Gardens: Monty Don's new book and TV series on Italian gardens

Italian gardens both illustrate and bring to life history and are made from it as much as any building," says Monty Don, television presenter and author of Great Gardens of Italy.

"To understand the garden you have to know its story. There is no better way of delving into the mind and lives of the names that criss-cross Italian history than walking in the shade of their gardens, smelling their plants and hearing the water flow that they also listened to."

Although Don, who is based in Herefordshire, might not be the most obvious person to write about Italy, this book is a celebration of an interest that was sparked on a visit to Venice more than 30 years ago.

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Since then, he's become familiar to the public through presenting various horticultural programmes, including Channel 4's Real Gardens and, of course, BBC2's Gardeners' World.

He returned to the latter series this month and will also be appearing on our screens in a BBC2 documentary to accompany the release of Great Gardens of Italy, called Monty Don's Italian Gardens.

In sections, his new book reads like a travelogue, which describes adventures in Naples, Rome, Viterbo, Tuscany, Veneto and the Lakes, mainly relying on public transport to get to his destination. It's obvious, throughout Great Gardens of Italy that, although Don doesn't claim to be the foremost authority on the subject, he is passionate about it.

"There have been plenty of good academic books written about Italian gardens, many of which I have used in my research," says Don.

"My choice and description of gardens is very subjective. If the combination of the text and Derry Moore's pictures provoke the reader to visit some of them and they violently disagree with my account then so much the better. And if the visitor has half as much fun doing so as I did then they are in for a richly rewarding time."

Although the book mainly features formal gardens and villas, the first green space to be mentioned, and, thus, the first stop on Don's travels, is "a smallholding on the slopes of a crater in the Fuorigrotta region".

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Here, in a western suburb of Naples, the author spends time with a friend, Pepino, and his elderly mother.

"I had lunch with them and the pasta with fresh peas, bacon and lemon was as good as anything I have ever eaten - which is not to say that the other six courses weren't heavenly too - and every scrap, including the white, ros and red wine, all from their terraces above the house," says Don.

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"The connection to the soil and the food it produces was umbilical and as personal as the ties of blood."

Throughout Great Gardens of Italy, there are accounts of people that he meets, and meals enjoyed. However, the latter is often used as an analogy for the contrast between the UK and the Mediterranean, when it comes to the way we think about gardens.

"My Italian friends do not just question the precise ingredients of each dish, but also its provenance and how exactly it was to be prepared and cooked," explains Don.

"More often than not these are dishes that they have eaten countless times before and frequently in that very restaurant and the boundaries between what they eat at home and in restaurants are blurred to the point of being indistinguishable.

"This is almost the exact opposite of the average British experience where the enjoyment of being 'treated' by a professional chef rather than a common cook is the ideal, and the more mystery in the process and the further removed from everyday eating, generally the better it is received. This - at once removed - is how the Italians best enjoy their gardens."

In fact, after viewing the gorgeous photographs in the book, it's clear that an Italian garden is almost the antithesis of a British one. Whereas, in the UK, a stately home might boast some formal structures such as parterres, hedges, topiary, or a maze, this is usually balanced by blousy, soft planting, with lots of colour and a focus on smaller details.

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The images in Don's book reveal that Italian gardens are often defined by grand form and symmetry, with a palette of dark, lush green. "Order is everywhere," he explains, when describing the gardens of Villa Gamberaia near Tuscany. "Nature is reined in by straight lines."

Great Gardens of Italy is also studded with photographs of classical Roman sculptures. For example, there's an intimidatingly burly stone dog balanced on the balustrade at the aforementioned villa, and, at Palazzo Reale near Naples, a waterfall punctuated by statues of Acteon turning into a stag and being set upon by hounds.

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Of course, we might see these things in a British garden, but not usually to such dramatic scale.

"British gardens are based upon an institutionalised nostalgia and reverence for the countryside," Don explains.

"Italian culture, however, has always been based around cities. Yet their gardens have long been a retreat from city life. To create a beautiful garden in the middle of a magnificent landscape was to tame nature and introduce culture - hence the presence of sculpture and buildings on a grand scale, as well as avenues, parterres, water features and entertainments."

That isn't to say that the gardens in the book are uniform. Throughout Great Gardens of Italy, there are surprises and twists. For example, in the comparatively bucolic Giardino di Ninfa near Rome, there is a photograph of orange trees, heavy with fruit and contrasting against exclamation marks of bamboo.

And then at Villa Landriana, 40 kilometres south of Rome, you'll find roses that are "underplanted beneath olives pruned to accentuate and celebrate the scrawny hieroglyphics of their branches".

These are both magical sights, but we think that the former might just be Don's favourite. He certainly waxes lyrical about it.

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"Returning to my room after midnight, I opened the windows overlooking the plane where Ninfa's tower could just be made out," he says.

"Dogs barked in relay and too many cars chased the roads. But from inside that noise and from within the darkness I could make out the sound of clear, liquid birdsong and for half an hour I stood and listened entranced as the nightingales of Ninfa sang and sang."

Great Gardens of Italy by Monty Don and Derry Moore, 25, Quadrille. Monty Don's Italian Gardens, BBC2, 9pm from Wednesday 13 April.

This article was first published in The Scotsman, 19 March, 2011