The Malta Independent 24 October 2020, Saturday

Marie Benoit's Diary: A landscape gardener in the time of Covid-19

Marie Benoît Tuesday, 22 September 2020, 16:24 Last update: about 1 month ago

Today's Diarest is FERNANDO MIFSUD, landscape gardener and head gardener and curator of Villa Frère in Pietà. who not only makes friends easily but likes making himself useful to fellow human beings.  But gardening aside he also takes a great interest in restoration and  of historic buildings and gardens.

A man of many parts he enjoys reading, painting, travelling, cooking, eating and listening to classical music and seems to find time for all his favourite things. Above all he loves nature and spends must of his time outdoors, in gardens and going for long walks in the countryside and by the sea.


Animals are another love.  He grew up in a house with a large garden and his father always made it a point to have pets around the house. Fernando has kept up the tradition and has a few pets of his own. Although looking after them is time consuming they are his pride and joy. But above all he loves life and lives it. Here he takes a moment to reflect on the Covid-19 lockdown.

"Covid days meant the beginning of a difficult period for me. My life revolves around people all the time. The arrival of Covid was a huge blow to my personal, social and family life. One of the first things to be affected was my work. With the semi lockdown and fear of infection many of my clients asked me to stop going for my weekly visits and several of the projects I was involved in were halted. This immediately put me in a state of panic as it meant that my bread and butter was in jeopardy.   A thousand thoughts ran through my mind and there were times I felt overwhelmed with what was happening around me. Close friends and family refused to meet and we only communicated via social media which was frustrating at times. Many of my onsite visits were replaced by online ones which became a nightmare when trying to communicate. The feeling of loneliness started creeping in. Every day that went by I would say to myself, I will not let this virus take over and alter my state of mind, and life. I must fight back. I must find ways to adapt to a new lifestyle and be positive, staying Covid negative.

Living in a big house with a large garden was a great plus for me. Having my parents around gave me support, encouragement and a sense of comfort. They too were fighting their own battle, finding it hard to adapt to the new reality. Being in their later years it was also hard for them to change their routine. To keep myself occupied I would go for daily walks in remote areas of the Maltese countryside. I also did a lot of research, reading and sketching. Being out in nature gave me a sense of calm and freedom away from all the control and fear that the pandemic brought along with it.

Gardening is my passion and a big part of my life. I am truly blessed to be spoilt for choice when it comes to gardens. There are two special gardens I must mention in particular which played an important role in keeping me focused and balanced during the difficult times of Covid. First there is  Rivendale my family country garden in Gharghur. This is where I keep my pets and a collection of different indigenous plants and trees. The other garden is the historic estate of Villa Frère in Pietà, or what remains of it. Proudly I say that I am the head gardener and curator of this enchanting monument. These gardens are under the custody of the NGO Friends of Villa Frère and Heritage Malta after being left in a state of abandonment for many years.

With great dedication we, a group of volunteers, have been restoring what is left of the grand estate of the Rt Hon. John Hookham Frère who was an English gentleman who moved to Malta because of the failing health of his wife and settled in Pietà where he built Villa Frère and its grand gardens.  Friends of Villa Frère was set up in 2013 by my colleague, restoration architect Edward Said and a group of volunteers. They saved Villa Frère and what remained of its grand gardens from the greed of development. After a few years of restoration this historic national gem can be enjoyed by the general public and hopefully by generations to come.

We are honoured to say that the Maltese as a written language was possibly masterminded at Villa Frère thanks to Mikiel Anton Vassalli who was a dear friend and frequent guest of John Hookham Frère.

Covid brought great challenges to this beautiful restoration project. The partial lockdown meant we could not open to the public resulting in zero income. We had to also cancel all our fundraising activities. Our financing usually solely depends on the generosity of the public and small cultural events we organize throughout the year. Sadly this made us take drastic decisions and had to bring to a halt a number of major restoration works. Covid restrictions also meant that many of our volunteers could not continue to come to help out. We did not give up however! The gardens of Villa Frère became the refuge not only for me but also for a core of helpers still determined to soldier on despite the risks and challenges. Together we focused on smaller projects due to the lack of funds and man power. Every weekend we would all look forward for our workout at the gardens. We felt safe behind the high walls of the secret gardens away from it all. As head gardener I would visit the gardens daily spending hours on end working in the garden tidying up, watering, potting, sowing and pruning still keeping the gardens prim and proper, although there are few eyes to admire the work for the time being.  One of the main tasks was preparing the gardens for the harsh summer months ahead making sure our cisterns and wells had enough water to last the scorching climate.

The days passed quickly keeping myself busy with the upkeep of three large gardens and a number of pets. I started to enjoy the deserted roads getting to places in a heartbeat when before it would take an hour or more for a short distance trip. As the days got hotter I started swimming daily spending time near the sea always searching for a different beach. I look at Covid as a period in my life that even though it was challenging gave me time to focus and to enjoy what I love to do most."

Editorial Note: If you wish to contribute your own Covid diary please email [email protected]



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