Friday, 2 December 2011

Quite a lot is revealed - The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest

So I was gazing out at my garden in Kent, only days ago.  It’s facing Armageddon.   A revolution has to happen within the next few weeks;  big shrubs and small trees will be wrenched from the soil and some transplanted at my neighbours.  Others will be sent on journeys elsewhere.  A small house will replace them and a winter-blooming courtyard will be the garden.   Around the older house a lot of garden will remain for the discerning buyer.

In autumn there is often a bit of elective moving about of plants in every garden.  I can never resist trying for a different effect - grouping, contrasting or just plain fussing.  But it’s not usually as frightful as this.  It all seemed so much smaller and easier at a distance.  Close up, the work and the risks seem alarmingly big.  My heart almost fails me.

The rewards are going to be immense.  We have acquired a wrecked farmhouse in a hilly bit of Piemonte in Italy.   We’re supremely fortunate, far more than we have any right to be.  But the project is rather big – to reconstruct the house where it needs it and somehow find a way of developing a garden.  Today I want to think about gardening here in Northern Italy– in what is partly abandoned farmland, near the charming town of Mondovi, about 400 metres above sea-level, about 80 kilometres inland from the Ligurian coast.

So here’s a simple take on an Italian town garden, taken in Turin.  It gives us some interesting clues to what will grow around here, between Mediterranean and Continental climates.  The large evergreen is laurel, the small trees are field maple, the ground cover is liriope, the background is ivy and the yellow tree is a gingko.  So we’re not in a world of olives and lemon trees, with scented herbs underfoot.  Slender Italian cypresses,figs and oleanders are not for us.  We have chosen an area surprisingly rich in kiwi fruit, hazelnuts, escaped robinia, nameless poplars and enormous abounding conifers. Nearby in the Langhe some of the best wine in Italy is produced, - Barolo, Nebbiolo and Barbera, so not every preconception is doomed.  Truffles of course – you can barely move for them.
Nonethelesss  it would be unwise to mistake this place for somewhere that it is not.  My gardening will be fraught with confusion and discovery.  Heavy snow is normal in winters which are longer and colder than I am used to.  These snows break plants.  As for the rest of the year, I don’t really know yet.  The soil is creamy-grey when dry, and heavy, and  I’ve got rather a lot of it.  Something like 5 acres of burdock plus a considerable amount of steep woodland. 

Here’s a delightful tree, beautiful in shape, bark, leaf and fruit.  It’s the kaki, diospyros lotus sometimes known as Sharon fruit or persimmon.   This is the one reasonably healthy domestic fruit tree which we seem to have inherited.  I have always adored the fruit, which I remember ripening on Roman balconies when I was a wild young student.  They’re like the golden apples of Hesperides, wondrously hanging till Christmas. 
On his mysterious and adored album, John Wesley Harding, Dylan offers us a funny, troubling story of concealed conflict and fear in ‘The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest’.  It’s a tale of two friends parted by money.  What on earth can this have to do with our innocent Italian adventure, where we have been greeted with nothing but charm, kindness and good cheer?  As usual it’s all happening inside – a sense of fearful, over-exciteable panic about my gardening here.  Like Frankie Lee, I’m taking a “soulful bounding leap” into an unknown horticultural area, through which I dread to rave, not knowing what to do and misunderstanding how to save myself.

Straightening out the soil will be difficult, managing the slopes, the drainage, the roe-deer, the infestations of wild plum and robinia......I see I’m starting to tremble and foam at the mouth.  And that’s without even thinking about the major issues of Design;  how on earth to fit the garden nicely round the house when we’re dominated by the view of the town.  In the picture above,  where a sloping wooded ravine (ours on this side) separates us from that town, you might get some sense of our view from the end of the house.  How to add definition, a sense of garden and shape whilst retaining naturalness, how to make it interesting close to but restful in ambient; what to plant; where to begin, how not to feel guilty about such opportunities and thrills – so many troubling thoughts;  Frankie Lee would be right at home.

Here are some of our dying apricots, set on slightly terraced land.  There is little live wood, and what there is is errant, rising from the rootstock, inadequate and confused.  I’m informed that enormous amounts of fungicide are necessary to keep these particular shows on the road.  I don’t think I’ll do that. 

Perhaps the biggest problem is that of a garden being “where it does not belong” just as Dylan tells us is the moral for the protagonist in his strange ballad.  In the photograph above you may be able to see that the farming around is often of fruit trees and hazelnuts set out in grid patterns, right up to the old farmhouses.  Where even small gardens are created, they often follow this pattern, with a collection of trees or bushes set at regular intervals from each other, no borders or strong open spaces, or paths to lead you round and about to view the plantings.  This is farming, not the domestic orchard, with spaces set for tea.
So I’m in a foreign land, it’s not what I’m used to – oh the clashing preconceptions;  oh the visions we carry in our heads,  oh the difficulties inherent in mistaking paradise for that house somewhere else down the road.  From the town everything we do will be obvious, nothing will be concealed.  Feel the terror mount.
From the song, I’ve left out the perfect image of a stormy relationship which develops between the two characters;  and it is both alarming and hilarious.  Poor Frankie Lee, he seems to be at the absolute mercy of his emotions.  But his errors are his own, only his own.  So perhaps the other moral ought to be:  calm down, observe and consider.  Clarity will emerge, we hope and believe.  I’m sure we will fall into error but it need not be fatal, like some other irresistible temptations.


  1. I feel daunted just looking at it, but native plants mixed with tough garden might be way to go, +tomatoes exotic ones, a sort of semi wild, perma planting might be fun, so exciting!

  2. My thoughts exactly Jenny! It's the shaping. drainage and levels that worry me most, but I won't be going for exotics - just the simple stuff. Thanks for your comment. Lovely to be followed!

  3. An amazing, exciting, daunting adventure - hope it all goes well!

    I noted your wish to keep new garden natural - I wonder if that actually takes care of itself if allowed? I think it does in the UK..

    1. Thanks Anne, yes we're out here now, big digger expected tomorrow to try and sort out levels close to house, plus drainage, plus septic tank. Am slightly tremulous and finding builders and digger drivers, as ever, rather focussed on doing it all the right way rather than my way. We'll see.

      As for naturalness - we'd be talking about fast return to unwalkeable over scrub. Somehow I have to keep it accessible and varied. It would be sad to lose all the openness. I'll post again soon on progress. Thanks for reading and commenting. xx