Hartley Magazine

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How to Think About Gardens

In what should have been the busiest time for a gardener in the steppes of the Front Range, this one has, for the past six weeks, been sitting on the sidelines thanks to a knee replacement. Yes, the right leg that has powered the spade for the past few decades has finally given up the ghost, and I’m forced to think of how to carry on without putting the foot to the spade or the shoulder to the wheelbarrow, and how to make the garden less work and more play.

Climate change was already changing my approach but my advancing years adds to muddle: El Niño is changing places with La Niña, and NOAA doesn’t hold out much hope for improvement in what has been a devastating year for so many of us; the challenge of learning to garden successfully while aging gracefully has turned for some into the finding accommodations that will make it possible in the future.

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, strikes a pose as the ultimate Elizabethan thinking man, pondering deep thoughts in a fashionable and richly symbolic garden. In this portrait, Percy’s interest in the natural and supernatural world is expressed, one which earned him the sobriquet the ‘Wizard Earl’.

For inspiration I have turned to my library and first to the work of Humphrey Repton, the 18th-century English landscaper who was renowned for his Redbooks illustrated with colored foldout illustrations that showed how to “improve the view”, which often amounted to planting trees or erecting fences to block out offensive intrusions, like a disheveled panhandler or the butcher shop showcasing its goods. He was a prolific writer and his final book, published in 1816, and titled Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, Repton recognized how “the solace of Garden scenery and garden delights may be extended a little further, when the power of walking fails, and when it is no longer possible for decrepit age to reach the ground, to gather fruits, is to pluck and smell and admire those humble flowers which grow near the earth.”  While not quite decrepit, I take his point and agree with his simple solution: install raised beds and avoid installing gravel walks. The latter Repton dismisses particularly for those using Bath chairs (wheelchairs) as the “shaking and rattling soon become intolerable to the invalid.”  They also become a nuisance otherwise as I discovered since part of the garden is a graveled area that is a bumpy dustbowl for much of the year.

Humphrey Repton’s idea for a substantial raised garden surrounded by a smooth path free of bumps and potholes was designed to allow disabled garden lovers to enjoy the fruits of the well-maintained kitchen garden.

But perhaps the most useful non-gardening activity is to simply sit and think, to ponder the marvel of nature’s bounty, to look for faces in the clouds, dream about gardens past and future, or share the pleasures of the garden with a group of friends. To this end, Clark Lawrence has established Reading Retreats in Rural Italy at La Macchina Fissa, his home near Mantua.

Surrounded by lush gardens that Clark grows largely from seed – including an impressive annual display of pumpkins, squash and gourds – and  interrupted by peacocks, chickens and goats, guests can relax with a game of croquet, picnic in the garden, browse Clark’s extensive library and ever-growing art collection and enjoy concerts with guests who come from all over the world to partake of the collegial vibe of La Macchina Fissa.

Clark is an expatriate American who transplanted himself to Italy some years ago, establishing Reading Retreats in Castello di Galeazza. Located near Bologna, and dating from the 14th century, the castle was ruined in the 5.9 earthquake that struck the region in 2012. After this disaster, Clark was offered the opportunity to regroup and renovate to his needs the small industrial property that now is home to Reading Retreats (loosely translated, La Macchina Fissa means “car repair shop”).

Clarke Lawrence’s passion for plants, history, literature, music and visual art all come together, along with guests from around the world, in the garden at La Macchina Fissa.

Recently, Clark has added his self-authored books to the La Macchina Fissa’s library, including most recently his illustrated biography Small Plots, first published in 2017 in Italian as Mezzo Giardinieri. Given Clark’s considerable horticultural expertise and his understanding that a garden is much more than plants in the landscape, why he called himself a “half gardener” struck me as touchingly modest.

On the croquet lawn at La Macchina Fissa, a group of houseguests enjoys a reading party.

But there you are, maybe we feel like half gardeners until we sit down and think about it; something I look forward to doing in Clark’s garden this coming October. Watch this space!

©Ethne Clarke, 2024

To learn about membership and visiting or staying at La Macchina Fissa, visit https://www.lamacchinafissa.com/

Copies of Small Plots are available for purchase @$30 a copy including shipping by writing to Clark Lawrence, Via Macchina Fissa 107, 46034 Borgo Virgilio MN, Italy.