Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ottilia's Secret Garden, Giudecca

Ottilia Iten, in hat, talks with some of the many visitors to her garden on the Giudecca
Depending on where you arrive at Giudecca, and where you walk, it's easy enough to let the more recent incarnation of the island as the industrial and manufacturing center of Venice overwhelm your sense of its more distant past in the 18th-century as the site of the city's most luxurious aristocratic gardens. Most of the island's 20th century industry is now as completely a thing of the past as its old pleasure-seeking nobility in powdered wigs, but there are still working cantieri busy repairing boats of all sizes, and there are still, behind tall rather crumbly brick walls, some hidden gardens.

One of the most beautiful is the Giardino di Ottilia, whose dark unadorned metal door opens up to what seems very much like some fairy tale reward only after you've braved a long narrow sunless calle from the Palanca vaporetto stop, suspecting ever more the further you walk that perhaps you've fouled up the directions and taken the wrong path, as how could there possibly be a garden here amid so much pavement and brick?

Once inside the enclosed "giardino naturale", with rose blooms profuse and fragrant all around, you may wonder why you didn't simply follow your nose to it. The garden is large but, fortunately, not palatial, which is a good thing because all this abundant and wild beauty is the work of one woman and it's hard to imagine how she could possibly manage any more. The woman's name is Ottilia Iten and while she can tell you anything you'd like to know about each different variety of plant and flower in her garden (and in Italian, German, French, Spanish, and English, no less), the basis upon which the plants in her garden are selected, placed and nurtured is not simply out of some scientifically-minded conventional handbook.

Her gardening follows energetic rather than theoretical principles, and as important a tool as any spade, shovel or rake in her garden is her pendulum. Ottilia says she uses her pendulum to "choose the plants that want to come into the garden, find out where they want to be planted, on what day and at what hour they want to be planted, and how and when they want to be cared for. I may sense that something should be changed or done, but then I check with the pendulum to find out exactly what it should be."

If you've never used a pendulum yourself, held it above an object and watched its bob slowly began to move, circling minimally at first, then building up to a surprising force and velocity, it's easy to suspect that the person holding it is actually manipulating it. There appears to be something magical, or maybe just deceptive about the process, though I suspect Ottilia would say nothing could be more elemental; that is, less of a trick. For those who use them, pendulums serve to read energy the way a simple electrician's probe is used to reveal whether a wire is "live."

Ottilia's interest in gardening this way was inspired by her reading of Peter Tompkin's and Christopher Bird's book, Secrets of the Soil, and Tompkin's The Secret Life of Nature. The former book devotes a chapter to Perelandra, a nature research garden in the United States founded by Machaelle Wright, whose own books (such as Perelandra Garden Workbook: A Complete Guilde to Gardening with Nature Intelligences) also form the core of Ottilia's approach. But, she points out, one can now find a great deal of information about all this online.

Having specifically waited until the nicer light of late afternoon to visit the garden, I arrived to find most of it in the shadow of neighboring buildings and trees. This didn't diminish my enjoyment of it, but did make it much harder for the camera to capture its colors and infinite details.
I was fortunate to visit Ottilia's garden two Sundays ago during one of what she calls her "open doors": short spans of days when she welcomes visitors. She told me that she offers three such "open doors" each year: in the spring for the narcissi, in May for the roses, and in autumn for the michaelmas daisies and asters. Though she also gives guided tours to groups--for example, from the Italian club Wigwam (www.wigwam.it/)--the "open doors" are intended only for individuals, couples, friends, families, not large groups or tours.

Ottilia says that she finds gardening in this way to be an "adventure," one that keeps her continually interested and satisfied, and, judging from the many visitors I observed two Sundays ago, I think her guests would describe their experience of her garden in the very same terms. It's a magical place. 

Ottilia is an excellent guide for visitors of all ages--and many tongues


  1. hello and good evening from cologne-germany,

    i want ask you....if you agree that i share this article with your venezia blog label to my wigwam event from 02.-03.04.october 2015 in venice ...secret gardens...by facebook ...? my account is venedig-la serenissima? thank you for your answering and at first:excuse my bad english grammar

  2. hell again...oh i will see in this moment...you have a share sign from facebook...thanks a lot(dagmar from cologne)

  3. Yes, of course, Dagmar, it would great if you shared the post on Ottilia's garden.

    And I can only wish that I could write in German as "badly" as you do in English. I have forgotten almost all of the little German I once knew...