Here in South Australia with its baking summers, container gardening can be challenging. Pots usually require daily watering, especially in exposed positions such as northern windowsills or balconies. Often, they look a bit exhausted, as if they are only just hanging in there… but not so the amazing window boxes and container gardens I saw in Northern Italy’s Dolomites (see my Wildflowers of the Dolomites Part 1 and Part 2) last year. They all looked well-fed, well-watered and bursting with vitality.
First, I was struck by the ubiquitous nature of them – like the 1970s Aussie suburban lawn, every building, even the tiniest, boasted at least one.
As for larger buildings, forget trendy green walls: entire hotels were garlanded with hundreds of metres of colour, like this hotel in the lakeside village of Alleghe (above right), or this one with petunias (in Cortina, I think).
Yes, the effect is a little chocolate-box kitsch when reproduced in photos, but it’s stunning in real life when you experience the sheer scale of the edifice. And when I realised the effect was created using hundreds of individual window boxes each under a metre long, I was even more impressed!
Some gardeners made an effort to complement colours and tones (above and left), but even precincts with an apparently haphazard mishmash of colours looked surprisingly good, like the two examples below:
Of course, the mild summer climate there means container plants – even quite small ones – have a much easier time, and gardening is restricted to the warmer months so there’s a concentration of activity in the growing season. But local nurseries must be flat out in late winter and spring, preparing the boxes that adorn the streetscapes – median strips, sidewalks and even bridges were edged with colour.
As far as I could tell, none of the streetscape containers had irrigation lines to them, relying on rainfall and/or hand-watering. Wow, never in Adelaide!
Unlike the wildflowers I saw in the Dolomites, all of the container plants are equally common here in Oz: geraniums, petunias, marguerites, pelargoniums, salvias, lobelias, alyssum, bacopa, marigolds, pansies, even solanum, mandevilla and sun impatiens.
However, here in Australia we tend to see less variety in each container, though more multi-planted baskets and bowls are becoming available in our nurseries.
But the plants all looked so darn healthy! Surely not every gardener in Northern Italy is a brilliant, dedicated plantsman, and people there also forget to water, fertilise and trim?
Of course, as none of the aforementioned plants can tolerate snowy winters, all of them are cultivated as annuals, and I’m sure this is one reason all the container plants looked so good: fresh from the nursery, no one has had a chance to kill them yet! The mild climate would help, too.
Another clue was in front of the flower shops.
Just look at the size of the plants in those pots and baskets, in the first week of July! They are well and truly mature – I guess they have to be, because otherwise customers buying plants in spring would not have plants in their prime until late autumn… just as the snow arrives!
So kudos to the nurseries supplying these plants. In Cortina, we walked into town every day past a nursery cum florist, Cesarino Fiorista.
Young plants were growing on in a sheltered greenhouse on the banks of the river but, beside the road, I caught tantalising glimpses of massed colour in a glasshouse.
Might I be allowed inside to take some pictures, I asked? Yes indeed.
Wow! Other than two poorly-looking specimens in the foreground and the collection of old pots and miscellany under the benches, the plants looked wonderfully healthy and tidy. Pipes under the benches indicated heating, and I believe watering was also from below instead of overhead, to minimise fungal diseases in the humid environment.
Along the outer wall of the glasshouse, more seedlings grew under hinged lids that were lowered each evening.
The growing medium appeared to be composted manure mixed with some bedding straw, and a little perlite added.
I would have thought this mix was too soggy for plants like geraniums and petunias, but I was wrong. It certainly explains the vigour of the plants I saw – they’d scarcely need any extra food for the rest of the season – and the water-holding capacity of such a mix explains the lack of irrigation to the container gardens I saw on the streets. I reckon this medium would work here in Adelaide really well in summer too, but for perennials would probably be too soggy in our cold, wet winter.
Once gardeners got their plants from the nursery, they adapted, as do gardeners everywhere. I saw many window boxes on sloping sites, chocked or constructed to hold them level. And that geranium tower is not a single plant, but a cleverly designed stack of pots.
Although potted culinary herbs were not as ubiquitous as in other parts of Italy, many gardeners still ensured they had their little pot of sage, rosemary or chives alongside their potted colour.
Containers varied enormously. In Alleghe, surrounded by conifer forest, it was wooden planter boxes that featured, and very effective they were too.
Logs made cheap, simple plant stands or, hollowed out, excellent containers.
But my favourite window boxes and containers were the ones that showed the quirkiness, taste and/or inventiveness of their creators. Sometimes, it was a simple but stunning colour combination.
Others used clever ways to add interested to fences and walls, such as this fuchsia spilling through a keyhole.
I saw beautifully adapted containers, and strange Italian-ikebana hybrids.
Some non-gardeners snuck in plants like Polyanthus forsythiflora, but then I’d have to laugh again at something only a dedicated, quirky gardener could come up with and, hooray, my faith in the universal nature of our shared pastime was exuberantly restored.