Needless to say as a gardener I always want to know what people grow and how they garden. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of horticulture in Venice. Yes, there are secluded courtyards but land space is at a premium. So how do you garden without a garden?
When I opened our shutters on the first morning my eyes were greeted with a standard evergreen shrub in a pot clinging to the opposite windowsill. I provided shade for the window and the essential living green that the owner desired. Initially I thought it was a type of ficus, but closer inspection suggested camellia; I found more on my travels. It must be challenge keeping them watered but the light is ideal: filtered by the buildings and partially shady.
Throughout the day the air is scented with a heavy sweet perfume, something between jasmine and frangipani. This is from the evergreen climber Trachelosperumum jasminoides which seems to grow everywhere. I saw it used loosely over walls, trained from balcony boxes and creating green walls in courtyards. This evergreen climber is particularly useful because it grows in sun or shade and with the warm Venetian summer it flowers profusely in shade.
As expected there were window boxes and balconies on fire with ‘balcon’ geraniums, those trailing pelargoniums that you see underlining the summer windows in many European countries. They make a wonderful display and their light, fiery habit goes so well with ancient walls and windows over the sultry waters of the canals.
There was creative use of colour. I loved the green, red and white patriotic display using white and red pelargoniums and plenty of green foliage which created a living Italian flag hanging beneath the windows on a street near to St Mark’s Square. One of the hotels on the waterfront had used a foam of white trailing pelargoniums around all its windows and the boxes on the terrace. The most effective part of the display was the street level use of these window boxes to underline picture windows; here they became one with the internal decor. I wish I’d taken a look from inside, but there was just too much to see.
I came across a wonderful piece of living wall art in the far eastern corner of Castello, close to the Arsenale. Alongside a wide canal a montage of blue pots planted with different coloured zinnias made a contemporary but artisan picture beside a doorway. Its simplicity was stunning and it would so easy to replicate and so much more effective than the traditional wall basket.
In the narrow streets throughout the city the lower windows often have a cage of railings that make the ideal container for random pots of plant material. I found several with an array of interesting succulents; plants that blend superbly with the surrounding masonry. Grey echeverias, sedums and aeoniums peeped through into the sunshine offering a low maintenance planting scheme that could easily survive without regular watering.
Talking about the creative use of colour the most sympathetic planting I came across used the lovely trumpet vine Campsis radicans. It could have been the more salmon flowering form Campsis x tagliabuana ‘Madame Galen’, but regardless of variety the blooms worked perfectly with the rusty salmon rendered wall that was their backdrop. This is a magnificent climbing plant when it performs; partially self clinging but idea in a situation like this where it can throw itself over the top of a wall. I the cooler climate of the UK it rarely blooms before late summer but in Venice it is earlier and far more prolific.
Talking of climbing plants I saw some effective uses of large leaved hederas, ivies. We at on the terrace of one trattoria where the cream and green Hedera algeriensis ‘Gloire de Marengo’ had been trained over a framework above the awning to provide light shade and a leafy bower over diners. The new growth was shining and verdant; the cream and green colouring the perfect partner for the colours and fabrics of the building. Ivies are a natural choice of evergreen climbers in this environment where the tall buildings cast shade and there is little soil to plant anything in.
It’s always interesting to see how some use their window boxes to create colourful impact, while others use them to satisfy their desire to grow their favourite plants. A balcony decked with windowboxes filled with lavender and marjoram mixed with a variety of other plants, including heliotrope and petunias indicated a gardener that longed to grow fragrant plants and aromatics. I imagine the view from the room through the curtain of dusky lavender transformed the piazza to a field from Provence.
Another large balcony displayed a floral extravaganza in pinks, purples and whites and included some more permanent subjects, such as wisteria alongside hydrangeas, petunias and geraniums. This was a display to rival any bedding scheme and clearly demonstrated the horticultural skills of the owner and their desire to state their love of plants and flowers.
You certainly don’t go to Venice to see plants and gardens; you go for architecture, art and the unique beauty of this floating wonder. However the plants and flowers which the residents clearly take such a pride in contribute colour, happiness and joy and a note of living vibrancy to the ancient fabric of the city. Whether all the visitors notice them in the same way or not Venice would not be the same without them.