La Mortella, Ischia – a mad tropical wonderland… a guest blog from the Patient Gardener

I was interested to read the description of La Mortella in Monty Don and Derry Moore’s new book Great Gardens of Italy as I visited the garden last August on a blistering hot day with temperatures in the high 30s.

 This was not ideal garden visiting weather by a long stretch of the imagination but I was on a pilgrimage and determined!  As Monty says: “Any visit must be a prepared, deliberate and slow excursion and so you arrive almost as a pilgrim at a shrine.”

La Mortella is on the island of Ischia, just off the Italian coast near Naples.  It was created by Sir William and Lady Walton who bought the land in 1956.  However, don’t be mistaken and think this is a large Italianate garden covering a couple of acres.  No, a lot of the garden is up a pretty sheer volcanic rock face not your typical garden at all; not in England or Italy for that matter. Certainly if you compare it to the other gardens which feature in Monty Don’s Great Gardens of Italy book (soon to be on television) it stands out as different to the rest.  There is no clipped topiary, box, yew, there is no formality – instead you have a wonderful confection of tropical, Mediterranean and generally exotic planting; a truly eclectic garden. 

I loved the plantings.  The lower area is full of lush tropical plantings around a large pool, from which flows a rill.  The density of the planting provides welcome shade and it is with some reluctance that you make your way up the side of the quarry. For me there was a considerable contrast between the lower garden and the planting on the quarry.  This was predominantly Mediterranean and featured myrtles, a lot which is a native of the area.  

At the very top of the garden you encounter the upper ponds and the lush planting resumes although not on the scale as the lower garden.  However, I found these  areas too themed and a little gimmicky.  One of my sons described it as a little Disneylandish and it is interesting to see that Monty had a similar experience “There is more than a slight feeling of a theme park…”   The stone crocodiles were just too much for me though very popular with some young visitors. 

My other criticism of the garden is that it had lost its intimacy and no longer felt like a personal garden.  We were told by our guide that Susanne Walton had been keen for it to be visitor friendly and this explains the large numbers to help guide the visitor along the map which appear around the garden and the tarmac paths which gave it a feel of a municipal park and I felt jarred considerably with the planting. 

In the book Monty explains the story of how the garden was created and how Susana created it to showcase her husband’s music.  The garden includes a concert space set amongst the plantings and the audience have the most stunning views out across the island.  Monty states that after Walton’s death in 1983 Susana continued to develop the garden and promote her husband’s work; “But the garden began – and ends – as a testament to the love of Susana for her husband.”

To me this is a garden of a plantaholic.  There are so many plants squeezed in from all over the world and although consideration has been given to their planting requirements sometimes they just don’t gel and it all gets a little too much. There is nowhere for the eyes to settle and rest.   

Therefore, I was interested to see Derry Moore’s photographs of the garden.  Derry’s photos capture the garden very well.  Like me he photographed the main rill which is a strong design feature but his other photographs are of the mass planting.  I found it intriguing to see how he had created focal points by concentrating on an interesting tree, a large rocky outcrop or by framing the picture with the large pool.  It is certainly an interesting lesson in how to take excellent photographs.

The book, Great Gardens of Italy…

continues up Italy, predominantly on the left hand side and explores a total of 30 gardens.  Each garden is described intelligently, as we would expect of Monty, he brings in small character descriptions of various people associated with the garden, the garden is given an historical context and he describes how he felt and reacted to the space.  The photographs that illustrate the book, by Derry Moore, are on a par with the writing.  Whilst there are many photographs of parterres and ancient buildings, Moore also manages to convey the atmosphere of the garden with some less obvious views such as the statue appearing through the ancient cypresses at the garden of Giardino Giusti.

Although this is a book that will probably find a home on many coffee tables, it is more than your average coffee table book.  It is a book that you can dip into and lose yourself in as you imagine yourself drifting through the olive groves on a warm Italian evening.

Helen’s regular blog can be found at http://patientgardener.wordpress.com/

(C) HELEN JOHNSTONE