffolk home, much to her mother’s apprehension, and left for Beirut without a clear idea of how to garden in a hot climate. On arrival she was taken out by night to eat scoops of excellent Lebanese ice cream. She then confronted her hillside challenge of a garden. “They expected an English lady gardener to come with a passion for jasmine everywhere,” she told me. She had not expected a team of nine gardeners, four of whom were Sikhs, one of whom was deaf, and another of whom was a Frenchman. Down the descending terraces of the hillside the owners wanted an echo of the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon. By working with the conditions and not trying to create a Sissinghurst in the Middle East, she gained her team’s respect and learned her Mediterranean skills.

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After further experience in Morocco, Italy and France, a Sicilian garden near Catania seemed an appropriate challenge. She first saw the site during a stupendous hailstorm but realised at once that its owner was a thoughtful gardener with whom she could work as a team. Soon they were travelling together to appropriate nurseries. They worked out new plantings for the flowery terrace garden. They have even set about protecting their palms from killer beetles. Rachel runs the staff of three gardeners, afforced by workers from the villa’s citrus plantations. She also teaches in Catania and has recently lectured for GardMed, a network set up to conserve historic gardens in Sicily and Malta. She now travels across Sicily and Italy to advise owners of other Mediterranean gardens and apply her 20 years of front-line experience (rachel.lamb@virgilio.it).

We walked down on to the lower garden where she has planted climbing Strawberry Grapes on parts of the focal pergola beside the pommelo citruses with chunky yellow fruits. She showed me her new luxuriant plantings of white-flowered Hedychiums and a banana called Musa velutina. After I had mistaken a calliandra for a mimosa, we walked on to a further long pergola, set with grapefruits and underplanted with double white violets and a green carpet of dichondra. On the San Giuliano estate water is pumped up from deep wells to meet the orange trees’ voracious needs. The garden is irrigated too, allowing violets and this idyllic green carpet to flourish in early spring.

I admired some English friends, surprisingly happy in Sicilian conditions. Up an olive tree Rachel has had particular success with the climbing form of the white-flowered Rose Iceberg, a tip which may help you too. Beyond the pergolas I was impressed by two bushy, blue-flowered salvias and then recognised them as half hardy varieties which many of us cherish back in Britain. Salvia guaranitica Black and Blue and guaranitica Blue Enigma are two of Rachel’s top suggestions for dry Mediterranean gardening. Unlike mine, her parent plants began life as cuttings in a pot, unable to be planted out because Etna was erupting for three weeks.

Where can she and the Marchese buy special plants nowadays and how are they responding to the dreaded palm tree disease which is threatening so many palms in the Mediterranean? One of the main wholesaling Mediterranean nurseries, Piante Faro, happens to have a base near Catania from where it supplies many designers and retailers in the Middle East (www.piantefaro.com). It stocks more than 5,000 varieties and sells through several interrelated outlets on the island. Faro has been a happy hunting ground for San Giuliano, as it would be for those of you with Mediterranean gardens which need some class and style. The palm tree infection is more of a challenge. On expert advice San Giuliano’s gardeners are applying a citronella-based preventive, scientifically pioneered and recommended by Green World Consulting in Rome (www.greenworld.consulting.it). It is holding the beetles at bay and, so far, is the best available defence.

Marchese Giuseppe and his family spent years in South America which widened his sense of succulent and exotic flora and trees. For 25 years he and his wife then made a remarkable garden round the family villa/farmhouse which had previously had nothing more than pine trees. The garden might have declined in other hands after his wife’s death but his impetus and love of the place remained and hit on a Cambridge lady to sustain it. It is an excellent duet. If I were a wind-swept jasmine I would grow happily for Rachel. She has the calm, the expertise and the sense of adventure which go with the best gardeners, especially when weeding within sight of a volcano.

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