Thursday, September 29, 2011

A fit of gardening

I’ve discovered this thing called “hardiness zones”. This part of Italy is close to the top, Zone 9, and nearly anything can be grown here and will do so more or less year round. Frosts are infrequent and rainfall is pretty good in the winter, though summer sun can be fierce.

Last year, however, we actually had snow (!) and my hibiscus had a dreadful temper tantrum over it, dropping most of its leaves and threatening to just hold its breath until it died. I’m afraid I am a terrible softie, because instead of speaking sternly to it, I took it inside, cut off the dead bits, patted its leaves and told it that it’s a good plant and not to die.

In response, it has grown back all its leaves and has been flowering gorgeously all summer. I’ve learned to defeat the aphids that were bothering it by raising the PH level of the soil. I do this by simply dumping the left over tea leaves onto the soil. Haven’t had any aphids since I started doing this.

I’m running out of room on the shelf that runs around the balcony so it’s time to start thinking of making more use of the rest of the space. First I think I’m going to have to get some of those hook things that let you hang the long planters off the railing.

But more interestingly, I thought I would go up. There is a patch of beautiful

(this isn't the one on the train verge; I got it from the internet)

purply-blue Convolvulus sabatius growing on the verge of the train tracks and I thought I would go out with my trowel and a bucket and dig some up. I plan to get some long bamboo sticks and some twine and make a trellis and put the morning glory in a planter hanging on the railing and train it up to give some shade to the window on the east wall of the balcony, the window that is part of the bay window in the sitting room.

From the point of view of the sitting room, it is a west-facing window and it gets a lot of really ferocious sun in the afternoons that really heats up the room. There is no way to hang curtains directly over the window since it has been built with metal casements and no space on the wall to sink a screw for a bracket so I’ve come up with the brilliant idea of shading it with flowers from the outside. Ain’t I clever?

I have also found out that it is possible to grow wisteria in containers,

(which is good, since as you can see from this pic I took near the S. Marinella train station last April, it really does need containing.)

so I thought I would do one growing up the other side of the balcony. I expect that if I want it to flower, it will have to be in quite a deep pot to give it enough room for a good solid root system, so this one will have to go on the floor. I think I am going to donate my barbeque grill to friends, since the balcony is really too small to do barbequing. This will free up a big section of space for plants.

What I really want, and have admired for years that grows very well in this climate, is

Brugmansia, Angel’s Trumpet. I’ve seen all sorts of varieties around here and I’m sure I could find one to fit. The first time I saw them was many years ago in the Bloedel Conservatory in Queen Elizabeth Park in Vancouver and I’ve been fascinated by them ever since. I never thought I would live in a place with a climate suitable to them, but here they are and they are truly amazing. They really look almost unearthly.

Of course, no balcony garden could be considered complete without a little pot of pansies.

I also have to get me some bright red geraniums, since I think it is mandatory for Italian balconies.

And I’ve saved the poppy seed heads that I had the first summer I was in the flat. I have sprinkled them over the soil in the pansy pot in what I hope is a good imitation of what happens in nature. The poppies in April and May are a main source of visual joy here, spreading rosily throughout the hay fields and all along the railroad tracks and on any bit of waste ground. I’ve found out that they do not last if you cut them, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Last summer, I was walking home from the train station and I saw growing by the side of the tracks this most amazing looking plant.

I suppose here they are considered weeds, since I have never seen one in a garden store. But as soon as I spotted it, I knew it was an acanthus, and I had to have one.

I thought it would be fun to come back with a trowel and a bucket and grab it, but I never got round to it. I have regretted this, since the acanthus is so important to the Greco-Roman artistic inheritance, and it would be so cool to have one live, and maybe even paint it. As soon as you see one, you realise instantly that the Corinthian columns really do look just like that. They are also very handsome plants, “weeds” or not. And they attract bumblebees, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The very next time I see one growing wild in an inconspicuous place, I will not hesitate. I’m told they grow all over Rome and are especially abundant on the Palatine,
but I’m sure that the Roman park authorities would look askance at me appearing at the centre of ancient Roman world armed with a bucket and spade, even if they are weeds.

And of course, I have to have nasturtiums, which can be seeded in with all the other stuff to create a nice dense display and make the whole place look saturated with flowers.

Apart from these grandiose plans, everything on the balcony is doing quite well. They all seem to like the south-facing location and I’ve found that with containers, watering is not much of a problem.

I had an attack of white mealy bugs at the end of the season last year, and they carried off one or two things.

The thyme that I thought had succumbed to the nasty little beasts has sprung back wonderfully. I was just cutting back all the dead stuff in preparation for using the pot for something else when I saw little sprouts of green. I cut away everything else and carefully watered the green stuff, and voy-lah! Lovely lemon thyme again.

The mint has been very robust. I cut it back all the way to the nub when it starts showing signs of flowering; the dried leaves keep their fragrance very nicely and it goes especially well in iced tea. As soon as it is cut, it springs back even more mightily than before. Every morning, I go out onto the balcony to inspect the plants, and I always brush my hands over the mint. It reminds me powerfully (as scents do) of my grandma’s garden.

Grandpa always said he regretted having planted their fuzzy-leaved mint on the south slope of the property, since over the 30 years they lived there, the stuff spread over everything and with the periwinkle and king cup, was nearly impossible to control. But I was always happy to be sent out by Grandma to pick some to put in with the new potatoes for dinner. The smell of fresh mint leaves always makes me feel safe, secure and happy. Loved.

The local garden shop had a few nice things on sale, and I bought this lovely thing that I’d never heard of before,

a Duranta. So many of the Zone 9 plants are unfamiliar it is like learning gardening all over again. Its leaves come in long pointed fronds that drape very elegantly over the edge of the pot, and its orchid-like flowers have a really lovely scent.

A friend gave me this last week and I have deposited it on the balcony, but I have no idea what it is. Anyone? It needs a great deal of water and wilts pathetically if I don't douse it every day.

I noticed last week that this little lump of gingerroot was growing green spikes, and instead of tossing it out, I decided to plant it in a pot and see what happens. I’ve no idea what ginger looks like when it is a plant and can’t wait to find out.

I think this means I am really “settling”. I do hope Luca is interested in renewing the lease for a four-year run, since I’m certainly in no mood to move and can’t afford to buy a place. There’s an Italian proverb: “If you would be happy for a week take a wife; If you would be happy for a month kill a pig; But if you would be happy all your life plant a garden.”

It’s just too bad that there isn’t enough room to keep chickens and ducks. I would so love to keep ducks. (So would Winnie!)



Kay said...

The pink hibiscus is gorgeous, but then I kept looking and the entire post is full of beauty. I have not a green thumb myself so I admire those who can take seeds and sprouts and turn them into blossoms and shrubs. We loved the flowers that were all over England. I think Italy must be the same from the pictures I've seen.

some guy on the street said...

Hilary Jane Margaret White, the Human Hibiscus.

I cheated and looked up ginger in the wikipedia. I think you're in for a treat!

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

"Human Hibiscus".
What a nice compliment. Thank you.

df said...

Yay! Ducks! I love ducks.
Good pics Miss White.