A trip to a Venetian nursery

Yesterday I popped round to my local nursery, not so much to buy plants but out of intrigue; I am in Venice and until I watched Monty Don’s trip the other day I did not imagine that such a horticultural space existed in this unique city.

It is terribly easy to get lost in Venice but part of the joy was trying to find the nursery. So, with no TV crew to guide us, we relied on the map on my phone which confidently took us down delightful narrow alleyways, over little bridges and along watery canals in the Cannaregio district, and we arrived at Laguna Fiorita Onlus, where the gates, hanging between crumbling pillars, were wide open.

Through the gates we followed the paved path with troughs on one side planted with the beautiful but unattractively-sounding Trachelospermum, (the Italian name of Rincosperma is no better) and colourful tool sheds on the other. The doors are left wide open and I wonder that nothing gets stolen, but of course why should they, Venetians don’t garden.

Nonetheless the sheds are well stocked with all sorts of equipment for a decent days work, and the charming girl in the nursery explains that they are also employed to attend to some of the private gardens around the city. You never see these gardens for they are tucked away behind high walls.

An ingenious outdoor rack is fixed to an ordinary chip-board, brightened by a brush of blue.

It is not the handsome tree Pittosporum that I am amazed at but the site of soil, it is so unusual to see the bare earth anywhere in this watery city.

Walking on through another gate our Covid pass is checked and even though outside, the wearing of face masks is compulsory. We find the customary display of spring bulbs and I am surprised to find snowdrops still in flower.

‘Margherita’, along with its charming little cousin ‘Margherita piccole’ and yellow Euriops combine with evergreens to look so familiar and reminiscent of home.

No doubt the usual collection of herbs will find their way to someone’s Venetian kitchen.

Yet, it is the decaying walls which surround the nursery that make it so unique. In her book on Venice Jan Morris refers to ‘the scent of crumbling antiquity’, and it is just that.

Barrows and ladders are propped against artful brick walls with secret doorways.

and from somewhere beyond, a saint rises up, if he could just glance this way for a moment, but up there he is perhaps a little too precarious,

and busy keeping an eye on his church door over on the other side.

I wonder at how many nurseries have their very own campanile.

From this neighbouring window you not only must look down on an array of plants but over to the lagoon beyond. Down on the small patch turf, I spy another rarity in this city; it is a clump of daisies.

Who in this city will buy these spring blossoms of pink and white?

Nothing beats the bright sulphur yellow of the mimosa, standing by the assistant in blue it is surely a sobering nod to the Ukrainian national flag.

The two long poly-tunnels are a reminder that this is a working nursery.

In one, bedding plants stretch out in lines, with a solitary petunia just reminding us that summer will be here soon.

In the other a variety of pots, plants and paraphernalia is for sale.

Over the years the nursery has broadened its services to specialise in forestry which probably accounts for the pile of tree cuttings gathered from the gardens which use their services.

There is no room for composting here and no call for wood chippings either, so they will be loaded onto a boat and taken away.

This nursery is about 500 square metres and not only raises and sells plants, maintains private gardens, but it is also a co-operative which was established thirty years ago when some parents and professionals got together to bring people with disabilities closer to a real working environment within a protective space.

It has been an interesting diversion from the churches, museums and galleries of this glorious city. I purchase some seeds as a little reminder of my visit and wonder if i might regret not acquiring this little gem.


Grapes Hill Community Garden, Norwich.

I just cannot imagine life without access to a garden. According to the Kings Fund Report (May 2016) 87% of households in the UK have a garden and in a typical city, one quarter comprises private gardens which make up half its green space. https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/sites/default/files/field/field_publication_file/Gardens_and_health.pdf

I am not sure whether Norwich is in the category of a ‘typical city’ but it is here that I visited the Grapes Hill Community Garden and reaching it by walking up Valentine Street, my first glimpse was to look down over the fence.

Once a disused and unsightly area laid with tarmac, this now flourishing garden, all of 50m by 12m, was created by a group of people who came together in 2009. Consulting the local community on the design, and collectively raising funds, the following year they were granted National Lottery money which enabled removing the tarmac and laying the hard landscaping.

In 2011 the planting began and the garden was opened to the public in July of that year. You can read more about the development from the website from where I have borrowed the above and below photographs: http://grapeshillcommunitygarden.org/pages/

With such a warm invitation at the gates it is hard not to pop in.

A bold wooden pergola greets you as you enter. The uprights appear a little naked right now but a wisteria is taking a hold, recklessly winding its way up,

and on another post is a more controlled vine; appropriately planted considering this is Grapes Hill, it will soon burst into leaf and it is one of the many plants sponsored by local people and businesses.

At the base of the pillars, tulips and primroses soften the brickwork and bring a touch of spring colour.

These beautifully raised beds are available to rent.

The garden is also used as a teaching area – a free AQA Level 1 Gardening course running for 10 weeks is being offered. In this bed the different types of bulbs are being displayed, the red tulips are determined to be the biggest.

This is not just a place to learn and work; there is a seating area with a verdant lawn beyond to pick daisies.

In fact Jo the Head Gardener encourages visitors to pick and enjoy the leaves of herbs such as the lemon balm,

and as she chats to me she rubs the evergreen leaves of the architectural honey bush Melianthus major and it exudes a waft of peanut butter.

There are several fruit trees growing in the garden either planted on the trellis surrounding parts of the garden,

or free standing like this magical Quince Cydonia oblonga. Donated by local nurseries their blossom somehow brings a ray of hope.

In such a small space there is a lot going on; a joyful mosaic rises up against the wall,

and a trellis of seed heads collected and created by a group of children.

This tree trunk has been transformed into a fountain, not switched on today, but powered by solar energy.

At this point I have to mention the loo. It is a public garden so a real necessity; imaginatively planted as it is, there is no denying that it is an unsightly “tardis” but it is shortly to be replaced by a WooWooWaterlessComposting Toilet; intriguing, just take a look – //www.waterlesstoilets.co.uk/

Back to less flushing matters, and across is the busy greenhouse packed with all sorts of emerging goodies it stands next to the growing area, and this in part is the reason for my visit.

I was there to present a tiny plaque to Head Gardener Jo and volunteers on behalf of the National Garden Scheme.

They had applied for funding from the Elspeth Thompson Bursary which, in partnership with the RHS, is an annual bursary that supports gardening projects.

Elspeth Thompson was a garden writer who died in 2010. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the National Garden Scheme and wrote a much-loved Urban Gardener column in The Sunday Telegraph. She was passionate about community gardens and so, in her memory, The Elspeth Thompson Bursary was created to support gardening projects aimed at bringing the community together by the sharing and acquiring horticultural knowledge and skills, and by inspiring a love of gardening across all age groups.

I have no doubt she would have been delighted with this amazing community garden.

If you know of a community project in need of funds why not apply for a bursary: https://www.ngs.org.uk/who-we-are/bursaries/