22 January 2014

0122C 0122B 0122D

It’s that catalogue time of year. Or rather, it’s that time of year when I desperately try to keep myself away from catalogues, for fear of (1) sinking all my wordly wealth in seeds and/or (2) finding myself with huge piles of seeds that I will never ever find time or energy to plant and cajole into flourishing life.

I have no problem with vegetable catalogues (for which I mostly use the Organic Gardening Catalogue,): in this case I manage to be fairly rigid about getting just what I need. Other cases are more complicated.

I admit, I have this year succumbed to a few temptations on the Thompson & Morgan site  – some cosmos, a little gaura, some morning glory to run up my trees and some sweet peas to run anywhere I can coax them to go (my mother’s favourite flowers and an all-pervading perfume of my youth, I have so little success with them, it’s amazing that I haven’t given up in despair). Oh dear, now I peruse this bundle, I see that I have bitten off far too much. There seem to be hollyhocks here too: did I ask for those? And dianthus, and achillea and, hmmm, where did these asters come from? Ah yes, I remember thinking that this alyssum would make a lovely carpet beneath my roses, and that I couldn’t understand why I never grow monarda, a joyous, abundant, life-enhancing plant.

You see, that’s the problem with seed catalogues: it’s the ‘just one more’ syndrome. Taken one by one, they seem (and cost) so little. Bulbs, wonderful as they are, are so much easier to fend off. I set up a huge order on the site of Rose Cottage Plants but trashed it after an hour or so of voluptuous imaginings: each bulb was so expensive, that the final total (I did plan to buy rather a lot) was outrageous and easy to discard without too much regret.

But seeds – that’s quite different. From a tiny pack comes a garden-bed-full of blooms. In theory. What often emerges in my case is absolutely nothing in neglected trays in my messy so-called greenhouse. I have eyes far bigger than my seed-stomach.

Tomorrow I have been summoned for lunch with a client-friend. She has trawled through some wonderful catalogue – printed in her case – and has, she tells me, circled upwards of 200 plants that she just has to have. My job, she says, is to warn her that almost none of them have a snowball’s hope in hell of growing in our climes – that way she can bravely cross them off her list without falling prey to depression. Will I be stronger-willed than she has been?


0122GWe have been in Venice again, for a whole week this time. We rented an apartment right behind the St Mark’s clock tower – a spot that in high season would be utterly horrible, with hordes of grockles blocking your exit from your tiny calle. In dark, dank, foggy, magical January, however, Venice belongs to the Venetians and no one blocks anyone.

I can’t remember the last time I entered St Mark’s basilica previous to this visit. Even if you book your entry slot at times (ie most of the year) when queues are so long that the idea of waiting in line takes away any desire to see these acres of heart-stopping mosaics, you know that once inside you’re going to be shoulder-to-shoulder with the gawping, snapping mass. This is not the way to see such a marvel.


Palladio’s staircase at the Scuola della Carità

But last week, I traipsed over deep puddles on the high-water walkways and strode straight in, to find that there was a thin sprinking of other visitors. This was St Mark’s as it should be seen.

Much (by which I mean restaurants and bars and shops) is shut at this time of year, but in and around what remains open there’s an intense local life going on. It’s going on at other times too of course: it’s just that you can’t see it, because it’s obscured by visitors. Campo Santa Margherita is always a lively hub, for example, frequented of an evening by students and local oddballs. But I don’t think I’d realised quite how much fun is being had in the bacari and restaurants in the nexus around crosera San Pantalon. I didn’t realise, either, how very dispensible the concentration (ex-concentration?) of places around the Rialto markets was. Perhaps it’s the victim of its own success, that area. Maybe most of the components of the spritz-drinking horde are out-of-towners these days. Last week, with almost everything there closed, the area was rattling and sad, and clearly not catering to the populace.


From the campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore

On the occasions when L has tried to persuade me that we should be living in Venice, I have mostly ignored him; but when I felt he was seriously expecting an answer, my response has always been the same: it’s just too urban, too un-green for someone like me who needs verdure. In fact, it isn’t un-green, as any aerial photo reveals. It’s full of hidden gardens and overgrown courtyards. But they’re hidden, that’s the trouble. It’s a city that keeps its greenery behind high walls, and I resent that. I have to admit that there are times of year that even the highest of high walls can’t contain that greenery, and in an explosion of generosity it bursts into view, over and around and through, and it sends delightful perfumes along the calli. But January isn’t one of those times, and this visit confirmed to me that Venice, much as I adore every stone of it, is not a city where I would make my home. Even if I had a garden there of my own, I would come to resent the secrecy of the city’s green, including my own.


Randoll Coate’s Borges maze on San Giorgio

It comes to something when relief fills the green part of your soul when you zip up to the top of the campanile at San Giorgio Maggiore on a misty damp day and catch a glimpse of Randoll Coate’s rigid Borges maze in the Fondazione Cini below: impressive, but not usually something that would sooth my longing for leaves.

While in Venice we met Jenny Condie, whose book Gardens of Venice and the Veneto  came out last year. Funnily enough, she turned out to be the aunt of one of C’s dearest school friends, but that’s immaterial. I mentioned my Venice reservations to her; I don’t recall getting much more than a wry smile. But she then started talking pointedly about the garden of her house in Liguria…


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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