The good, bad and ugly about the untended garden

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog sad begoniaThis 'Bonfire' begonia as going strong when I left 10 days ago, but without water it's looking pretty tired. A good drink and some fertilizer should bring it back to form. Photos by Doug Oster

blog dead toreniaI doubt there's any saving this torenia. Smaller hanging baskets too the hardest hit without a gardener to tend them.After a whirlwind 10 day trip exploring the gardens of Northern Italy, it was great to get back to my garden.

Looks like we didn't get much rain and the containers took a beating. My grown son was staying at the house while I was gone, he took care of the dogs, chickens and made sure the house was still here when I returned. I didn't expect him to water the containers, and thought the way this year was going, I'd luck out with Mother Nature taking over.

It was great to get a little rain last night and first thing this morning I soaked every pot. Now only time will tell how they respond. Looks like I lost a few for sure. I always say bigger is better when if comes to containers. That's certainly true in this case as the larger pots looked great, smaller hanging baskets took the hardest hit. Everything will get a drink of organic liquid fertilizer tonight too.

In the vegetable garden, the bamboo trellis supporting cucumbers and squash finally collapsed under the weight of the tall vines. I spent a few minutes picking through the carnage to pick another basket of fruit. My radio partner Jessica Walliser keeps offering to teach me how to make pickles, maybe I'll finally have to learn.

blog pretty cbig containerThis big container filled with caladium, sweet potato vine, creeping Jenny and a 'Gryphon' begonia did great without any help from a gardener.One thing my son did do was pick tomatoes, but the plants were still loaded. Not even the food in Italy can compare to a tomato picked fresh from the garden.

Red Malabar spinach has completely covered the garden windmill and will continue to grow until frost. I'm going to have to figure out other ways to use spinach in the kitchen. I love that plant. It's a tropical vine which isn't spinach at all, but tastes pretty close.

The coreopsis is blooming like crazy along with eight foot tall Mexican sunflowers and the purple blooms of anemone 'Queen Charlotte' are simply stunning.

No garden can go too long without a gardener, eventually reverting to what once was there. It's always interesting to see how things can change in only 10 days.

I'm looking forward to fall planting season. I've got a lot of ideas from my trip.

blog pretty charlotteAnemone 'Queen Charlotte' is filled with blooms.

blog collapes trellisNext year the plan calls for a more substantial trellis for cucumbers and squash.

blog invisible windmillRed Malabar spinach has hidden the windmill and huge Mexican sunflowers bloom in the background.


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Dispatches from Italy: The Best Lunch Ever

Written by Doug Oster on .

buratti Protrait

Even though I saw two amazing gardens today, the religious experience I had at lunch was so powerful, I’m compelled to write about it.

It began the day before as I sat on a bench in the shadow of an ancient villa with Anna Maria Massimi who is guiding a tour in concert with ours.

As I explained my love of Italian cheeses and meats to her, she smiled and offered to take me to her old friend Eros Buratti’s shop in Verbania which specializes in both.

The next day while riding a cable car up to see the Alpinia Botanic Garden near Lake Maggiore she thought it might be nice to invite a few people along from my bus and hers. There was only room for about 15, so I asked for volunteers.

Seven lucky people joined me on the short walk to Eros' meat and cheese shop. Walking through the front door was like entering another world. Giant prosciutto hams hung in the doorway leading to a counter jammed with customers, and it was loud, really loud. Eros yelled orders and went back and forth with his loyal customers making sure they were happy. As I walked past him, he smiled said something in Italian and handed me a slice of meat. I shared it with two friends as we walked to the back and as I took my first bite of the salty treat, it melted in my mouth.

It was such a relief to have Anna Maria with us as Eros greeted her saying, "the most beautiful woman in Italy, where have you been." Anna Maria hadn’t been able to visit the shop in close to a year. It felt special to be included, and everyone was thrilled at what was going on around us.

Above the counter were more cured meats and an unbelievable amount of cheeses in the case. I'd never heard of most of them and Eros' mother helped move the customers along.

It was sensory overload, small tables squeezed into every corner, waiters and waitresses hurriedly walked past trying to keep up with the demand for food. I would say it's like the Strip District on steroids. We sat communally at a long table and the place was hopping, and as we looked around each table was filled with familiar and unfamiliar dishes.

To tide us over, Anna Maria brought a large dried sausage, cutting board and knife. Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa. was charged with cutting the meat. Since he lived in Italy until he was 14, he was the obvious choice. As he thinly sliced the dried meat, we started eating the fresh bread. There were homemade breadsticks, thin, cracker like pieces and fresh hard crusted white bread.

The two different olive oils were deep green and exploded with flavor, one had a kick, too. A drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar worked as a perfect foil and the guests soaked up the concoction with the different breads. When our eyes met across the table, it was obvious, this would be a magic lunch, and that's before we were served most of Eros' specialties.

Just about the time the sausage was going around the table, two bottles of wine were served, one white and one red. They were the best I had tasted in Italy yet.

What we had in front of us would have been enough. The sausage had a soft, fatty texture and finished with a hint of hot pepper, the breads each offered a different texture and flavor, the oil was heavenly and the balsamic tied everything together.

I couldn't believe it as one of Eros' employees carried a long wooden board filled with nearly 10 different types of cured meats through a slew of customers and set it down in front of us. It was filled with a local specialty called speck along with prosciutto, venison and other things including something which looked like bacon and tasted like heaven.

Then he returned with a board just as long filled with cheese. There was runny gorgonzola, a hard variety, baked ricotta, a goat cheese filled with pistachios and more. The aroma of cheese and meats was divine and the feast began.

Combining these mysterious ingredients with better known ones, adding bread and great olive oil was a culinary treat which will live with me forever. Each bite offered a different flavor and texture, we all ate until we couldn't eat any more. Both boards were pillaged, but there was still food on both somehow.

Italians expect the best, whether it's in gardens, art and certainly when it comes to food. Today I was lucky enough to experience the greatest lunch I've ever had and as I walked back to the bus I saw one of my fellow diners. Spontaneously we hugged, because we both knew, it was the best meal we'd ever had, and might ever have.



buratti The shop

This is a shot of Eros' shop, look at the huge hams hanging in the doorway.

buratti bread

This was the selection of bread we had for the lunch.

buratti cheese plate

One of the employees brings out this amazing cheese board.

buratti lots of chees

This is the selection of cheeses at the shop.

buratti lots of sausage

This are some of the dried meats available.

buratti meat plate
This our selection of meats for lunch.

buratti Sausage cutter

Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa. was charged with cutting the meat.

(Top image: Anna Maria Massimi  and Eros Buratti at his cheese and meat shop. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)


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Dispatches from Italy: A love story blooms in the gardens of Villa Cicogna Mozzoni

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog mozzoni kiss480

It’s obvious at first meeting that Jacopo Cicogna Mozzoni and Silvia Casarotto are in love. Not only with each other but with Villa Cicogna Mozzoni, built before 1440 by Jacopo's ancestors. The affable couple openly spar in public with good-natured barbs, but also share soft kisses. Our group of travelers hang on each word as they tell stories about the place they have dedicated their lives to preserving.

Jacopo didn't understand the significance of the villa as a child. He would visit from next door where he grew up, playing hide and seek near the grotto with this brother and enjoying playing a trick or two on visiting groups. When he knew a tour was coming, Jacopo would head for the attic where he pretended to be a ghost by making noises and screaming in high pitch wails. In the library he got the pump organ going and since he doesn’t play, laid both arms on the keys, "to make the most horrible sound," he said. "It was very, very funny."

It wasn't until his mid-twenties he realized his calling, to preserve the villa and bring it back to it's former grandeur. He hopes for help from the government, but now relies mainly on tourists to bring in funds for the work, there are also weddings to supplement expenses, but it's not enough.

His grandmother moved out of the villa during WWII and never returned, living in the guest house next door. During that time the villa was home to three families of refugees for the duration of the war.

Recently Jacopo had a visit from someone who stayed there during the war as a child. During his time at the villa, the young boy wrote his name in a drawer with the post script, "I lived here for three years."

Jacopo videotaped the man explaining what it was like to live there, saving his story forever.

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," Jacopo said.

He was the last member of his family to remain close to the villa and he took on the mission of preserving the home.

The formal gardens where he played as a child are beautiful. Shrubs are neatly trimmed, flowers are carefully chosen and the design harkens back to another time.

Walking in from the gardens, visitors are greeted by the villa's famous fresco paintings on the walls and ceiling of a portico. They have faded with time, but inside a great hall is covered with fascinating artworks which date back hundreds of years. The colors are more vivid than one could imagine, considering their age.

Even though the job of keeping up with the villa is endless, Jacopo and Silvia don’t let it get to them. "I love this place," he says, "and don’t worry about the money.”

When she talks of the villa, Silvia finds it hard to put into words what this ancient home means to her, especially in English. She first came here 24 years ago and learned the importance of the villa from Jacopo's mother, Eleonore. With her eyes filling with tears, she talks passionately about her mother-in-law's love for Villa Cicogna Mozzoni and how she passed that love on to her. "She was the countess for this villa, spoke seven languages and she helped me to understand to do these things," she said. Choking back the tears Silvia added, "she was a second mother to me."

Even after all this time, she looks at the intricately painted walls and discovers something new in the work.

When asked why the couple works so hard to restore the villa, Silvia pauses and smiles. "Simply because it's our life," she says. "I get to live in a fantastic dream."


blog mozzoni dahlias
Above: These orange dahlias with dark foliage bloom in the the formal garden just outside the villa.

blog mozzoni fountain
This cherub fountain is splashed with water.

blog mozzoni fresco 1 outside

Just one of the many fresco paintings outside in the portico of the villa.

blog mozzoni looking our the window
Barbara Simoneschi, who served a powerful expresso coffee halfway through our tour, looks out the window as the group gathered in the courtyard.

blog mozzoni overall indoor fresocs

Jacopo Cicogna Mozzoni (far left) tells our group about the challenges of keeping these amazing frescoes in shape.

blog mozzoni overall of garens
A look from above of the formal garden.

blog mozzoni through the door
Two pots of geraniums are framed by the doorway to the portico

(Top image: While I was getting ready to shoot their portrait Jacopo Cicogna Mozzoni and Silvia Casarotto gave each other a kiss. The two have dedicated their lives to restoring and preserving Villa Cicogna Mozzoni. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)




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Dispatches from Italy: The stunning topiary gardens of Villa del Balbianello

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog villa from water

"It's great to be king," Joseph DiLuccia of Bangor, Pa said while over looking Villa del Balbianello in Lenno, Italy on Lake Como.

It wasn’t actually a king who built this place in the 1700's, but Cardinal Durini who wanted a quiet summer residence.

He couldn't have picked a better place.

blog villa arriving by boatOur group felt like kings when we pulled up to the villa in a boat.We felt like kings as we were taken by boat to the estate. Gentle waves rocked the boat as we stepped off the craft and into paradise.

We’ve been lucky as we’ve toured these last few gardens to be lead by Italian garden designer Carlo Maria Maggia who has enlightened us to their secrets. In broken English his passion for these places always comes through.

This is a garden of topiary art of the highest sort. The scenic view of Lake Como is often framed through trees, shrubs or vines which are expertly trimmed.

It's not a big garden, but it's a spectacular one. Villa Balbianello is the ultimate summer hideout.

Walking up the first path, we were greeted by cheery rose colored cyclamen hugging the ground. It seems every space is filled in this garden.

Tiny daisies cling to rock walls, pretty pink roses are intertwined with pointed greenish gray agave. But it is the topiary which takes your breath away. Light posts covered in spiral green vines, columns and walls covered in the same. I wonder how long it must take to prune each one to perfection. Out in the courtyard we hard the gardeners arguing as they snipped at the plants on the wall. We wondered if one had trimmed too closely and was reprimanded for doing so.

On a lower level, overlooking the lake, it's hard to guess how long gardeners have worked to prune a spectacular-looking tree into an oblong oval. This tree stops you in your tracks and for once the lake and mountains must take center stage. It's wonderful to watch visitors linger under it’s tightly pruned leaves.

As our boat sped away, I wished I had the summer to spend at this incredible villa.

Our tour of Northern Italian gardens keeps getting better, with each garden topping the last.

I wonder what tomorrow will bring as we venture to Lake Maggiore.


blog villa cyclamen

Above: One of the first plants to see were these cyclamen in full bloom along the side of the path to the villa.

blog villa perfect tree to use

This huge tree in the lower courtyard is something special and attracts visitors.

blog villa rock daisies

It seemed that every crack and crevice was planted with the just the right species. These little daises grew along a rock wall.

blog villa roses and agave

When was the last time you saw roses planted with agave?

blog villa spires in the clouds

One thing that makes these Lake Como gardens something special is the mist, fog and clouds which seem to come and go every hour or so.

blog villa statues perspective

I wonder if this statue has been watching the villa since the very beginning.

blog villa topiary surprise

With each turn this garden provides topiary surprises.

blog villa trimming

These gardeners are in charge of keeping everything trimmed to perfection.

(Top image: It was amazing to see the villa from the boat as we approached. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)

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Dispatches from Italy: Mountains, water a majestic backdrop to Lake Como District's villa gardens

Written by Doug Oster on .

blog carlotta view of lake como

It didn’t seem possible that our bus could fit through the narrow streets driving through the Lake Como District in Italy on the way to Villa Carlotta.

Many times our driver stopped the bus as a truck approached from the other direction, there was no way both would have made it through. I was so glad he was driving and not me.

Lake Como is breathtaking and so different from Venice and Verona. The mountains rise over the deep water to form the perfect micro climate for plants.

This is a place to see palm trees growing in consort with carlotta front viewThis is the view which first greets visitors to Villa Carlotta.

Villa Carlotta itself is a masterpiece built in the 17th century, the gardens are mostly formal and with the lake and mountains as a background the two play together like a good orchestra.

Entering the villa offers a look at what life must have been like so many years ago. The fountain welcomes visitors as they gawk at the facade of the mansion.

Each step through the garden offered something different. At first it was roses covered in droplets of dew which gave way to an amazing bed of annuals topped off with a palm tree.

The lake and mountains seem to call to you every few steps. Sometimes they are framed by a weeping beech other times they serve as a background to kissing topiary swans.

There is a steep climb through a shady, tropical garden. Palm trees flank a small waterfall which eventually finds its way to the lake. Near the top visitors are rewarded with Japanese maples and a forest of bamboo. This is where one of the first surprises appears. I had never seen turtleshell bamboo before, the name explains it’s growth habit.

The second big surprise came in the form of bright yellow blooms, were they little daffodils in September? Even though walking on the grass is forbidden, I had to figure out what they were. Luckily, no one was around and the Italians are a pretty relaxed about rules and regulations. When I got closer I still had no idea, although the flowers resembled crocus, I had never seen a yellow, fall blooming crocus. I showed the pictures to some of the plant experts touring with me and still no luck. It wasn’t until one of the tour guides, Anna Marie saw the photo that it was confirmed as a fall blooming crocus. I have to find some bulbs to plant this fall.

Our tour ended in the shadow of a beautiful white marble statue in the atrium of the villa.

The first day in Lake Como was amazing, I can’t wait to explore another villa tomorrow.


blog carlotta bck lit begonias

The light illuminated these begonias in a shady bed at Villa Carlotta.

blog carlotta fall blooming crocus

I had never seen bright yellow, fall blooming crocus before. I have to find bulbs for this plant to put in this fall.

blog carlotta flower bed

This annual flower bed was filled with an assortment of flowering plants topped off with a palm tree.

blog carlotta grotto

Isn't this a wonderful little grotto?

blog carlotta kissing ducks

There's no escaping the spell of the lake and mountains. Topiary kissing swans are in the foreground to complete the view.

blog carlotta shady water

This long waterfall leads to the lake and is flanked by palm trees.

blog carlotta strange bamboo

Turtleshell bamboo was a surprise, I've never seen anything like it.

blog carlotta wet rose

One of the first things to see when visiting Villa Carlotta was this dew covered rose.

blog carlotta statueOur tour ended in the atrium.

(Top image: The view of the mountains and Lake Como is spectacular from Villa Carlotta. Doug Oster photos/Post-Gazette)


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