Friday, 9 August 2013

Italian Gardens Old and Modern 8

When I spoke at the beginning of this very prosaic chapter, of the necessity of getting rid of all your English knowledge of gardening matters, I meant that times and seasons being so absolutely different in the two countries, the routine of garden work differs in toto.  Thus, for some years I held to the English practice of striking chrysanthemum cuttings in the late autumn, and having the plants in their flowering pots and staked by July, as one would at home.  The result was that they were weedy, drawn-up things long before the first of November, by which date one expects to have them in flower.  Now, partly from inability to do much in the garden, I leave them entirely to Eugenio, who has had the sense to profit by his friendship with a very good grower of these, and the results are much more satisfactory.  The cuttings are taken much later;  in January or even early in February, they are shifted on, just as they would be at home; but in June they are cut back absolutely to the earth, one or two brown twigs sticking up out of each pot; and anyone looking at the rows of some two hundred or three hundred apparently empty pots, would be puzzled to know what they were supposed to contain.  But a little foliage soon begins to appear, in the end of July they are  moved into their flowering pots, and by the end of August present a most flourishing appearance.
They are one of the flowers that best repay cultivation here, but Italians detest them for two reasons.  The first is, that, as a nurseryman said to me one day, “when you have re-potted your camellias and azaleas and plants of that class, you may leave them alone, only for the watering.  But with these (the chrysanthemums), you must be after them all the time”.  This is quite true.  The other reason is, that they are called the “flowers of the dead,” coming into bloom as they do, just at Ognissanti, the first of November, when every available bud and blossom is requisitioned for funeral wreaths to be carried to the cemeteries.  On a fine first of November, and for many succeeding days, the roads leading to the cemeteries are one moving mass of flower-laden people.  The poorest people manage to have their little offering, if it is only a small bunch of flowers; and all along the roads, booths and tables are stationed, with wreaths piled up on them to tempt the passers-by.  I remember once when I was buying some plants from a neighbouring gardener and asked if I could have some particularly fine pot plants that were not for sale: “No, signora!” said the old man, “I can’t give you those; they are for my old master’s grave, and I am going to place them on it at Ognissanti.”   The master had been dead for many years, but the gardener was most faithful in his attachment to his memory.  The feelings is so general that I am always nervous about the safety of our chrysanthemums during that week, and like, if possible, to get them into their quarters in the court-yard, rather than leave them down in the garden, perilously near the low wall that separates us from the highroad.

Ognissanti is, to my mind, a beautiful festa, and one that I always miss much if I am in England then, where there may, or may not be, a dull church service, but where there is none of the outward demonstration of feeling that links us on with those who have gone before.  The weather is often very fine then, and though Ognissanti  used to be the date fixed by immemorable custom for  getting all the big lemon plants and other tender things into their winter quarters, it is often possible to defer this for a week or fortnight later.  In our own case, with our very inadequate provision for winter shelter, I am always glad to keep the plants out as long as possible, and to get them out in spring as early as may be.

There is considerable rivalry now-a-days among the Anglo-Italian gardening folk in the matter of chrysanthemum growing.  Last year I was absent in England for eight months, not returning till the spring, and so missed my own small show, but I heard it was very creditable to Eugenio, who takes a deep interest in these plants, and whom I suspect of harbouring the idea of exhibiting in the near future.

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