Once upon not such a very long time ago, our acre of Abruzzo was a building site. Literally. Then, once the cranes and the diggers and the cement mixers had all gone, we were left with what landscape gardeners like to describe as ’a blank canvas’. Or to put it another way, an acre of bare earth, which in the twinkling of an eye became an acre of chest-high weeds.
But there was a plan. Honestly. And not just any old plan. But a plan in three parts.
For all our passion and love of gardening, the realisation dawned pretty quickly that looking after the land would have to come second to actually running our fledgling Villasfor2 holiday rental business.
So part one of the Great Gardening Plan was that by far the greater part of the plot would have to be cleaned, planted – and then basically left to look after itself.
Part two involved carving out an orchard and a veggie patch. The planning was simple enough. “The veg can go…there. And the orchard can go…er…over there.” Job done.
Depending on how you view gardening, Part Three was either the fun bit, or the real hard slog bit – planting-up the areas in front of our villas and alongside the pool.
Outside the villas, we covered fences with Etruscan Honeysuckle and headily-scented flowering Jasmine and planted 50 ground-cover roses in four varieties. They’ve meshed together in a glorious spread of glossy, deep-green leaves and colour, which improves every year.
Round the pool has been a little more difficult. I think it’s got something to do with Archimedes’ Principle. The pool holds 80,000 litres. Which involved digging a hole and removing the equivalent of 80,000 litres of earth. Which weighs 80,000 kilos. Or around 80 tons.
Take it from me, that’s a lot of earth. And it all had to go somewhere.
The lie of the land being what it is on our plot, we weren’t exactly swamped with options, so a slope of mini-Alpine proportions grew along one side of the pool.
So far so good. Now we had to figure out how to keep it there. Domenico the digger driver suggested a sure-fire method was to face the slopes with cement retainers that resembled shoe-boxes. These ‘boxes’ would then be filled with earth, which in turn would be planted up, resulting in a lush, verdant, colour-splashed backdrop to sunbathing and swimming.
It sounded great.
Round here, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to buying plants. Nurseries abound and prices are cheap. But by this time, with the arrival of our first-ever guests getting perilously close, we really didn’t have the luxury of leisurely planning what plants might go where and wait for Mother Nature to do her bit.
We needed instant colour – and we needed it now. The answer ? Annuals of course !
And what’s the easiest, most-foolproof annual there is ? That’s right – the Busy Lizzie !
Even better – here were vast arrays of baby Busy Lizzies in Vincenzo’s nursery for just 50 cents a pot.
I counted up the shoe boxes that needed filling. Gosh…who’d have thought there were that many. Maybe if I just planted-up every other box…no…make that every third box…I wouldn’t need to take out a second mortgage to pay for them.
I ended up getting 150, before nimbly scrambling up and down the wall of boxes planting them. Then tucking them in with little handfuls of multi-purpose compost – and don’t even ask how much that cost – watering them and basically doing everything short of reading them a bed-time story before stepping back, tired but triumphant, to regard my handiwork.
It looked GREAT ! Our first guests would be SO IMPRESSED !!
I should take a moment at this point to explain that this all happened in July 2009, prior to the arrival of our first guests that August. July in Abruzzo is generally pretty hot – and 2009 was no exception.
And one thing I know now, but didn’t know then, was that Busy Lizzie’s don’t like it pretty hot.
Remarkably quickly, all except a few heroic survivors had wilted, shrivelled and died.
It would actually have been more colourful, longer lasting and certainly no more expensive to strew the wall with Euro coins instead.
That lush, verdant, colour-splashed slope had become the Wall of Death.
And our debut guests were a week away.
Back at the nursery, Vincenzo guided me through heat-proof annuals. Geraniums. (Doh…yes, of course); Verbena; Marigold. Marigold ? Yes, Marigold. Who’d have thought it…
Busy Lizzies ? I casually asked. Oh yes, you bought loads of them, didn’t you ! Aren’t they great ! And so easy ! Just give ‘em a bit of shade; lots of water; can’t go wrong.
Fine. I’ll remember that.
Rush back. Rip out dead Busy Lizzies. Plant. Plant. Plant. More multi-purpose compost. Water. Water. Water.
Looks GREAT ! AGAIN !!
First guests arrive.
“What a lovely garden ! Is it much work ?”
“Oh no, not much at all really !”
Guests leave. (“We’ve had a LOVELY time…thanks so much”)
PLANTS STILL ALIVE !
And they stayed alive, shrugging off blazing sun, until the snow got them – which we always knew would happen – but the lessons of 2009 weren’t forgotten.
Five years on, and the Wall of Death really is now the space it was always intended (and hoped) to be. Fronted by billowy Oleanders which flower infallibly from May to October, the wall is now dotted with California Poppies, Pinks, Geraniums, Marigolds, Rock Roses and extraordinary Mexican Daisies, which cheerily spread and self-seed whatever the conditions.
It’s taken a while, but it’s finally looking as it should.
Any Busy Lizzies ? Er…no.
By David Brenner