Hearing a Healthy Garden

By: Richard G Turner Jr

Richard G Turner Jr is the editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture. After receiving degrees in architecture and landscape architecture from…

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A hybrid monkeyflower (Mimulus) in a container at Venzano. Author’s photograph

A hybrid monkeyflower (Mimulus) in a container at Venzano. Author’s photograph

We arrived for a week’s stay at Venzano just past sunset following an eight-hour drive from Provence. It was too late to see the garden that evening, but we all gathered in the garden the following morning for breakfast. Sunlight warmed the stone walls and terraces and, soon, the California poppies and blue flax opened and welcomed an array of insect visitors.

After such a long drive, it felt good to relax in the garden for most of the day. With increasing warmth, the garden came alive with the sounds of buzzing bees in countless shapes and sizes, of scurrying lizards iridescent in the bright light, and of swallows swirling and whistling overhead. Smaller birds, mostly sparrows, chirped nervously in the shrubbery and bay hedges. Distant cuckoos kept rhythmic time to an unseen clock.

That evening brought new sounds to the garden. An old stone horse trough, now used as a water-lily pool, proved home to a chorus of small frogs, whose coarse croaking echoed through the courtyard. Below the garden, a cattail-edged pond was even noisier, with at least three species of frogs in springtime pursuit of the perfect mate.

As darkness closed in on our hilltop paradise, moths took over the task of pollinating salvias and other flowers in the garden. Among the many species flitting about were the hummingbird-like sphynx moths, announcing their dark presence with a characteristic—and misleading—hum. Bats swooped erratically overhead in search of a few early-season mosquitoes. Nightingales sang the night away, their repetitious but melodic notes reminding us of mockingbirds on the West Coast.

We learned on our first visit to Venzano two years ago (see Pacific Horticulture, January ’02, page one) that this wonderfully contemporary, mediterranean garden in Tuscany was not irrigated. With the exception of new plantings, the garden survives almost solely on natural rainfall and experiences a distinct dormant season through the long hot summer. In conversations with Don and Lindsay, the garden’s proprietors, we now learned that the garden was, admirably, chemical-free. Only an occasional outbreak of red spiders (spider mites) generates any use of pesticides; the occasional nibbling of leaves and petals is accepted as an integral part of this natural approach to garden maintenance.

It struck us, then, that what we had heard on our first day in the garden were the sounds of a healthy garden, alive with wildlife of all sorts going about their daily routines—and keeping pests in check. Perhaps these aural pleasures are the measure of a healthy, earth-friendly garden.

But Venzano is in a rural area of Italy, miles from any semblance of a city. What about the urban garden, surrounded by concrete, steel, brick, and glass with little connection to the natural landscape? I thought back to San Francisco’s Noe Valley, where my own small garden has been chemical-free for two decades. The garden is abuzz with bees throughout the year, birdsong fills the air daily (and sometimes nightly, though not from nightingales), and butterflies add movement and color to the plantings. Raccoons cavort on the roof and along the fence each night, and a skunk periodically waddles through in search of insects and grubs. Were the neighborhood slightly warmer, I’m certain that lizards would be scurrying about just as they did at Venzano.

One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is the contact it allows with nature and her diverse creatures, even in the most urban of situations. I’m perfectly willing to tolerate the few chewed leaves and less-than-perfect blossoms, which may result from avoiding chemical pesticides, in favor of the delightful sounds of wildlife in a healthy garden.

RGT