On Having a Garden in Venice


Oh the envy, the sheer insensate lust.  A Venetian loggia filled with white camellias to match the white Gothic marble.  A garden wall, glimpsed from the vaporetto, draped with wisteria and Clematis armandii.   A courtyard wellhead surrounded with pots of double purple stocks, parma violets…  And roses…  Drifts of some aristocratic rose, say Seagull or The Garland  or Rosa banksii tumbling from some terrace into the jade green water, where a deep blue skiff is moored.

Of course, it’s often like not like that.  The garden on the other side of the Grand Canal does have some patchy grass, an arbour with some long dead climber’s bones still attached.  Round the corner, a garden behind some fabulous ironwork is green and shady, and with an acacia tree, but the shade is filled with plastic bins, old children’s toys, and all thoroughly un-magic. The public parks are mostly scuffed grass, scuzzy gravel, and trees.

Even the natty rooftop terraces, precariously atop palaces and slums, where they are gardened at all littered with the dead, as indeed are the windowboxes attached to the one in which I began to write this (we bought it some scarlet geraniums from the supermarket, but eventually found some much lovelier ones at a florist in Burano).

It’s hard to  believe that in a city so beautiful, and where space for gardening must have only ever been a magnate’s dream,that the delights of gardening should be so ignored.  Perhaps once, when trade from the Middle East, India, ChIna, flourished, there were Venetian gardens filled with tulips and tuberose, where Indian and Chinese roses flourished,

There are oases.  Our roof pavilion did look down on the Guggenheim Museum’s garden, imaginatively planted.  And there are innumerable books on ‘the secret garden of Venice’, things i can’t bear to look at for about twenty two different reasons.

So, should some magician offer me a magic space in that magic city, what would I do?

Well, be unreasonable and say that it has to have a well head, a few pieces of architectural detailing, ideally brought from Byazantium, perhaps a piece of cornice, a column’s capital….  You know the sort of thing.  The garden needs a watergate, a loggia that catches the sun, and a modest house behind.

If the city is theatre, the the garden should be theatre too.  Grass is obviously difficult to do well, so dispense with that.  I’d plant swards of one of the ground hugging ivies, a pave where there were to be seats, tables for outdoor dining.  Sambac jasmine would twine up grey-blue trellis, terracotta pots filled with stephanotis would sit by chairs, and bigger pots with roughly shaped Lonicera tartarica ‘Sibirica’, would be by the wellhead.  Along the canalside terrace, a row of deepest purple lilacs, high pruned, the variety depend on the colour of the house’s stucco, to follow on from the magnolias, whose fallen petals should float like pale gondolas. Then, for deeper into summer, a huge abundance of philadelphus, some of the larger ones like Avalanche, to fill the evening air with perfumes even richer than of the canal itself.

But as everyone says how boring lilacs are out of flower, I’d grow an annual climber up each, perhaps the gorgeously scented moonflower, white, good under a full moon or by lantern light. It’s a sort of morning glory, but a  night one instead, and called Calonyction….  I don’t know what the seeds do.

to be continued….

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About david stuart

garden writer and journalist, and occasionally a designer, with a garden in the Scottish borders, and his pal's gardens in Edinburgh, London, and Lincolnshire. They keep both of us very, very busy. Books I've written listed on my website, and dozens of articles and garden and plant pictures. Currently working on several new projects. One of these was to return to painting - see the blog - and which is proving exciting! www.david-stuart.co.uk or, more fun, have a look at www.pinterest.com/davidcstuart
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