How to keep your balcony plants thriving through a long, hot Italian summer!
Growing flowers, plants and herbs in containers on balconies and terraces and in small gardens in Italy can offer the exciting possibility of being able to enjoy plants that are typically Mediterranean, which for many UK or Northern European residents are almost impossible to grow at home. Bougainvillea is a firm favourite in southern Italy and coastal areas further north although it will suffer over winter in hill top villages in the foothills of the Apennines.
The long hot Italian summers, however, present real problems if one is coming and going from a holiday home and not there to water daily. Drenching plants every evening when one is there is also a sure way to attract mosquitoes that are apt to lay eggs in even the smallest pools of water in the saucers you've placed under the pots.
There are, however, a few solutions to both the watering and mosquito problem. Smaller plants can be watered successfully even in high summer using watering “carrots”. These carrots are in fact hollow terracotta cones attached to narrow plastic tubes. The carrots are filled with water and pushed into the soil near the roots of the plant, whilst the weighted end of the tube is placed in a reservoir of water. As the soil dries and the roots need water, the carrot becomes the water resource; water is drawn by capillary action through the tube, then into the carrot, which being made of porous terracotta, is then drawn into the surrounding soil.
They work brilliantly with spider plants (which, incidentally, grow to an enormous size outside in Italy) and can be used with any plants that require constant watering or damp soil such as hydrangeas or azaleas.
Watering spikes with reserves of up to 2 litres of water are also the perfect solution when one is going away for a period of several weeks at a time. Whereas costly drip irrigation systems connected to the mains are not always suitable for a smaller balcony in a holiday home, the watering spike is an inexpensive system that utilizes recycled soft drinks bottles attached to a dripper. The water drips faster or slower according to the ambient temperature and the dripper can be regulated for shade or full sun; the dripper fits most screw top bottles but tough well formed plastic bottles such as 2 litre Coca-Cola bottles work best – NOT flimsy 1 ½ litre water bottles which tend to buckle. Even water guzzling papyrus thrives on this system in summer in Rome!
Finally, the presence of mosquitoes can be dramatically reduced by the use of blown clay (argilla espansa in Italian) placed in drip trays; it is also very effective as a way of keeping soil cool and moist when using the alternative watering systems such as spikes or carrots.