Love blooms at ancient Italian Villa

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog kiss Silvia Casarotto and Jacopo Cicogna Mozzoni have dedicated their lives to the preservation of Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Bisuschio, Italy. Photos by Doug Oster


Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part occasional series on gardens in Northern Italy.

blogwindow3 20150131 dohomesitaly1Barbara Simoneschi looks out the window toward the courtyard at Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Bisuschio, Italy. BISUSCHIO, Italy — Soft light bathes Barbara Simoneschi as she gazes out the weathered windows of Villa Cicogna Mozzoni. She’s watching our group of 32 gardeners explore the courtyard and frescoes of this historic palace that dates back to the Renaissance. There’s something about the way she’s framed that seems reminiscent of a classic Italian painting.
Below her, we are given a guided tour by the most down-to-earth nobleman in the world. Jacopo Cicogna Mozzoni shares sweet stories about being in the gardens as a child. He laughs easily, reveals his sly wit and captivates his small audience with tales from another era.
These aren’t the most incredible gardens we saw in Italy, but hearing their personal history from someone who loves them was both heartwarming and fascinating.
The morning sun rose over the green mountains, illuminating deep red dahlias and making them shine amid beautifully pruned hedges and ancient stone walls. Water splashes from a fountain and falls playfully on the face of a stone cherub near two large reflecting pools. A mysterious pink impatiens that can’t be identified by a plant expert on the the trip thrives in a small container in a corner.
Behind the villa are old greenhouses filled with replacement plants for filling holes in the garden. Exploring a back trail next to the glass houses reveals tall purple asters covered with honey bees.
When Mr. Mozzoni is joined inside by his longtime partner, Silvia Casarotto, things really get interesting. It’s obvious the two are in love, not only with each other but also with the villa itself. The affable couple are quick with good-natured barbs but also with soft kisses. Our group of travelers hang on each word as they tell stories about the place they have dedicated their lives to preserving. It’s huge, very old and needs work. When a visitor reaches up to touch a shiny orb on a banister, it almost falls off, nearly giving her a heart attack. Later we see a portrait of a countess on the same stairway, and the orb is there, too.
Mr. Mozzoni didn’t understand the significance of the villa as a child. He lived next door and grew up playing hide and seek in the garden. He enjoyed playing a trick or two on visiting groups. When he knew a tour was coming, he would head for the attic and pretend to be a ghost. In the library he got the pump organ going and pressed on the keys with both arms “to make the most horrible sound.”
“It was very, very funny,” he added with a laugh.
blog portico with peopleIt wasn’t until his mid-20s that he realized his calling: to preserve the villa and gardens. Mr. Mozzoni, the last member of his family to remain close to the villa, still hopes for help from the government, but he relies mainly on tourists and the occasional wedding reception to bring in funds for the work.
His grandmother moved out of the villa during World War II and never returned, living in the guesthouse next door. During the war, the villa was home to three families of refugees.
In 1957, the formal gardens and home were opened to the public, so the ancient fresco paintings and classic architecture could be enjoyed by the masses.
“To leave it empty was useless,” Mr. Mozzoni said.
Walking back into the courtyard from the gardens, visitors are greeted by those famous fresco paintings on the walls and ceiling of a portico. They have faded with time, but artwork inside a great hall remains vivid despite its great age. Even after all this time, Ms. Casarotto says she still finds something new when she looks at the intricate paintings.
The interior offers interesting views of the garden. Classic stone containers filled with cheerful pink begonias are framed by a doorway, variegated yuccas in containers waver when seen through the old glass windows and the view from the second floor is spellbinding.
After the tour, Ms. Simoneschi serves powerful black espresso in tiny glass cups along with plump green grapes and delicate Italian pastries.
Even though the job of keeping up with the villa is endless, the couple don’t let it get to them.
“I love this place,” Mr. Mozzoni says, “and don’t worry about the money.”
Ms. Casarotto finds it hard to put into words, especially English, what this ancient home means to her. She first came here nearly a quarter of a century ago and learned the importance of the villa from Jacopo’s mother, Eleonore. Her eyes fill with tears as she talks passionately about Eleonore’s love for Villa Cicogna Mozzoni and how she passed that passion on to her.
“She was the countess for this villa, spoke seven languages and helped me to understand to do these things,” she says.
When asked why the couple work so hard to restore the villa, she pauses and smiles. “Simply because it’s our life,” she says. “I get to live in a fantastic dream.”
Doug Oster: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 412-779-5861. Visit his garden blog at gardeningwithdoug. Twitter: @dougoster1.

blog great hall20150131 dohomesitaly10The frescos inside Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Bisuschio, Italy. The estate dates to Renaissance times.

blogoverall20150131 dohomesitaly5An overall view of the formal garden at Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Bisuschio, Italy.

blog asters20150131 dohomesitaly6Honey bees feast on purple asters along a trail at Villa Cicogna Mozzoni in Bisuschio, Italy.

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Growing succulents in cool containers, winter garden fun!

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog purseaI planted this faux moss purse last year with Kristine and it's still thriving. Photo by Doug Oster

Here's this week's segment on KDKA's Pittsburgh Today Live. I talk with Kristine about planting succulents in cool looking containers I got at Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin.

I’ve fallen under the spell of succulents. Although they look formidable, only the spines of the cactus pose a threat to fingertips. I think of them as friendly dinosaurs, rough on the outside, but happy to share a garden together. As the light changes throughout the day the plants transform with the angle of the sun.
There are lots of other succulents who don’t bite back. Those are the varieties I used on Pittsburgh Today Live.
They are the perfect choice for cool containers like the pursed, boots, hats and other things I found at Chapon’s Greenhouse in Baldwin. The moss like shoe and purse I used on the show came from there along with the little shoes and other containers.
Not everyone enjoys their charm, but every once and a while a visitor will discover their merits. A friend came over a couple weeks ago and fell in love with the containers, pledging to create her own.
Kristine and I planted one of the purses last year and a shoe, both are thriving on my windowsill!
It’s fun to grow these plants during the winter, to keep us gardeners sane.

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More All-America Selections announced

Written by Doug Oster on .

I'm always excited to see the new plants chosen as All-America Selections. 12 winners were announced in November, which I wrote about here. There's a couple impatiens in there which are resistant to downy mildew, which is good news.

New introductions are tested by AAS all around the country. There's a trial garden run by Denise Schreiber, greenhouse manager for Allegheny County Parks, in South Park.

There's also an AAS display garden at Schenley Plaza which I did a story and video on last season. Spending time in that garden is a great way to get ideas for your own plantings.

I've grown lots of AAS winners over the years. The reason I like them is the way they are tested. Growers don't know the names of the varieties and rate them blindly, purely on their performance.

Beets are one of the most polarizing vegetable grown in the garden. It's one of those love it or hate it veggies.

Beet Avalanche-AAS2015-4'Avalanche' is a pure white AAS winner. I think they are beautiful. It will be fun to grow something a little different. All photos courtesy of All-America Selections

'Avalanche' is a pure white variety which converted one judge to a beet lover. It's mild, sweet with no earthy taste. As a converted beet lover myself, I love the color. It's also early, the roots are ready in 50 days.

Basil Persian-AAS2015-logo'Persian' basil is pretty, tasty and bolt resistant.

'Persian' basil is the first of three organic herbs which are AAS winners. It's large and grows vigorously and it's pretty enough to be used as an ornamental. It's bolt resistant, waiting to put on flowers until late in the summer. When it does flower the bees will be all over the blooms, which is a good thing.

Broccoli ArtworkF1-4'Artwork' broccoli will produce side shoots well into the season.

'Artwork' broccoli makes a conventional large head to harvest, but it's claim to fame are the side shoots which the plant will keep producing. Another bolt resistant plant provides gourmet baby broccoli over a long season. Broccoli is one of the best plants to grow inside from seed. It only takes about four weeks until it's ready to go out in the garden.

ChivesGarlic Geisha-AAS2015-2-300dpi1I love garlic chives, 'Geisha' is a new variety with fatter leaves than most. They are easy to grow in any garden.

'Geisha' garlic chives is an interesting winner. For a garlic chive to get an AAS selection means it's got to be something cool. Another organic variety is said to have "just right" garlic flavor. The leaves are wider and flatter than most varieties and like all garlic chives produce pretty white flowers late in the season. It's a great pollinator plant.

Oregano Cleopatra-logo'Cleopatra' oregano is another herb which is beautiful enough to be grown as an ornamental. The flowers are also a pollinator magnet.

'Cleopatra' oregano has silver gray foliage which could grow as an ornamental. Unique from Greek and Italian oreganos, 'Cleopatra' has a mildly spicy, pepperminty flavor. It has a compact, trailing habit with vigorous growth.

Dianthus JoltPinkF1-ContainerDianthus 'Jolt' is heat tolerant and works in containers too.

Dianthus 'Jolt' is the most heat tolerant dianthus on the market, sporting very showy, bright pink fringed flowers. Judges called this entry the “Best of the trials! We wish all dianthus performed this well.” It's easy to grow and will work well as a bedding plant.

Petunia TidalWaveRedVelourF1-BloomPetunia TidalWave 'RedVelour' offers stunning color and will bloom prolifically all summer long.

Petunia Tidal Wave® 'Red Velour' has deep red flowers that don’t fade even in the heat of summer. Large blooms cover the vigorously spreading plants that rarely need deadheading because new blooms continuously pop up and cover the old, spent blooms. Tidal Wave petunias are the tallest of the Wave family and bloom over and over all season long and recover quickly, even after hard rains.

Learn more about AAS winners and see a list of all the winners since 1932 here.

It's wonderful to fantasize about where these plants will end up in the this year's garden.

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#SettingTheSEEN: Fit, Fearless and Fashionable!

Written by Natalie Bencivenga on .

This week on Setting the SEEN, Sara and I decide to stick to our New Year's resolutions of staying fit, conquering fears and looking fashionable in the process (with help from Dona Jo Fitwear and Kiya Tomlin Uptown Sweats).

We try our hand at indoor rock climbing at The Climbing Wall in Point Breeze. (I conquer a fear of heights, and Sara sticks to her fitness goals.) Whatever your resolutions are for 2015, we hope this inspires you to keep going!

Follow @NBSeen on Twitter and @NatalieBenci on Instagram to keep up with #wheresNataliePG

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Cool houseplants are indestructible and clean the air

Written by Doug Oster on .

Blog African VioletAfrican violets are beautiful and easy to grow. Photo by Doug Oster

The bright yellow blooms of begonias light up the living room on a gray winter day. It's just one the plants I grow on the windowsill to keep me sane until the spring bulbs emerge.

In this segment from Pittsburgh Today Live, I show Jon Burnett some really cool houseplants from Chapon's Greenhouse in Baldwin.

I was at Chapon’s Greenhouse in Baldwin with manager Matt Hirsh looking over some of the beautiful plants.
They keep me sane in the winter. One of my favorites is Mother of Thousands. Small plantlets form on the leaves which drop to the base of the plant and sprout. All houseplants are bulletproof and will happily grow all winter on the windowsill. There are some things you can do now to keep them looking their best.
Look carefully at the leaves, if there are yellow or brown foliage, remove them. Any part of a plant that’s looking worse for wear should be cut off and put in the compost (you do compost don’t you?). Look at the plants closely. If there are discolored leaves, maybe a purple tint, that’s a clue they are not getting what they need, so hit them with some organic fertilizer. There are a couple ways to do that. One is to use a liquid fertilizer like fish emulsion or something seaweed based.

If the tips of the leaves are turning brown there might be a salt build up from chemical fertilizers. Be sure your pot has good drainage to flush those salts out.

The leaves of houseplants are more important than the flowers — they need to be kept clean so they can stay healthy. My house is old and often dusty, so I let the houseplants dry out and then place them all in the bathtub and run the shower over them once or twice a year. This is also a great way to flush out the soil. With plants that have big sturdy leaves, I wipe them down as they go back near the window.
When nurseries started offering houseplants, the reason they chose certain varieties was due to their indestructible nature. They knew people would forget to water them.

The only thing that can kill houseplants is too much water and fertilizer. Keep most of them on the dry side, but not completely without water.

I’ve got a few cool flowering plants which will enjoy the winter on the windowsill and then can go out in the garden at the end of May. Begonias, bellflower and coleus are things many gardeners have outside in the shade, that’s why these three work so well inside.

African violets will provide flowers for months at a time. One trick for them is to water them from below. Put a dish underneath as the leaves don’t like getting wet.

It’s great to have something to take care of inside during the winter, and neglect is actually a good thing. As the days get longer, the birds begin to sing, the air smell different and it won’t be long until the crocus poke through the soil. When that happens there’s nothing left to stop us.
I’ve written about clean air plants in the Post-Gazette before. Kelly Ogrodnik, former Phipps’ sustainable design and programs manager did lots of research about what’s in our air and how plants can filter the bad stuff.
Here’s a list of plants grown indoors that will help take toxins out of our indoor air-

English Ivy (Hedera helix)
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Golden pothos (Scindapsus aures or Epipremnum aureum)
Peace lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii)
Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata‘Laurentii’)
Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium, syn. Philodendron cordatum)
Selloum philodendron (Philodendron bipinnatifidum, syn. Philodendron selloum)
Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)
Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)
Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragans ‘Massangeana’)
Janet Craig dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
Warneck dracaena (Dracaena deremensis ‘Warneckii’)
Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
Pot Mum (Chrysantheium morifolium)
Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)



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