Millennia in the Making

May 21, 2018


As a public garden, we’re always challenging ourselves to create and present inspiring, compelling and beautiful horticultural displays. In tandem with this, we also want to tell a story because ultimately, as a living museum, our plants and garden spaces are conduits to discover deeper meaning and uncover an often hidden history behind plants and why we grow them. While gardens are constantly changing, the origins of how we garden and the design ideals we use, are taken for granted today, but have deep roots in our history. This is the story of how a garden in Italy inspired a garden in California, that in turn inspired our garden here in Madison.

We begin our story in 79 AD with the eruption of the volcano, Vesuvius. While Pompeii gets most of the attention, it also buried the town of Herculaneum, and with it, the Villa dei Papiri.

Fast forward to 1970 and the construction of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades, California. Now known as the Getty Villa, the museum complex is a replication of the Villa dei Papiri. Now home to art, artifacts and architectural references from the original Villa dei Papiri, the Getty Villa also showcases exceptional Italianate gardens and plant collections.

Getty Villa

I had the pleasure of discovering this museum and its fabulous gardens on a trip to Southern California with members of the Friends of Allen Centennial Garden in early March of this year. While the entire museum complex is rich in stories, I was—of course—most enamored by the long, formal edible garden.

Purple Buds

With a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean at its terminus, the garden featured a robust and fragrant assortment of herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and vines. This garden exemplifies the formality and elegant simplicity of an Italian garden, meaning it doesn’t sacrifice aesthetic form for its productive function. Large blocks of plantings allow for easier maintenance and are visually impactful while also speaking to the garden’s embedded agricultural roots.

Getty Villa

I was deeply inspired by this garden and was counting down the days before our own Italian Garden at the Allen Centennial Garden would be warm enough to get digging!

When you visit the Italian Garden this year, while not of the same scale as the Getty Villa or Villa de Papiri, we’re bringing a similar Mediterranean flavor to our space. Geometric lines and large plantings of culinary, medicinal and fragrant herbs will engage all your senses—especially on warm days. Special trees like olive, orange and fig will adorn the space and if we’re lucky, produce crops!. Where Junipers once stood, the new, productive and beautiful plum trees now anchor and define the edges of the Garden. The formal fountain at the center of the garden will be planted with an assortment of succulents, creating a water-wise masterpiece.

As the season progresses this space will become more rich, robust and alive engaging all your senses as you’re transported to Italy and beyond. Making the experience all the more meaningful, know you’re standing in a garden with stories that span not just decades or centuries, but millennia.


by Ben Futa | Executive Director