The Will To Grow


Still, the Neapolitans, mostly struggling without much money or any earth, manage to garden.  For the less lucky, it’s a couple of potted plants that have to share a balcony with the drying sheets.  For the slightly luckier, the balcony might begin to resemble a terrace.


Riot on the balcony

And for the luckier still, a rooftop on which to grow some colorful stuff in pots.


Rooftop high above the vespas

As far as I’ve observed, nobody wastes a speck of sunshine in Naples.  It’s a dark city, with streets that are provably too narrow to support the two-way traffic plus parking plus pedestrians that they support.  But if you have any light at all, you grow something.  And this will to grow was profoundly moving, mainly because life in those breezeless alleys strikes me as rather tough.  Hot, noisy, dirty, and poor.

Still, opera wafts up out of the alley apartments, and every balcony has a collection of plants.  It’s this proud insistence on beauty in the midst of many unbeautiful things that gives Naples its romance.

Naples made me recognize something about my own impulse to garden: a pot of bougainvillea on a balcony or 50 lilies in a flower-bed, they’re both about exerting some control in an anarchic world.  Garden in any way at all, you’ve given yourself at least one view that forces the world to come up to your standards. 

So much is out of our control: disappearing species, the overtaxing of water resources, incessant truck noise, sprawling development based on the insane assumption of limitless cheap energy that threatens to mar every beautiful landscape all over the planet.  Global warming, a problem that required really serious political leadership in Washington some 20 years ago–and is still lacking it.  We can all buy Priuses, but that is a drop in the bucket when our craven political leaders still allow the smutty burning of coal for half our electricity.  So what can the ordinary, powerless person do? 

Raise a ruckus where possible.  And otherwise garden.  He or she can make a stand, can say to everybody who rapes the earth for profit and to the political powers that allow it to happen, "You can screw up the universe, but in my backyard, or on my balcony, or on my rooftop, there will be nature and there will be beauty."

Gardening may only give us the illusion of control, but such are the threads that human happiness hangs by.


  1. Great post! Food for thought…and the table! Happy anniversary and how wonderful to be able to spend it in such an old, historic and frenetic city!

  2. Btw, GardenRant readers – if you’re going somewhere, why not take some pics and come home to blog about it right here? We love posts like this one and others we’ve run about the gardens (both grand and humble) of Florida, LA, NY City (off the top of my head). Be our Guest Garden Observers.

  3. This was great, Michele! I feel exactly the same way—that we as gardeners take a stand just by being people who care for our little corner of the earth and all of the life that resides there.

  4. I enjoyed this because my immigrant ancestors came from Naples, making a living as barbers in Brooklyn. But the Sicilians in my maternal line were the real gardeners–and opera lovers.

  5. Terrific example that you can garden ANYWHERE! It makes me crazy when folks constantly say to me – “I don’t garden, I don’t have a yard” or “I live in a townhouse/condo/apartment.” SO??!!! None of those are excuses not to garden – at last resort, if your landlord is completely anti-green (yeah, right), then go rent a community garden plot!

  6. Glad that you had a fabulous time in this grand old crazy loud and historically rich city .
    There is nothing like an adventurous trip to inspire and revitalize the soul.

    But I would venture to say that if you called any proud city dwelling Italian gardener a ‘yardener’ they would not graciously invite you in for a plate of gnocchi and a tumbler of vino.

    From my perspective this word smacks of belittlement and connotes a kind of disparagement .
    Why lower the rank of anyone who is trying their darndest to instil a sense of beauty in such challenging growing conditions ?

    This term ‘yardener’ blows my head gasket, I can’t stand it.
    I feel that it sets up an unnecessary sense of divisive segregation – like I’m a ‘gardener’ and you are some nappy little yardener.

  7. Damn, Michele. That’s fantastic. Let’s all move there and stay “drunk on falanghina and the scent of jasmine” all the time. Who’s with me?

  8. We just passed through Naples–really, by it–on the way to Amalfi and what little I saw looked dirty (junkyards and heaps of garbage all along the road) and rundown. But I am sure if we had given the city more of a chance, we would have felt the romance. On the other hand, I thought Positano was a picturesque shopping mall and couldn’t wait to get out of there

    I rave about Ravello though and the little town we stayed in, Atrani. In the dry heat of late June, our apartment was surrounded with flowers and lemon trees. And yes, flowers do seem to grow out of rocks in Southern Italy.

  9. Michelle Derviss, I think “yardening” describes a gardening style that is about using a limited palette of plants to achieve possibly great effects. I’m not using it as a term of disrespect. I think my yard might be more coherent if I were more of a yardener.

    And that’s the Italian style, isn’t it? Loads of architecture in the garden, water features, citrus trees in pots–plus, a few repeated plants. No insane British fixation on the sheer variety of plants to be planted.

  10. Nice post.

    Michele Owens: “insane British fixation”?

    This is not a very “live and let live” attitude my dear. 🙂 Nor is it terribly fair. Or insightful. Or even very nice. In fact, it is such a silly thing to write that it is beneath you… and I know you can’t have thought about it. But it does have zing and rhythm! And THAT’S fun to read.

    It IS possible to appreciate one thing without dimishing another. The world is full of different and beautiful things. Rain AND shine. Ecclesiastes. A time for everything.

    Remember what Voltaire said: “Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.”

    I, for one, wish I were in Italy RIGHT NOW seeing these things. But I am delighted to read of soemoene else who was.

    A very nice post.

  11. In a world gone mad, gardening can be viewable as a way to have a modicum of control on your own little piece of it. This predates global warming, dwindling resources and accelerating species extinction. It may be as old as the invention of farming and the human condition. The illusion of control found in gardening that generally gets shattered when reality with its known liberal bias steps in, just may help many gardeners find a little peace in this mad mad world by learning how to go with the flow.

    Not always though. A certain client with teenage children who was determined that his garden should conform to his demands and exacting specifications finally had to sell the house and move to a condo when nature kept proving her slow moving powers were far superior. I think the children survived and grew up. Perhaps he has mellowed with age.

    I strongly suggested to his wife when they moved that he not be allowed to get on the condo association board if the object of moving was to give him a chance to relax and enjoy their time here. She got a horrified look on her face and nodded in agreement.

  12. Some years ago my husband was stuck in Naples for a few days. Unfortunately, he did not share your joy in it…and he loves traveling. Knowing there are at least two sides to every story/view/issue/whatever, I knew there must be something better to be said! I would love to visit Italy, although I don’t think even I would be able to convince him to give Naples another try. I’ll just have to view it through your eyes!

    Yes, I do think control in a garden is an illusion…a pleasant one at times, but in the blink of an eye, all those careful plans are put amiss. Still, we never tire of trying…

    Happy 20th anniversary!

  13. Howdy Michele,
    Well I guess we might have to agree to disagree on the ( wince ) “yardening” word.
    I just find it to be a completely stupid word.
    (Yardening – it sounds like a George Bushism )
    For more on my take on this topic, I wrote my own rambling rant on my blog :

    now back to Naples ….
    : ~ )

  14. I have caught a travel bug reading your post! And I think whether we’re yardeners or gardeners or plantaholics or cleandesign junkies, the really cool thing about all of us is that we notice the plants in the cracks and pots on roofs! (Not that that makes us superior – just extra special!)

  15. If plants find the right conditions and just enough medium they will grow. Even on buildings. We use to visit this old town(I cannot remember how to spell the name now) they had plants on the roof on balcony railings everywhere they could squese a plant in. Like the photo’s. Want to go there sometime soon.

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