It is mid-morning in a beautiful Mediterranean garden. On a soft February morning, gardeners are sweeping the paths, a faint veil of fine dust hanging in slanting Spring sunshine. Lawns grace swathes of this delightful garden, a gazebo pops cheekily out of the ordered design; a bougainvillea parts to reveal huge golden stones dug from Malta’s quarries over 75 years ago: A vision of old Malta.
We meet with The Phoenicia’s garden manager Mark Baldacchino, who explains that only 3 years ago this same garden was an overgrown shambles and the work of trimming the 7.5 acres started in earnest section-by-section. First on the high-visibility areas, main pathways, main thoroughfares, then the heavily used areas, such as the Kitchen Garden. The brief for the Kitchen Garden came directly from the Chefs, who wanted Barbecue produce, for salads and grilled vegetables. Mark’s role is to tell the Chefs what is in season and then he produces it 100% organic; aubergines, broccoli, onions, capsicum, tomatoes, red cabbages, the list is a long one since the Kitchen Garden produces a lot of crop.
But the real brief for the labour of love that is Valletta’s largest private garden came from The Phoenicia’s General Manager Charles Azzopardi, who simply said, “It must look like a million bucks all year round!” The renovations and garden infrastructure have to support severe changes in temperature. Summer sun can hit 40 degrees while Malta’s chilly Winter months it can plummet to 8 or 9 degrees. Winter is a good time to lay down the law, pruning dormant plants; Spring the focus is on flowers. Summer it’s all about watering. The heat of Summer is unforgiving, anything in pots has to be kept moist and while there is drip-irrigation, to keep the cycle-of-life in order. Mark says, “Water is the foundation for any garden”.
Mark and his team are vigilant throughout the Summer, checking and double-checking that everything is okay with the fragile trees, plants and shrubs. Mark explains that he and his team water mostly at night to maximise absorption, water stays on the plants longer at night and give the roots time to drink-in the life-giving elixir.
Mark explains that the programme of works for the huge garden is year round. Being a vintage garden it is totally unique and one of the “prime jewels in our country’s portfolio” ventures Mark. He says that the lawns are the hardest part of the challenge. He explains that trying to grow something that doesn’t happen in Malta, hard-wearing turf, continues to challenge him and his team.
“It’s 7.5 acres of pain” says Mark with a smile in his eye. Fortunately there’s quite a lot of topsoil above the fortifications on which the hotel rests, so palm trees are deep-rooted, while a lot of hard-pruning on the Grand Ballroom side has created a balance between greenery and architecture which compliment each other. Strategically positioned bougainvillea keeps the whole garden looking good and connected from zone-to-zone by key plants.
Trees more than 50 years old are subject to legal protection, and there’s at least 40 protected trees on-site, more than most villages. Cacti are thriving on the rockery, it’s the perfect habitat for them. The bark on the ground helps keep the weeds down and keeps the moisture inside the plants since the unforgiving sun does not reach the soil.
There’s at least 30 plant varieties in this pathway section alone. Agave attenuate rear their foxes tails, the Kitchen Garden is primed for planting, benches, seclusion, bouganvillea, beautiful spots. Spring begins in March, it’s all about flowering. Springtime plants to look out for include the bouganvillea, mexican petunias, oleander, red and pink ones rich with striking tone, the lantana with its bright colours. The immaculate garden is a reflection of the way the property is managed. Lots of texture and touches of different colour shades. Batches of rosemary grow along the footpath which the chefs can use for roasts. The flowering almond with its white flowers is a lovely backdrop.
Mark says the management around the garden is invisible to everyone. As enlightened hoteliers The Phoenicia’s management understand well the emotional investment for the guest. These nice surroundings come back in the wellbeing and emotional journey of every visitor. Reflect. Relax. Seclusion on the edge of the capital city, a haven and sanctuary of peace. Priceless. You don’t find gardens like this anymore muses Mark. We’re gardening on history here.
It’s one Spring morning, but a lifetime of work to keep this beautiful Mediterranean garden in tip-top shape. Mark and his team relish the comments from clients and take deep satisfaction from carving out a visitor experience that adds to the relaxation of every guest at this Leading Hotel of the World.
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