Autumn is such a refreshing season! While you’ll most probably try to find your way amongst the crowds in August, looking for refreshing shade and a little more peace and quiet, you’ll walk past our green Venice. Even along the most beaten paths, there are secret oases of verde rigoglioso, lush green private gardens. You may have been to one of the numerous semi-private corti (courtyards), but Venice has so much more to offer when it comes to gardens:
There are many small private gardens, and a couple of larger ones hiding behind the red brick walls. In fact, half of Venice consists of verde pubblico e privato, public and private gardens. This also means that almost half the city is off limits, living its own life and often filled with delicious herb and kitchen gardens. And it’s these hidden gardens that really keep their secrets! They are the Venice where our heritage lives on.
Most private gardens in Venice are small but “structured”: These are sprawling gardens, consisting of several levels and raised terraces. There are, for example, a first-floor terrace, in-between loggias and top-floor altane (roof terraces). All are natural extensions of the courtyards, paved and terraced and often covered by a mossy lawn.
In this post, I would like to show you my grandparents’ garden in Venice, which looks just like I described above, sprawling and spanning several levels: On the ground, there’s a square courtyard which gets flooded in case the high tide exceeds 110 cm, which sometimes happens in late October and in November. From the roof terrace, you have a wonderful view of the church and monastery of San Zaccaria.
We spend a lot of time in this garden in the warm season, practically from early March through mid-November. There’s a lot of pruning to do and caring for the vegetables and herbs in particular during the growing seasons, which is spring and autumn. In the summer, we spend hours on end, eating breakfast and listening to the birds in the morning before it gets too hot, or reading a book in the afternoon. This is a garden located just five minutes from Piazza San Marco, and it means the area is very crowded as Riva degli Schiavoni is just a few steps away. Yet, our green jungle seems to absorb the sounds of tourists walking by: Behind these brick stone facades it’s like Venice never changed. Another reality reigns here, silent and green, behind the scenes of this crowded city.
It’s this garden I grew up in that I miss most when I’m not in Venice. For decades, it was the green paradise tended by Grandfather, in which he added ornamental flowers to Grandmother’s herb garden. And he planted evergreen shrubs like aralia and pittosporum, and even a couple of cacti, fig trees, pomegranate trees, and his beloved citrus trees (tangerines, lemons, kumquat).
And from my grandfather I learnt a lot about the “problem zones” of Venice: Low-lying ground exposed to salt water filtering in during acqua alta. When this happens, the lawn is covered by a sticky white layer of salt. But grandfather knew how to make the most of his “problem garden”, by planting purple azaleas and light pink hydrangea. They are still here, growing lush between late May and November.
He loved to experiment, he was a superb gardener. Taking care of the plants was very contagious, and since I was a child, I’ve been addicted to the flower shops in Venice and the plant seeds they sell. The vegetables we grow from these seeds are so delicious, and we eat soft insalate da taglio and rucola, which live in the terracotta pots, all year long.
Even melons grow well in the square vegetable plots. Of course, not all goes well, and so far, I failed at growing hibiscus and banana trees from seeds. By the way, there are banana trees and hibiscus in Venice, quite a lot of them growing in private gardens!
Late April-May and September-October have always been my favorite months to spend time on the hidden terrace. There are fruit trees (pomegranates, figs, pears) growing below in the garden, and citrus trees in terracotta pots. There’s something to harvest all year long. A short time ago, it was uva fragola grapes, the juicy black grapes growing exclusively in the Lagoon and north of the estuary.
Now in early autumn, the garden is soooo colorful: We still harvest raspberries, which go into the basil-flavored pancake we love to eat for breakfast on weekends. And there’s a passiflora growing in its sunny corner. On some days during late summer, the passiflora has more than 30 blossoms. It’s an old plant which has been around as long as I can remember.
Shade-loving herbs grow downstairs on a little raised flower bed along an ancient stone wall. Amongst them is water mint, which goes into our mint syrup sciroppo alle tre mente, and we use it to make pomegranate-mint syrup. Autumn is also the second prime time for our roses. One of the rose bushes comes from the island San Lazzaro degli Armeni, so you can image that we use its petals to make rose jam in May :-) But usually, we use the petals to make rose syrup which flavors our favorite autumn delight, rose-marzipan cakes, that you can see above.
Lavender is blooming again, for the third time this year. The lavender blossoms are used to make tea or syrup. In the winter, we mix lavender blossoms with lemon juice and honey from eucalyptus and pine trees (I usually buy the honey from the stalls at Fiera della Salute). This drinks helps prevent colds and migitates the symptoms of the flu (which we suffer from invariably, due to the cold and humid climate in December and January).
There’s always something to taste, cook with and marvel at, especially now in autumn: Figs and grapes and raspberries. Kitchen laurel, parsley, mints, rosemary, basil and curry herb. Lavender and roses, wisteria and kumquat, tangerine and lemon trees. Plus, a nice collection of oleander with white, red and purple blossoms. It’s a garden my grandparents have been tending since 1968, and you can see and taste its beauties!