Thursday, 17 May 2018

Visit to the old Ellen Willmott Boccanegra garden in Ventimiglia - 27 May 2018

In the late 19th century, early 20th century, it became popular for wealthy people to own properties in southern France, from Hyeres to Liguria in Italy.  The temperature in this area very rarely drops below zero.  They were keen collectors of exotic plants for which they needed a warmer climate than northern Europe. Boccanegra was one of these gardens, closely associated with the plant collector Ellen Willmott.  Mavis has written a detailed account of Ellen Willmott further down the blog.


'The garden group headed for Italy on Friday, 27th April, blue skies all the way, and the Villa Boccanegra, now re-named Villa Piacenza Boccanegra for the family who now own it,    Finding the villa was not easy (Google maps, get your act together) but we were warmly welcomed by owner Ursula Piacenza who sat us down in her living room for a fascinating summary of the history of the house and its owners.   Stepping out onto the terrace overlooking the steep wooded sloping ground down to the sea gave no hint of the terraces with their rich, historical planting". Unquote 

A bit hard to see,  a peachy coloured rose called 'Senateur La Follette' over the years has made its way to the top of the tree.  To achieve this effect the rose and the tree  have to be planted together at the same time.

Rosa Senateur La Follette

The orchid 'Dendrobium' in the pot on the terrace.

Mavis wrote:

Ellen Willmott, 1858-1934

Elllen Willmott was one of two great women gardeners of the 19th century. She was the eldest of three sisters born to a wealthy businessman. The whole family were keen gardeners and the father decided to move the family to Warley Place, a large country estate in Essex, from where he could commute to London.


On her seventh birthday her Godmother gave her a cheque for 7,000 pounds, a great deal of money in 1863. This was the beginning of Ellen's lifelong passion for gardening spending and building up of her incredible knowledge of plants. On her 30th birthday the family went on the grand tour of Europe and shortly after she and sister Rose went to Europe again, her younger sister having died of diphtheria. During this visit she fell in love with Le Chateau de Tresserve near Aix-les-Bains in France. She inherited money on the death of her father plus Warley Place, plus money from her Mother and her childless Godmother.

Her sister now being married and living on the other side of England, the wealthy Ellen "took the gardening world by storm" joining the RHS and becoming a committee member, joining The Linnean Society and becoming a great friend of the other great gardener of the period, Gertrude Jekyll.

For Queen Victoria's Jubilee the RHS Instituted the Victoria Medal of Honour, it's highest award, for 60 horticultural greats, Gertrude Jekyll and Ellen Willmott were listed with 58 men.
Ellen Willmott , unlike Gertrude Jekyll, was not interested in garden design, that is not to say she did not plant artistically. She had a hugh knowledge of plants, growing over 100,000 of species and  cultivars of trees, shrubs and flowering plants at Warley.

Like many great gardeners of the period she desired the exotic and having visited Sir Thomas Hanbury at La Mortola on the French Italian border at Ventimighlia she bought La Boccanegra .
Sir Thomas Hanbury had just bought the land at Wisley, Surrey for the RHS's new garden. Sadly Sir Thomas died in 1907 two years after Boccanegra was bought.

With three great gardens plus travelling, committee meetings and writing, her life was an obsession of gardening. She helped finance the third expedition of the plant hunter F. W. Wilson
(Chinese Wilson) to China and for this reason there are many plants with the name Willmott or Warley after their name e.g.

Rosa willmottiae

The shrub and close up flower of Ceratostigma willmottianum

Syringe 'Miss Ellen Willmott

She is quoted as confessing to Charles Sprange Sargent, the director of Harvard's Arnold Aboratum. "my plants and my gardens come before anything in life to me, and all my time is given up to working in one garden or another and when it is too dark to see the plants themselves I read or write about them". It has been said that at this time, 1907, she employed 140 gardeners.

Slowly her extravagance ate into her great fortune and she went bankrupt. After her death at Warley in September 1934 it was sold along with many of her possessions to pay her debts.
Warley is now a nature reserve and the house is gone. Chateau Trevesse burnt down and the garden no longer exists. Boccanegra was sold several times in the last century due to the fact that each family had no heir. It is now owned by the Piacenza family who kindly hosted our delightful May garden visit.


Boccanegra is built on a slope.  Narrow paths lead down to the sea. As you can imagine if you want to take a dip into the sea it is quite a tiring exercise to get back to the house.  They have a funicular cage that goes up and down to the beach.

The tallest tree in the garden, Agathis robusta,  comes from Queensland and Papua New Guinea.  It is a pine tree. Interestingly it has  broad, flat leaves:

The two photos below and above are of Limonium sinuatum, also known as Statice or Sea Lavender, used a lot in dry flower bouquets.

A bit hard to see, the blue spikes of Echium fastuosum, native to Madeira.  We have our own Echium, in northern and southern Europe, Echium vulgare, not so spectacular though.

Echium vulgare

Arbutus andrachnoides, with an attractive peeling cinnamon-brown trunk and branches.  Family of our Arbousier, Strawberry tree.

Two strikingly pink flowers, a geranium with 4 petals and Geranium maderense with 5 petals.

 Senecio glastifolius

The flower looked very much like a Hawthorn flower, the leaves are pinnate, Osteomelis schwerinnii

Photos: Jacqueline Hodkinson, Mavis McQuade, Isabel Pardoe and the web.

Bibliography:  The Web and Jane Brown's biography of Ellen Willmott.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Plants for dry shade - 27 March 2018

Mavis wrote:

When I thought about this subject I thought it would be so limited that it would take little time to prepare.  Big mistake.

Finding suitable plants and cross references became quite complicated.  Also I have no technology skills and always resort to books.  As my French is limited I started looking in all my English gardening books but quickly realized that dry shade gardening in the U.K. bears no resemblance to our conditions here.  Even the great Beth Chatto’s advice on suitable plants and the lovely photographs in her book would not be achievable here.  So what to do?  Panic!! Then I found my 2015 catalogue from Olivier Filippi in Mèze, Languedoc-Roussillon, France’s greatest authority on Mediterranean gardening.

He is well known in the U.K. and has written in the RHS magazine as he holds the French National Collection of Oleanders but better still he has a passion for Cistus – my greatest love. It is a pity it is so far away although it is possible for a day trip. I will give details about his nursery at the bottom of the blog. 

Who has dry shade?  So lets get started.

Plants for Dry Shade

This is probably the most difficult situation to plant successfully in a garden.  There are several factors to consider.

  • The cause of the shade. Is it the north side of the house or a building. Is it at the foot of a hedge or under trees?
  • The following applies particularly to shade under trees.  These are mainly our native trees – Chêne Vert, Chêne Blance and various evergreens often in the pine family.
  • I admit that I have only 2 little patches of dry shade despite the fact of having quite a few Chêne Vert, 1 large deciduous tree and 1 large pine tree.
  • I am south facing on restanques with olive trees so most of the garden is sunny.. If the shade is behind the house this is not so difficult as if you wish to have a bed you can dig deep, enrich the soil and it will have some rain.
  • The depth of shade controls the dryness of the soil for three reasons.

  1. The tree canopy allows little water through.
  2. It also shades the sun from the plants and soil, but depending on the time of day may allow a little sun to filter through.
  3. If the shade is caused by trees there is the problem of their roots taking available moisture and nutrients.

A rule of thumb is if grass and weeds won't grow in this area you will have to retire gracefully.

What can we do about this?

First find what type of soil we have. Mostly in our area the soil is alkaline (calcaire), but if the shade is caused by pines or some other evergreens the soil is invariably acidic, so it is a good idea to use a soil testing kit. There are many plants that can survive in soil which is alkaline through to lightly acidic.

Clear all grass and weeds.  If possible it is a good idea to dig gently to loosen the soil taking care not to damage tree roots.  If there are spaces you can then make pockets for planting.  Preparation and planting are best done in Autumn or Spring.

Next:  Mulch Mulch Mulch

Mulches are essential as the soil may be compacted and impoverished.

Mulches include home made compost, leaf mould, finely chipped bark, grass cuttings that do not include herbicides and are preferably rotted down, manure and coir.

It is also possible to put a sheet mulch down such as black sheet plastic, bonded fibre fleece or even many layers of newspaper.  These will need holes cutting in for each plant, having worked out the arrangement of plants.

It is recommended that mulches should, if possible, be to a depth of 10 cm.

Use an enriched potting compost when planting.  I would be inclined to put a sprinkling of bone meal. Also make sure that you have soaked the plants themselves before planting.

If you still have problems with the soil or the planting especially if it is acid consider sinking a pot to whatever depth is possible or even a piece of art can make the area less dull.

Suitable Plants

If the space is large and can take shrubs put these at the back and any climbers behind them if there is the support of a wall, fence or tree trunk.  Small bulbs and flowers to the front with taller perennials behind – if possible the perennials should be in at least groups of three, all depending on space.

Ground cover plants should be interspersed over the area.  Don’t forget if these become too invasive just thin them out.

Bulbs and Corms

Anemome blanda

Cyclamen hederifolium                    not Cyclamen persicums

Cyclamen mirabile 
Erantis hyemalis (Winter Aconite)

Small Perennials

Hepatica nobilis

Catananche caerulea
Cymbalaria muralis


Adiantum pedatum
Athyrium niponicum
Blechnum penna-marina
Cryptogramma crispe
Polypodium vulgare glycyrrhiza


Ground Cover

Vinca Minor
Vinca Major
Hedera alger
Hedera helix

Lamium (Dead Nettle – Various)

Large Perennials

Acanthus Mollis
Agapanthus campanulatus

Coronilla emerus
Centranthus ruber (red, white or mauve)
Geranium macrorrhizum 
Geranium sanguineum
Geranium cantabrigiense
Helleborus argutifolius
Helleborus corsicus
Helleborus foetidus
Glechoma hedracea
Euphorbia martini
Euphorbia characias

Euphorbia mellifera


Buxus balearica
Buxus sempervirens
Cistus creticus alba
Cistus aguilarii
Lonicera etrusca
Mahonia aquifolium
Pitttosporum tobira

Photinia ‘Red Robin’
Pistacia lentiscus
Ruscus aculeatus
Salvia rosmarinus
Sambucus nigra
Teucrium chamaedrys
Teucrium lucidrys
Nandina domestica
Viburnum tinus variagata


Clematis armandii
Jasminum nudiflorum

Lonicera japonica 
Lonicera chinensis


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