Sometimes I just need to take a quick look at a garden to understand the personality of its owner. I don’t think it’s because I am particularly intuitive; it’s more that for some gardens the aim of the design is so clear and easy to interpret. This is what happened when I visited the garden of Maurizio Usai.
Maurizio is a landscape designer who I admire greatly, partly because he was born in Sardinia like me, but also because he took the brave decision to live and work in Sardinia where the landscape industry is quite modest. Despite this he has designed many beautiful gardens at home, across Italy and abroad.
Last May I was in Sardinia and I decided that it was the right time to view one of Maurizio’s gardens at Solana. The road trip to Solana, a small town on the south east coast, is incredibly charming; the road flows sinuously between the sea and the Mediterranean bush. At the time of year I travelled the road is flanked by an explosion of vivid red spots of Euphorbia amongst the lush green of Pistacia and Myrtus and the muted grey Helichrysum. The scent is distinctive, sea salt blended with liquorice from the Helichrysum, creating a ‘heady’ atmosphere that is unforgettable.
Maurizio warmly welcomed me at the entrance to his garden and I immediately liked him. We started talking about everything: about him, me, gardens, my choices and his ones. In the meantime I was thinking that we couldn’t have had that conversation in a better place: a magnificent profusion of plants and flowers.
He told me that the garden was born initially to collect and trial over a thousand plant species, many of which were exotic. He wanted to assess the adaptability of some of these plants to the Mediterranean climate, which is very dry and hot, especially in summer. I must confess that at times my attention drifted to the amazing garden that we were walking through and some of his words were lost on me. I was fascinated by the vast array of plants: English roses, towering Echium simplex (his signature), Iris, Farfugium, Phormium and Centranthus. It’s a triumph of different shapes and textures and extremely complex, and yet it looks quite simple and natural.
The garden is divided into seven rooms: one for the shady plants, another for warm-coloured flowering plants, a rose garden, a Mediterranean garden, a small garden with Helleborus, Iris and Aquilegia, and the main entrance garden. Each room is characterized by a colour scheme. For example in the main entrance Maurizio has chosen a gradation going from pink to purple.
The way he has laid out the garden entices you to discover every single part of it: sometimes it’s created by a view that reveals a marvellous collection of plants, or perhaps it’s a shady pathway that irresistibly attracts you, or maybe it’s a scent that guides you through mysterious masses of plants. The English inspiration is very apparent and you can easily see it in the use of mixed borders and the colour palette. Maurizio has reinterpreted the English plant palette to sympathize with the Mediterranean climate with its striking, vivid light. Such adaption provides a useful lesson that has good application here in Australia as we look to use exotic plant species in our gardens.
The dialog with the landscape is interesting: Maurizio named the garden ‘Pedra Arrubia‘ (red stone), from the local stone widely used to build walls and pathways. Crushed red rock has been used to form paths through a garden that is framed by evergreen hedges that abate from time to time to allow views to the amazing borrowed landscape beyond.
At the end of my visit, while I was saying thank you to Maurizio, I realized that his garden is exactly like him: ambitious, stubborn, complex and happy.