Gardening on Elba

Waves of sky blue agapanthus thrive high above the silky Tyrrhenian Sea

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Pictures: Allan Pollok Morris

When Allan Pollok-Morris first visited this private garden on its rocky platform overlooking the sea the sun was topping the pines and the lower garden was washed with a soft grey-blue twilight. He was immediately drawn to the place with that simple house, adapted from the old fort, and the extraordinary swathes of deep blue agapanthus.

“As I walked up the garden path I could see that this was not just a naturalised field of plants,” recalls Pollok-Morris. “It felt more like a place agapanthus would chose to go to live out their days in simple, serendipitous brilliance.”

A bit about Elba

Elba lies about 20km off the Tuscan coast and is probably best known as the island where Napoleon was first exiled.

He was there for less than a year before escaping and returning to France for the last “Hundred Days” which ended in his defeat at Waterloo and his final exile on St Helena.

The island is rocky and dry but the wine is excellent, the sun beats down and there are great water sports. From the garden you look over the buzzing harbour of Marciana Marina.

Designer's story

Paolo Pejrone

The garden is extraordinarily simple consisting of a house, a swimming pool and a central path. It was designed by Paulo Pejrone, one of Europe’s finest landscape architects.

Born in 1941 Pejrone studied Architecture at Turin University before working with Russell Page – the great British designer who made gardens for, among others, the Duke of Windsor and the King of Belgium – and, latterly, with Roberto Burle Marx in Brasil

He has written many books and is one of the founders of the Italian Landscape Architects’ Association. Since 1970 he has designed gardens in almost every country in Europe.

Big, bold and very blue

The upper storey of this garden consists of Pinus pinea (“the Roman pine”) which provide shade and shelter. Below are those Mediterranean standards plumbago, box topiary and oleanders. However, the most striking planting is the agapanthus: a great sea of clear blue either side of the path creates an effect every bit as eye catching as a bluebell wood.

This sort of blanket, single species planting works really well if, as in this case, the owner only visits occasionally (catching the flowers in bloom). You can get away with it in larger gardens too where you can steer clear at the wrong season. An area where you like to sit and eat in the sun can be planted exclusively with summer flowers as it matters not a whit what it looks like in January.

A bigger splash

Swimming pools are not such a luxury in climates like Elba’s. In the UK it is a different matter. Think expensive heating and complicated filtration  to provide something that is not used for longer than a couple of months a year, and even then only sporadically.

But if your heart’s set on a pool it may be worth building in some sort of disguise. Turquoise tiles can look a bit Palm Beach under a British sky.  Consider a pool that looks like a rill or an ornamental pond that is deep and clean enough to act as a plunge pool. Try surrounding it with high grasses (try Molinia transparent, Panicum or Miscanthus.)

Put them in pots

Agapanthus look amazing in pots. They actually perform better when they are a bit squeezed and pot bound so you can get away with slightly overcrowding them.

Paulo has used the straightforward Agapanthus africanus which was the only variety available 40 years ago. It is tough and can easily withstand the almost unbearably hot Elban summers. “When the sun is that strong the colours need to be robust: washy pinks and softer colours simply disappear,” says Pejrone.

At the first sign of a proper frost A.africanus would collapse into a quivering mush so gardeners in temperate climes need to look to different varieties to get the same effect. The hardiest are the Headbourne Hybrids although in particularly cold areas a bit of horticultural fleece covering the crown would be sensible (though impractical on this large scale).

Topiary

We sometimes think of box topiary being very English but it is native in much hotter European countries where it has long been used as a reliable evergreen. That said there are other excellent plants for snipping into shape.

Try pungent lavender, Rosemary and myrtle.