Lunette of Villa di Castello as it appeared in 1599, painted by Giusto Utens
Early artist's impression of Villa Castello

Ask anyone with the right passions to name Europe's most important gardens and you can expect to hear the likes of Versailles, the Alhambra and Kew amongst of course many other worthy contenders. However there is one that you have probably never heard of and yet is perhaps the most important of all European offerings. They are the gardens of Villa Castello, located in the hills north-west of Florence, Tuscany. Why is this place so important? Because Villa Castello is the earliest garden  in existence from which you can draw a line of influence directly from its inception during the renaissance through the mannerist, baroque, neoclassical, and romantic periods right up to the present day!

The front entrance of Villa Castello
Villa Castello
Since 1477 Villa Castello was owned by the de' Medici's, an elite banking family whose incredible wealth allowed them to dominate their city's government. With such influence at their fingertips, Villa Castello was 'unofficially' accepted as the seat of power in Florence.

However it was set to change in 1537, when the current resident of Villa Castello, the Duke of Florence, Alessandro de' Medici, was assassinated by a distant cousin creating a massive power-vacuum in the region. The influential men of Florence decided to take advantage of this and replaced Alessandro de' Medici with the little known Cosimo I de' Medici. They believed they could rule the city state with the 17 year old Cosimo I as a puppet figure, enriching themselves in the process at the expense of Florence.

Cosimo I was persuaded to sign a clause which entrusted much of the power to a council comprising of 48 members, but quickly rejected it. During this same period the news of Alessandro de' Medici's death, spurred Florentine exiles (along with the support of France) to invade Tuscany with the objective of deposing Cosimo I. The invasion failed, and all prominent and high profile prisoners were beheaded. In an extremely short period of time and against considerable odds Cosimo I had manage to established himself as the unrivalled ruler of Florence.

Cosimo I de Medici by Jacopo Carucci
Cosimo I de Medici aged 19
Of course Florence was still in turmoil, but with his position as head of the de Medici bank secure Cosimo settled back into Villa Castello and focused his attention on a grand and ambitious plan for the gardens. It may seem strange to undertake a major project during such uncertain and dangerous times but Cosimo had been inspired. The garden was to act as a symbol of his new order, a distinct contrast to the many previous years of Florentine family feuds, political confusion, and poor economic conditions. The renowned sculptor Niccolò Tribolo was commissioned to create the fountains and statues, but more importantly Tribolo was required to design a garden that would become a physical representation of good government as well as reflect Cosimo's sophistication and power. This new garden would prove to visiting rulers and dignitaries that the de' Medici's were the only family that could bring long term prosperity and happiness to Tuscany.

A garden that was deliberately intended as a parade of cultured power was something new in 16th century Italy. Yet while the layout of the gardens exemplified the high renaissance and maximised the views of the surrounding countryside, they are both based upon well-established models of garden design.

It was divided into sixteen compartments, each one reflecting further, perfect geometric shapes which demonstrated the control of man over space and nature. It was also the first time that an axis was used (and still exists to this day) splitting the central path from the Grotto to the Villa using the extraordinary and impressive fountain of Hercules and Antaeus as the centre point. This highly geometrical design created a perspective not seen in any other garden at this time.

Container grown citrus plants at Villa Castello
The gardens at Villa Castello in their full glory
Tribolo placed symbolic messages throughout the garden, the clearest being the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus.  In Greek mythology Antaeus was the son of Poseidon and Gaia, and he would challenge all passers-by to wrestling matches with the intention of killing them to collect their skulls. Mythology states that so long as Antaeus remained in contact with the ground he would remain strong and tireless. Of course when it was time for Hercules to fight Antaeus he found that he could not beat him simply by throwing him to the ground as Antaeus had the power to rapidly heal all wounds. However Hercules soon discovered the secret of his power and holding Antaeus aloft he crushed him to death in a bear-hug. This showpiece fountain at Villa Castello is a representation of how Cosimo, like Hercules, defeated his enemies through wisdom rather than just brute strength.

All the fountains at Villa Castello depended upon gravity and water pressure to function, and fortunately the villa was located near a Roman aqueduct. In fact the name Villa Castello is taken from the old water cisterns (known as ‘castella’) near the site. Frustratingly, the Roman aqueduct was in no fit state to supply the villa and so Piero da San Casciano constructed a new system of aqueducts to bring water into a new reservoir built in the sacred bosco.  This is still in place within the elevated section of the garden. The reservoir controlled the water using a system of bronze pipes which, hidden from view,  entered the main body of the garden. While it is true that many of the fountains have been removed, the statue of Appennino which symbolise the mountains of Tuscany,still survives in the reservoir. Here he is portrayed as a shivering old man and when the hydraulics were still functioning would have spent his life under a constant flow of cold mountain.

The figures of Hercules and Antaeus designed by Niccolò Tribolo
 The fountain of Hercules and Antaeus
The reservoir also fed two fountains that were once fitted within the recesses either side of grotto. Each of these fountains represented one of the two rivers of Florence, the Arno and Sieve. These 'rivers' flowed in channels through the garden, while other pipes carried water to the two main fountains. The water pressure was so effective that the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus produced a jet of water which spouted a full three meters from the mouth of Antaeus. The second fountain, 'The fountain of Florence, or Fiorenza' was originally located in the upper part of the garden near to the grotto. However in 1788 the fountain was moved to La Petraia, a villa also owned by the Medici’s where it can still be seen today.

Once the water had passed through the fountains, the overflow was split into and channelled into two small private gardens on either side of the villa. From there the overspill entered two large fish ponds in front of the villa. After that, the water was used to irrigate the fields and gardens below. The area where once the fish ponds existed have long since been filled in and turned over to lawns.

Sadly today most of the formal ponds have also been filled in, and the majority of the original fountains have been dismantled and the water to the grotto switched off. However in its heyday the hydraulic system of this garden was one of the wonders of the High Renaissance. Designed and engineered by Piero da San Casciano they too played an important part in the symbolism of the garden.

Not everything in the garden was to do with expressing power and control, it was also about fun. With the turn of a key the gate to the grotto could be locked, leaving  guests inside to be soaked with water from hidden pipes. In the original design the fountain of Hercules and Antaeus was surrounded by a circle of trees and yet again by a  hidden pipe. Once again, unsuspecting visitors looking at the fountain could be sprayed with water from hidden nozzles.

The Fountain of Appennino, by Bartolomeo Ammannati (1563)
The Fountain of Appennino,
Perhaps the most famous feature of the garden is the ‘grotto of the animals’, an exquisite man-made cave entered by a doorway at the far end of the garden. The walls of the cave are covered with limestone to resemble a natural cavern. The roof is also decorated with stones, mosaic and seashells. In three chambers around the grotto there are set pieces of marble birds and animals housed above a large sculpted marble basin. When the grotto was fully functional, water streamed down from the ceiling and down walls into the marble basins.

The important point to remember is that garden at Villa Costello was one of the first and most influential of a great wave of Italian gardens that were built during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Villa Costello not only stamped its highly distinctive mark on subsequent Medici properties (such as Villa di Pratolino and the Pitti Palace), but it reached out beyond Italy to influence the gardens of the French, and later the English renaissance including the grand gardens of Versailles and Hampton Court.

It hard to believe that the entire citrus collection of approximately 500 plants was almost lost during the Second World War. The building used to over-winter the collection was converted to a hospital leaving no place of the seasonal protection of these tender plants. Left outside, many of the citrus specimens died during the cold, wet winters but all was not lost. Gardeners returning from the war quickly assessed the dire situation and were able to save some of the trees through grafting. You can still see the effects of these traumatic years in citrus plants bearing carefully bandaged scars.

Today, Villa Costello is perhaps the most authentic renaissance garden in existence, and holds one of the world’s largest collections of cultivated citrus grown in terracotta vases. Incredibly, some of these vases date back to 1790 and a few still include the original plants! Although the Villa has been the home of the prestigious Crusca Academy since 1583, this fascinating history along with the plants and gardens can all be yours for free. Why? Because there is no charge for access to the gardens. Get the timing of your visit right and you can also gain access to the secret gardens, but don’t tell anyone you heard it from me. As I said, it’s a secret!

Main image in public domain
Image of Cosimo 1 in public domain
Image credit: Gardens layout by Parco di Castello  -
All other images copyright Simon Eade

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Male grey catkins of Garrya elliptica
Garrya elliptica autumn catkins

Often overlooked among the shrub benches of garden centres, and generally only known to those truly passionate about their plants, Garrya elliptica is an extremely attractive ornamental shrub noted for its impressive autumn display of oversized catkins. Hence its common name of 'Silk Tassel Bush'.

Native to the coastal ranges of California and southern Oregon, it is an evergreen species with a number of notable cultivars, the most popular of which are Garrya elliptica 'James Roof' and 'Evie'.

It has an erect habit, which under favourable conditions can reach a height of approximately 3 metres although individual specimens have been recorded as being as high as 5 metres. It produces thick, leathery, grey-green, evergreen leaves. On male forms the flowers grow in decorative, grey-green catkins which can be up to 25 cm long!

Close up image of gray Garrya elliptica catkins
Garrya elliptica autumn catkins
It is of particular use in the suburban garden as it is both suitable for both full sun and shaded positions. That being said, outside of the mildest regions of the United Kingdom it will need to be planted in a sheltered position otherwise it can be prone to leaf scorch. This is a particular issue in areas which experience strong winds and extreme conditions. To maintain good conditions it is best planted against the shelter of a south or west facing wall, you can even go further and train it as a wall shrub. This then makes it much easier to protect it under extreme cold and freezing conditions by using horticultural fleece.

New plants are best planted in the spring so that the root systems can establish before the following winter. To be on the safe side it is usually good practice to provide 1st season specimens a winter protection of bracken or horticultural fleece. In the milder regions of England and Ireland winter protection will not be necessary after the first year except during unseasonably cold conditions.

Garrya elliptica will perform best when grown in a reliably moist yet well-drained soil with an approximate pH of 6-8. Even when established it is worth watering during periods of drought as this can cause the appearance of leaf spots in response to the environmental stress. That being said damaged leaves will usually be dropped in the spring and any sparsely leaved stems will soon become hidden by the new growth. In its natural habitat Garrya elliptica has proven to tolerate moderately heavy clay soils, just beware that it will perform poorly in environments which experience wet, freezing conditions.

Be aware that Garrya elliptica does not transplant easily and resent any root disturbance. Large, established should never be moved unless the intention is to throw away.

Strongly growing specimens may need to be pruned back to a suitable size for the garden but otherwise pruning is unnecessary other than to remove dead, diseased or dying stems or those which have produces excessive, straggly growth. To maintain the year on year effect of the catkins, aim to prune in the spring as the old catkins lose their ornamental value, but before the new foliage emerges.

CALLICARPA BODINIERI var. giraldii 'Profusion'

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' with its attractive purple berries
'Bodinier's beautyberry'

Commonly known as 'Bodinier's beautyberry' or just plain 'beautyberry', Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' is for most of the year a surprisingly uninteresting specimen. At least it is in my opinion, until of course the appearance of its ornamental berries in late autumn.

And herein lies the problem, while Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' has gorgeous autumn effect should you plant in in a prime location to make the most of its almost unique ornamental value or should you try and grow it as a container specimen so that it can be effective hidden from view for the majority of the year and then moved to 'front and centre' for the key, precious few weeks? That being said, with mature specimens able to reach an overall height of 3 metres and with a width of 2.5 metres, growing as suitably decent example as an easily movable pot plant is a lot easier said than done! So the positioning of 'Bodinier's beautyberry' is mostly going to be some compromise but consider planting it near to a prime location behind as few herbaceous plants known to lose their leaves before the show starts. Get it right and you can enjoy the almost unique delight that these jewel-like berries offer every season going forward, arguably only bettered by Pollia condensata, the marble berry. Unfortunately the marble berry is neither hardy or in general cultivation, whereas Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion is both.

The original species is a native to Western and Central China and named in honour of Émile-Marie Bodinier (1842 - 1901), a French missionary and botanist who collected plants in China - although not this one. The genus name is derived from the Greek meaning 'beautiful fruit'. It was introduced to the Victorian gardening establishment in around 1845, followed later by the Giraldii cultivar which entered production in England 1900 and receiving the First Class certificate from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1924. 'Profusion' was a further selection from the Giraldii cultivar. It is now the most attractive and widely cultivated of all species and cultivars within the genus Callicarpa.

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' is a deciduous cultivar with a rounded habit. The leaves are narrowly elliptic, toothed and have a downy bloom which is more prominent when young. The new foliage emerges bronze-purple in spring, turning to a dark green over the summer before finally turning to golden-purple prior to leaf drop in the autumn.

Small purple blooms appear from June-August in dense sprays no more than 3-4 cm wide on the new wood however these are largely overlooked. Once pollinated these are followed by eye-catching, glossy violet-purple bead-like fruits which appear in clusters of 30-40 individuals. These ripen in September, although the colour steadily improved through October and into early November. be aware than when planted in isolation Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' will tend to fruit poorly, so for best berry affect plant in loose groups or for best results in a mass display.

Callicarpa bodinieri var. giraldii 'Profusion' received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1984, along with the First Class certificate in 1921.

Main image credit - Kurt Stüber: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

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CALLICARPA BODINIERI var. giraldii 'Profusion'


The autumn display of catkins of Garrya elliptica
When and how do you prune back Garrya elliptica?

Garrya elliptica is an extremely handsome evergreen, and a popular choice for going against shady walls in suburban gardens. It is native to the coastal ranges of California and southern Oregon, and is named in honour of named for Nicholas Garry, secretary of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1820-1835. A strange association being that these two locations are almost as far as you can possibly be being that they are situated at opposite ends of different countries!

As attractive as it is, with a mature height of up to 5 metres, at some point it is likely to be necessary to prune it back to suitably maintainable size. While still within a suitable size regular pruning is usually unnecessary and hard pruning should be avoided as this can cause invigorated shoots to soils its natural habit.

Catkins of Garrya elliptica?
When and how do you prune back Garrya elliptica?
There is a general rule of thumb that can be followed with the majority of evergreen shrubs which is to prune back over the summer. This makes sense as many evergreen species from Mediterranean, subtropical or tropical enter a kind of dormancy period as a way of coping with the summer heat. Of course if you pruned back Garrya elliptica in the summer you would be removing the juvenile ornamental catkins and therefore robbing yourself of their ornamental value during the late winter.

Therefore, where pruning is required (as in reduction in height, removal of errant, disease or damaged stems) the best time to prune Garrya elliptica is in early spring. This needs to be timed to fit between just as the catkins start to fade, but before the new spring growth emerges.

With regards to unkempt, overgrown specimens, these can be renovated by cutting them back gradually over three to four years to create a low framework of branches. So long as the specimen is healthy. You will find that the re-growth will be invigorated and will itself require thinning out the following spring. Select the strongest, best-placed shoots and remove the rest.

HOW TO GROW THE SNOWBERRY - Symphoricarpos albus


Yellow blooms of Erysimum cheiri at the Botanische Tuin TU Delft, Delft, The Netherlands
How to grow wallflowers from seed

Once an extremely popular plant during the Victorian period, wallflowers have steadily fallen out of fashion over the years arguably in favour of the even more brightly coloured and mass-produced (read inexpensive) Tulip bulbs. Despite this, and maybe in part due to the ubiquitous presence of modern Tulips cultivars, wallflowers still manage to maintain a place in the garden. The reason for this is down to those gardeners who are becoming bored of seeing little else other than a sea of different sized, coloured and shaped tulips throughout the spring, wallflowers are without doubt the next in line for being the toughest and most colourful of all Spring flowering plants. In fact wallflower cultivars Erysimum cheiri 'Persian Carpet’, 'Sunset Apricot' and 'Sunset Primrose' have all received the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

There was a time when the shops were full of bunches of bare-root wallflowers for little more than 10 plants for £1.00, but nowadays you are likely only to see pot-grown plants at a significantly more expensive price point. However this shouldn't stop you from enjoying these gorgeous flowering biennials as they are easily grown from seed.

As far as traditional bedding plants go wallflowers are amongst the hardiest, but this is understandable as the original species is a native to most of Europe. As such there is no need to propagate under protection as wallflower seeds will happily germinate outside.

Wallflower seeds should be sown during May or June in order to produce plants that can be bedded out in the autumn. Sow the seeds either individually in large modular seed trays containing a soil based seed compost or thinly in an open, prepared seedbed of any ordinary soil. Gently water them in and they will germinate within a week or so. Generally wallflowers are extremely easy to germinate, just keep the soil or compost on the moist side bt without waterlogging the rots. When the seedlings are large enough to handle (usually around October) they can be carefully lifted, try to disturb the roots as little as possible, and bedded out in preparation for the spring. Pinch out the shoots before planting to create a compact, bushy habit. They are tolerant of most neutral or alkaline soils and will even cope well on very poor soils.

Wallflowers are usually sown one year to flower the next, and then afterwards discarded. This is for two reasonably good reasons. The first is that wallflowers have a tendency to become leggy during its second year. The second is that as time moves on wallflowers become increasingly prone to clubroot.