Bella lemons

The new citrus season has started and lemons are easy to find in the shops again. A great relief. My potted lemons are still green and hard and a few months off harvest, but thoughts of lemons reminded me of the citrus grown on the sunny south-facing wall of one of the terraces at Isola Bella on Lake Magiore in Italy. Oranges, lemons and grapefruit of myriad varieties were underplanted with gorgeous citrus-coloured poppies.


Photo: Robin Powell

Isola Bella is best known for being one of Italy’s most flamboyant gardens. UK garden writer and broadcaster Monty Don called it a tispy drag queen of a garden. I think it’s much more refined and fun than that, but  you can see what he means. The entrance is grand, audacious and fabulously mad. The original 1632 concept dreamed up by Carlo Borromeo and his architect Angelo Crivelli, was to create a 16th century galleon afloat on the lake.  The green lawn at the entrance is the main deck. Above it, the ‘poop’ deck looks down on the terraces of the garden and across the water to the alps in one direction and pretty peach and terracotta villages on the shore of the lake in the other.  Between the main deck and the poop rises the pyramidal wall of the water theatre. This is a dizzying complex of pillars and arches in which Neptune brandishes a thunderbolt and nymphs hide coyly behind ferns.


Photo: Robin Powell

I loved it. Who could resist the wonderful over-the-top romanticism of the design concept – a galleon of love sailing the seas of Lake Maggiore with a rampant cupid atop a charging unicorn as the ship’s captain! (And yes, that is a peacock standing in the shadows). But I was also bowled over by the horticulture.

As well as the wall of citrus, there were immaculately pruned screens of red ‘Blaze’ and pink ‘Claire Matin’ roses, so thickly blooming that they appeared from the shore as ribbons wrapping the giant wedding cake of the garden.


Photo: Robin Powell

One of the thrills of seeing these great gardens is taking notes about the things you’d love to do at home.  Of course, mostly it’s just dreaming- I don’t have the walls – or the workforce(!) for all that espalier –  but I am about to plant a couple of punnets of citrus-coloured poppies to make merry with my lemons.

Just as good though, is the way a great experience like a day at Isola Bella enriches the everyday back home.  I see lemons in the shops again and am thrown back to Isola Bella on a glittering day when the roses were like ribbons. Magic!


Photo: Robin Powell

Sandra is leading the tour to Italy this year. If you’d like to join her, check out the itinerary here.


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