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The Roots of RHS Garden Wisley, by Sabatino Urzo

Posted by Sara Draycott on 22 Apr 2013 at 03:50 PM

Not many people know that on the western end of Liguria on the Italian Riviera, just before reaching the boundary at Ponte San Luigi, it is possible to admire one of the most delightful gardens created by Sir Thomas Hanbury. In 1867 he bought an estate producing the greatest gardens of the Riviera. Sir Thomas Hanbury was a gardener who, at the end of his life, bought a large estate at Wisley and donated it to the Royal Horticultural Society in 1903 "for the encouragement and improvement of the science and practice of horticulture in all its branches". To experience this legendary garden, Emily and Rohanna, two of the second year Wisley Diploma trainees, and I went to the breathtaking Italian Riviera to discover and work in this extraordinary garden.

Fig.1 La Mortola, Hanbury Gardens

The Hanbury Gardens, also called La Mortola ("the myrtle"), occupy an area of 18 hectares; the land is sloping from the hills to the sea, as is typical of the Ligurian coast. The appearance of the landscape is typically natural, with irregular paths and romantic rustic pergolas and patios, with the astonishing view of the Mediterranean Sea in the background. The garden is also crossed by a section of the ancient consular road Via Julia Augusta, a Roman road at the bottom, and not too far from the sea a small semi-flat area is preserved with original Mediterranean vegetation, shaded by pine trees and with a gazebo.

Fig.2 Hanbury Gardens

Hanbury Gardens today are the result of two phases; the first, due to Thomas, has a prevailing taste for the collecting and study of exotic plants; the second area, which is attributed to Cecil and Dorothy Hanbury, is more focussed on the ornamental aspects instead. However there is not a big gap between the two sections and they almost seem to glue each other in a magical way. The gardens have always cultivated research and scientific activity and has never neglected the aesthetics of the place.

Fig.3 Rohanna Heyes, Emily Smith, Sabatino Urzo working at la Mortola

The villa was the heart of the property, the predominant element of the farm, visible from the outside. It maintained the defensive wall to the sea and retaining walls of the property. Even the existing routes were maintained as much as possible, or even brought to light, as the Via Julia Augusta, the old Roman road from which you accessed the property prior to the construction of the Napoleonic road. Even today, the Roman road is one of the most significant emergencies and divides the gardens.

Fig.4 Hanbury garden, Italian Riviera

In the same spirit Thomas kept the two paths near the palace: the Topia and the cypress avenue. The cypress avenue was always kept lush by Thomas and in a part by the Roman road that goes to the palace, Cypress Walk, ending with the Moorish Kiosk, or within that building off to the east Cypress Avenue. The Topia is one of the most spectacular gardens, the pergola was restored to its load-bearing parts and adorned with a collection of vines. Thomas intended to promote the development of woody vegetation. Thus, in the Valley, maintained or re-entered grew several species such as pine Pinus halepensis, P. pinaster, P. canariensis, P. pinea and P. insignis as well as Rhamnus alaternus and Quercus ilex.

Fig.5 Emily Smith, Sabatino Urzo, Thomas Hanbury, Rohanna Heyes

During our staying to the charming garden we have worked with a team of passionate Italian gardeners mainly with Bobo that worked there for a period of twenty years and slightly less Giacomo and Tina. Working around the exotic area we have been dealing with projects of implementations of an Agave display across the exotic sections. Agavaceae were brought from a propagation unit within the garden where some of the species are growing and kept before to be planted outside. Thanks to this cycle the collection is preserved and has developed throughout the years with the help of the University project, so the garden is also following the academic side of botany as well. There are so many things that I could write about this outstanding and surprising garden -  a visit is probably in order to get an idea of the scale, 18 hectares, the breathaking location, the valuable collection of plants and that sense of wild and magical feeling generated by the respect of the native flora mixed naturally with the subtropical species dramatically surrounded by the a deep blue Mediterranean sea. Working there it has been absolutely a pleasure an honour for myself and students.


Fig.6 Mediterranean sea from the lowest area of the garden

Happy Gardening.




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