Small balcony gardens are an Italian speciality.
Green-fingered and beauty-oriented, Italians manage to turn even the tiniest balcony space into a veritable green oasis.
Looking up to see yet another hanging garden was one of my favourite things to do during my six years in Italy. My base there was a small Northern Italian city called Vicenza which stands out with its Palladian architecture, multilayered history, excellent museums, and, yes, beautiful balcony gardens.
From potted flowers in bright shades to lush creeper plants, from wisterias dripping with purple blooms to succulents in ceramic pots, every type of vegetation is employed to add colour and life to the facades of Vicenza’s centuries-old palaces and modern-day blocks of flats.
This made walking around the city – both its historic centre and suburbs – always such a delight!
When the rays of the early spring sun pierce the grey sky over town in the first weeks of March, the Vicentini head straight to the city’s many garden centres. There they stock on all sorts of bright blooms, bags of soil, and different sizes window boxes. Then, the hard work begins of turning each balcony – no matter how small or awkwardly shaped – into a hanging garden. A job that generously re-pays every single effort by producing so much beauty over a long thread of months that the whole city looks loved and looked after and passers-by like myself stop and look up to take in the riot of colours and scents.
Soon, with the arrival of April and May gorgeous wisterias fill the air with their delicate fragrance. All around Vicenza, you can see wisteria in all sizes – from small potted shrubs on narrow balconies to large vines embracing huge terraces.
Come summer and all over town colourful blooms and abundant green leaves hang with wild abandon from window sills, cascade down from balcony railings, and spill over defensive walls that were built back in the Middle Ages.
Even the bridges above Vicenza’s rivers – the Bacchiglione and the Retrone – are adorned with flowers.
All the way till late autumn, vivid petunias vie for attention with proud geraniums sitting tall in their boxes. Deep purple and shocking pink, the petunias bloom non-stop, their tender green stalks embracing rusty ironwork and railings. The geraniums favoured by the Vicentini are traditionally bright red.
Everywhere you look, it’s like Babylon’s mythical Hanging Gardens have been re-thought in smaller balcony-sized formats and spread all over town to make people happy.
I remember my very first day in Vicenza. It was August 2014. We were walking up Corso Fogazzaro – one of the city’s central streets – and my eyes were immediately drawn to the beautiful green displays hanging from balconies and windows. A bit wild, a bit crazy but you could tell that a caring hand had planted them there for maximum effect.
I admired the artistry and the aesthetics of people who had invested their soul in creating window displays such as this.
It was like they were welcoming me to Vicenza by showing me how beautiful life can be in a place where people throw their shutters open and use flowers and plants to create a pleasing scene to greet anyone who passes by.
In the years that followed, I saw such green-fingered displays many times all over town. It was amazing how the smallest and most awkward of spaces could be turned into a veritable garden.
Even the balconies that looked a bit dilapidated had their potted plants.
It was like the Italians were born to be balcony garden designers. It was like a place where beauty was sought-after no matter the financial circumstances.
It is not just the windowsills and the small balconies that get adorned in Vicenza though.
Walk into any courtyard here and you will see flowering vines and trees reaching up and spilling their blooms over large terraces with neoclassical columns. Just like this wisteria-draped loggia which is straight out of a fairytale. I came across it by chance, as I was exploring Vicenza’s historical side streets.
Once the blooming season ends, the lush foliage of vines and shrubs turns balconies into mini urban jungles. Thus, it provides a welcoming shade in the long series of hot sunny days between May and October.
In addition, Vicenza seems to have its own army of climber plants. I loved the vitality they add to the centuries-old buildings in town. The facades – worn out by thousands days of rain and sun – looked full of zest embraced by the green leaves.
In a city where sumptuous palaces are at every step, it’s easy to become immune to gorgeous architecture. Yet, I never grew tired of re-discovering Vicenza’s small balcony gardens. It made me see the city with new eyes every spring.
I would look up to admire the many roof gardens around Vicenza. With shrubs and trees in large pots, they seemed the height of summer luxury and promised great views and evenings spent in the company of friends.
I marvelled at how every available space always seemed so easily and naturally prettified with a wisteria vine, a pot of succulents, or a sea of petuanias in bloom.
I particularly loved seeing the bright red geraniums that a neighbour of ours would tend to on his balcony summer after summer. They stood in stark contrast to the black balcony railings. Somehow they didn’t clash with his ochre house but emphasised its colour even more against the blue Italian sky.
Sometimes, we would meet this neighbour on the street and we would greet him in our faltering Italian. He would smile and continue slowly on his walk.
Then one summer, the geraniums didn’t return. I waited for them and then I noticed that we never seemed to bump into our neighbour anymore.
The following summer a young couple with a small child moved in the ochre house. They brought with them a gorgeous black and white cat but no plants.
After admiring the small balcony gardens of Vicenza for several years, I finally started my own tiny balcony garden, too. My father-in-law was visiting us from England and for my birthday, he very kindly equipped me with planters, soil, and any plants I wanted.
Always practical, I planted herbs – fresh basil and mint – and some colourful blooms. To my delight, they attracted quite a few bees and butterflies and, on one memorable occasion, an enormous hummingbird moth.
The last summer that we spent in Italy, we had a large bunch of petunias, too. Deep purple and shocking pink. Finally, I was doing my own Italian balcony garden properly.
I never planted geraniums though. I simply didn’t have it in me.
More Helpful Links
- 25 Best Things to Do in Vicenza, Northern Italy’s Hidden Gem
- The Beauty of Vicenza, Italy in 30 Photos and Stories
- Italian Gardens – How to Visit Four of Italy’s Most Beautiful Parks in the Veneto
- 9 Gorgeous Parks and Gardens in the Veneto to Enjoy This Season
- 6 Hidden Corners Around Vicenza, Italy to Quickly Get in Touch with Nature When You Need It
- Lago di Fimon – A Pleasant Lakeside Walk Just Outside Vicenza, Italy
- 20 Family-Friendly Walks and Hikes Up to an Hour and a Half from Vicenza – first and second parts
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