Well, to be honest they were a bit away. There’s an increasing number of them in the Sibilline National Park, about a twenty minute drive beyond a range or two of the blue hills that we saw every morning at breakfast on the terrace. They are expanding their range, and though the dogs in our valley occasionally went into paroxysms of barking during the night, we hardly considered wolves as we scrambled through sometimes half-ruinous, sometimes glitzily restored, medieval hill villages, wondering what on earth it would be like living in one, or, more germane, to gardening in one. In any case, we were too excited to find lovely white flowered thymes, wild eryngiums, carlinas, drifts of cyclamen and sternbergias, making us determined to return in the spring.
The village in which we did live for the week had tiny scraps of ground amongst the lanes and alleys with no apparent connection to any particular property. It was, anyway, difficult enough to connect any ancient arch or doorway to any particular windows, such was the tangle of building and rebuilding over the last thousand years or more.
Some of the scraps of land were abandoned, or used as log stores, or dog runs, or even somewhere for a goat and some chickens. Some had a gnarled pomegranate or quince tree above the scrubby grass, wild fennel, and intensely aromatic shrubby thymes and marjorams. But some, often hedges with lavender or some of the innumerable variants of rosemary, were rather richer.
One had a collection of succulent echeverias that even there can’t surely have been hardy. Another, under a vine canopy, had drifts of four-o-clock (or belle-de-nuit) with cerise flowers splashed with yellow and white – Mirabilis jalapa. We found a pure white one at a half ruined fortified village (Capello Alto) on its hilltop near Spoleto and bagged some seed – beside a seriously handsome medieval ruin not yet restored . The ones I tested had a stronger perfume than I remember from ones I’ve grown under glass in the North, though I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise. Another garden had daturas, the pale violet upright flowered D. meteloides, with its sensational perfume and dangerous poisons, and the double white and pendant Brugmansia suaveolens, again gorgeously perfumed and equally dangerous.
But most folk in the hill villages gardened in pots. Pots on balconies and windowsill, pots on steps, occasional corners, in rows on patios, propped dangerously on wall heads.
They contained endless amounts of a red ivy leafed geranium familiar from every tourist brochure, lots of red and purple petunias, even (the envy almost slew us) tall gangly zinnias, which just never do in any of our gardens. It’s terrible not to have access to those marvellous tawny reds and pinks, though some coreopsis can run them close in colour but not in sheer bravura of flower form and size.Oh, and verbenas, including ones very similar to the one we once grew as ‘Sissinghurst’, a scarlet one that we knew as ‘Huntsman’, but that was about it. When we thought of all the (for us) half-hardy beauties that would ‘do’ here, but that no-one seemed to use and, horrors, we even found one gorgeous lane in a gorgeous village entirely kitted out with plastic plants in plastic pots.
So, to garden fantasists like Alex and I, it was all a bit disappointing. When we go next, as we must, we must also research proper plant nurseries to see what really is available. Perhaps, though, that might be counter-productive, in that we get so overwhelmed by the possibilities, that we simply have to buy a garden to go with them…
However, we did see one charming idea. The whole area is only a few hours’ drive from Rome, so lots of the higgledypiggledy houses in the hill villages and small towns are weekend or holiday homes – rather like the Scottish village in which I write this. OK, weekends only, yet in those sweltering summers, who waters the pots and window boxes? Full time residents there, as well as here, can be few are far between. so what is the answer? Well, in Italy, the plants’ fond owners put out a couple of plastic soft drinks bottles, but filled with water… Thus, all of those endless geraniums and verbenas, petunias, all that colour and some of that pefume depend, like Blanche in A Streetcar named Desire, on the kindness of strangers.