Many of us who are stuck inside small urban homes during quarantine (or any time!) may find ourselves wishing we had some nature within reach. My dear friend and Bostonite Stephanie moved to Italy many years ago and created a green oasis on her chic Florence balcony. I’m very grateful that she was so generous to share her story and beautiful photos with us here on Simple Living New England. Come see her flowers, fruit trees, bird friends and more for inspiration!
I grew up in Boston. Not the suburbs but in a very urban setting. Back in the 1970s when there used to be vacant lots. I was always fascinated by the weeds that grew in these rare, green spaces. Dandelions, Queen Anne’s lace, buttercups, clover. My father was equally fascinated by plants and installed 10 skylights on our roof so that his hibiscus and African violets could receive natural light. We used to take walks around the neighborhood during the weekend and look for any signs of growth, especially in the spring when we would see small crocus leaves pushing up through the frozen earth. Other kids would look forward to going to the zoo, I would look forward to going to the horticultural society flower show. The smell of damp earth, flowers and green has been, and remains, one of my favorites.
I am currently living in Florence, Italy. I live on the top floor of a condominium in the most densely populated neighborhood in Florence, Italy. I have a tiny balcony at the front of my house. It measures 40 inches across and eight feet long. We don’t have closets, so most people use their balconies as storage spaces. Not me. I first planted asparagus ferns as a filter to try and purify the air coming into the house (asparagus fern blossoms smell like vanilla cookies!). These ferns are very hardy, multiply on their own, need little water, can stand heat, wind and sunlight and basically need very little care.
Looking out from the living room door onto the terrace and seeing green made me quite happy and so I started adding plants. Clematis and bougainvillea vines on the furthest ends to enclose the balcony (one side is shared with my neighbor and divided by a glass panel!). I added a pomegranate tree which actually produces fruit, as well as a fig tree!
I rescued a sad little rose bush from the supermarket which now provides me with yellow roses from May through October. I added a slightly raised bench and started an herb garden. Mint, sage and hot peppers come back every year. Basil and oregano are allowed to seed at the end of the season and those seeds are used to grow new plants each spring.
Do you ever receive amaryllis bulbs during the holidays? You can plant the bulbs in a pot, and they will have a new life (don’t expect them to bloom in December, they bloom in May). The foliage can grow to a height of five feet. Who knew? Native species seeds were added to the soil in the planters which produce wildflowers to attract bees and butterflies. The ferns produce tiny red fruit which attracts blackbirds, chickadees, sparrows and other types of small birds. I have also gladly left the figs and the pomegranates to the birds. Geckos and lizards come to rest under the foliage and to eat the beetles and other insects that the flowers attract. I have put up a bee house for solitary bees so that they have a place to stay during the winter months.
The front terrace has become its own microcosm and microclimate. My Christmas tree is recycled as well. The water in the bottom of the tree planter has become a gathering spot for birds including two new pigeon friends, Gary and Skankarella (poor Skankarella always looks quite ruffled and as if she hasn’t had enough sleep). They have both decided to come down and sleep under the yucca tree at night.
Instead of a cement block, I now have a thriving little forest right off of my living room. It’s a bit of a tight squeeze trying to get out on to the balcony to water the plants. I am forever apologizing to those who get jostled for lack of space. I like to think that they accept my apology at the time, but trash talk me when I leave.
I have also provided a constant source of entertainment for my cats (don’t worry, the space is closed in with a screen, they can’t get to the birds) who follow the goings on outside with much interest.
Waking up early in the morning when it’s still dark outside, making a cup of coffee and then stepping outside amid all the plants to watch the sunrise is a daily pleasure no matter the season.
If you have a small space, consider adding a few plants to your windowsill or a window box. There is nothing better than seeing the first leaves unfurl at the end of winter.