Helen McKerralLessons from Italy’s summer windowboxes

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral01

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral02

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral03

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral04

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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).

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral05

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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!

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral05a

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral06

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral07

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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:

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral08

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral09

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral10

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral11

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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!

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral12

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral13

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral14

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

However, here in Oz 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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral15

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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!

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral16

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

So kudos to the nurseries supplying these plants. In Cortina, we walked into town every day past a nursery cum florist, Cesarino Fiorista.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral17

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral18

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral19

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral20

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral21

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral22

Growing medium

The growing medium appeared to be composted manure mixed with some bedding straw, and a little perlite added.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral23

Growing medium

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral24

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral25

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral26

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral27

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Containers varied enormously. In Alleghe, surrounded by conifer forest, it was wooden planter boxes that featured, and very effective they were too.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral28

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral29

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral31

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral30

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Logs made cheap, simple plant stands or, hollowed out, excellent containers.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral32

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral33

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Others used clever ways to add interested to fences and walls, such as this fuchsia spilling through a keyhole.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral34

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

I saw beautifully adapted containers, and strange Italian-ikebana hybrids.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral36

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral35

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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.

Window Boxes of the Dolomites Photo Helen McKerral38

Window Boxes of the Dolomites

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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

4 thoughts on “Lessons from Italy’s summer windowboxes

  1. grim on said:

    Great post as usual Helen—I would love to do this sort of thing down Norwood but it would last one night—–if the plants were not stolen they would be vandalized—–we have tried to put herbs, lemon and sorts in our parks and to our dismay after a short time —-GONE—but we do soldier on.
    Graeme Head gardener Norwood , Payneham, an St Peters Council.

    • helen mckerral on said:

      Wow, that’s such a shame, Graeme. I have seen large potted specimens in Adelaide with their trunks chained to verandah posts – perhaps one of those sign stakes (metal tube in the ground, with a short post wedged in, the sort that are impossible to remove) placed beside your fruit trees, and with the trunk unobtrusively chained to the post at ground level, might work until they are large enough to resist a spade? Or try trees that are less easily recognised than citrus – pistacio, walnut, avocado? Though I suppose you would have tried all that already :-(.

      Up here in Crafers, we’ve established a tiny herb and vegie garden outside the nursery; it’s looking a bit tired atm but there’s a constant turnover of plants and we revamp it periodically. People – especially children and school mums – walk past and pick parsley and rocket, or park their cars to grab some spinach, kale or silverbeet on their way home from work. It’s great!

      So far, the garden has never been taken for granted or raided, which is wonderful. Originally I placed little doggerel signs ( eg “Walking past? No need to ask – pick here and there, please leave some to share,”), but even without the signs people have been polite. And I guess that even if someone picked a large amount of herbs or veg, it would be because their budget doesn’t stretch to buying them, so who’s to judge them? The plants are there to be eaten, after all!

      Just last week, a father was helping his little daughter pick parsley – her green face indicated she’d already been munching happily away! – and he said, “That broccoli is pretty excellent.” I hadn’t noticed, but there at the back of the bed was a 30cm diameter head! He was initially reluctant to take it but I pointed out that it was ready and someone had to eat it! So he left carrying the broccoli in his hand.

      I get the impression that there’s a sense of community ownership of this little patch, and that is why it’s respected. Perhaps all such gardens have to be in small suburban side streets rather than large public park lands, or in cul-de-sacs or tucked away in little parks, and the local community involved in the planting, to generate appropriate usage?

      Anyway, I hope you don’t give up, Graeme!

  2. grim on said:

    Thanks for that reply Helen, I have been a gardener at the council for near on 20 years, a bit late to give up now.
    We will soldier on.

  3. Eugene on said:

    Love potted colour. The bulk of our garden is form/texture/foliage dependent so we celebrate our inner dag with stacks of happy and bright pots. Tend to agonise over what pot for what, but potted colour, for us, is the unmitigated joyful part of gardening.

    Love your guerrilla vegie garden and the signage too!

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