A Hampstead gardener in Sicily
Alison Richards has battled to save the 150 year old Sicilian paradise
On a ridge overlooking the sea on the western tip of Sicily is a villa. In that villa, members of Alison Richards’s family have lived, on and off, for over 150 years, since enterprising Mr. Ingham and his Whitaker nephews began in the fortified wine, marsala, business. Around the villa, called Racalia, is a large terraced garden, part woodland, part formal pleasure ground, part citrus and olive groves, all made possible by natural water springing from the limestone and sandstone ridge. Although records are scarce, Alison’s great grandmother, Euphrosyne Whitaker, is known to have created the late nineteenth century garden.
Until well after the Second World War, when the villa was a military hospital, the gardens were well maintained. But by the time Alison’s brother took over, romantic ruin was getting into its stride, engulfing walls, terraces, paths, steps, beds, urns in reckless growth (this is a fertile area, the summers may be blistering but in winter it rains). Bougainvillea, sumach , bamboo and acanthus were swallowing all the details of the hard landscaping, in the woodland crashed trees lay where they had fallen, although beautiful mature trees remain, umbrella pines, Aleppo pines, evergreen oaks, Morton Bay figs.
Alison has loved the garden since her childhood. Once her own children were growing up she began to think of trying to rescue and recreate it, even though living in Hampstead and gardening in Sicily is not the easiest of arrangements. Since the late 1990s she has been organizing parties of volunteers for bursts of intense activity, supported by the indispensable year-long presence of Giuseppe Ficuccia. There is still plenty of work-in-progress but the transformation she has brought about is, literally, a revelation. Alison says that the more she works and discovers, the more she admires her great grandmother’s vision.
Clearing is one thing, knowing what to put into cleared areas is another. Alison came to the work with the practised eye of a jeweller but without much knowledge of plants. She soon did a Royal Horticultural Society course at Capel Manor and joined the Mediterranean Garden Society, which exists to help its members learn more, often through visiting each other’s gardens in Greece, Italy, etc. Her first project was to develop the lower half of the formal garden, making two new square plots divided by paths in the form of an X, planted with a mix of flowering shrubs and succulents, including lavender, phlomis, carissa, salvia, artemisia, etc.
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Not everything went as hoped – the sumach fought back, some plants were not established enough to survive the heat, various irrigation systems proved tricky (the agricultural method of putting pin-holed pipes under black plastic has proved the most successful, although disguising the plastic with shredded plant material gave a bed for more weeds and remains an unsolved detail). Also, sourcing plants is difficult in Sicily. Alison says it makes you appreciate how lucky we are here.
But, despite all, through trial, error, learning and time, the improvements are great. When I was there last week, two other members of the work team, Dan Stringer and Ignas Bartulis, both gardeners from The Holme in Regent’s Park, gave the quartered beds a loving, attentive going-over with shears and secateurs, to the point that Alison says they have never looked so good before and, as after a good haircut, will go on to look even better. These beds are only a fraction of Alison’s project, to write of the pergola, new terraces, tree-planting, etc. would take too long.
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Neither Dan nor Ignas had been to Sicily before and they appreciated the chance to work with unfamiliar plant material. Mosquitoes notwithstanding, Dan loved the warmth, quiet, beautiful surroundings, casting thoughtful looks at the woodland and what more might be done to open up and regenerate it. Giuseppe, on the other hand, is on home ground. His family were shepherds. The faint tinkling of bells comes from the goats his father still keeps beyond the garden wall. Giuseppe’s multifarious job includes the cultivation of the olives that go into the delicious oil that Alison’s brother produces. Anyone who wants a taste of this touchingly romantic place would do well to try some (www.racalia.com).
I asked Alison Richards to name some plants that she grows at Racalia but that would also do well in London. Her response was to think of a group that would look good together:-
Salvia greggii “Royal Bumble”
Salvia setulosa “Silas Dyson” both rich complementary reds giving colour till November in UK
Globularia trichosantha (Globe Daisy) blue flowers, good leaves, evergreen
Santolina (cotton lavender)