14 February 2011

This post first appeared on my website.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s not seeing things I don’t want to see. I think some people can do it and some people can’t. Certainly, being a self-employed mother working at home helps hone the skill: daughter, friends, laughter and tears were distant echoes, bearly impinging on my conscious mind, if I had a project which simply had to be finished.

It’s the same, really, in the garden. The high rocky bank right outside the front door is a good example: it has looked all right at times, when the Cerastium tomentosum has been properly clipped and tended and the weeds removed. But that happens rarely. Mostly it just looks like wasteland.

The eyesore which I’ve been most in denial about for the past… oh, could it possibly be two and a half years? is the helicopter landing pad outside the south-facing window of the living room.

We made this level platform a couple of summers ago after the Great Swimming Pool Disaster. With various small children visiting, a large-ish paddling pool seemed like a good idea. We bought one of those models, three metres across, where the basin is thick vinyl, with an inflatable ring around the rim which holds the basin up by keeping that rim above water. On flat ground, the water rising up the basin holds the whole thing stable. Our ground looked flat – more or less – but wasn’t. Not nearly. Everything went fine for a while, until the water realised that far from rising at a sustainable 90 degrees from a base of zero degrees, it was tipping further and further towards a steep bank from a base which was listing in that same direction itself.Just as excited family and guests gathered around to watch the water getting impressively deep, the whole thing very gradually, gracefully and ineluctably threw itself down the bank, dumping its contents into the Arundo donax and soaking the bank to the point where it seemed in danger of becoming so soggy it might collapse. It wasn’t funny at the time.

And so the helicopter landing pad was born. Big old planks of wood standing along the far side, and the bit in the middle filled with sand – shovelled and wheeled down in 40-degree heat from a heap delivered only as far as the carpark – and smoothed and levelled and covered with a plastic sheet so the pool operation could begin from scratch with no danger of a repetition of the farce. Of course, once it was up and running, the kids thought it was beneath their dignity and rarely went near it; you were more likely to find a wallowing adult in there, drink in hand.

At the end of the season, the pool was dismantled but the platform left… handy for next year. Ditto the following year. The plastic cover looked ever dirtier and more frayed; weeds began to grow up through it. My excuse for doing nothing was that that lovely area out there would one day become a little suntrap-terrace with a table and chairs for spring and autumn lunches, and so I needed to leave the sand there. But the bank below had to be smartened up and restored all the way down into the field so what was the point of making the terrace until that was done, eh? Everyone who came to the house looked down the slope and asked – charitably I guess because it was quite clear that it was just a nasty bit of old plastic – “gosh, is there a pool under there?” The question generally took me by surprise because as time went by, I had airbrushed it out of my consciousness. The horror no longer even existed for me.

All this to say that the plastic has finally gone, the terrace has been formed, the sand has been packed into the correct place and all (ha!) that remains is for me to plant a couple of bitter orange trees, decide which plants to place beyond the terrace edge, sow grass and sink some of those lovely flat-topped stones – worn smooth by the animals which used to mill about on them in what was the barn and is now the living room – into the sand in such a way that they dot the grass in interesting patches. A doddle really. Oh dear.

It does make me wonder, when I finally get around to doing things which have been planned in my head for months and years, how someone who claims to be a garden designer can be quite so ditheringly hopeless about her own back yard. Am I worried that when I see the thing come to life, I’ll realise that I’ve got it all completely wrong? Or is it just laziness, or inertia? My garden should be resplendent. And bits of it, at times, are. But it remains unforgivably patchy. I sometimes fantasize that if I won the lottery, I’d move a big team of garden contractors in here and transform the whole place in the space of days. I bet I wouldn’t, though. The ‘doctor’s children are always ill’ theory (or the ‘cobbler’s children are always unshod’, as the Italian version goes) certainly holds good here.

Today at Spello we discussed the orto (vegetable garden). We discussed it with a character called Alessio who is a keen proselytiser to synergistic gardening – a very permaculture-like discipline invented by a Spanish woman called Emilia Hazelip who drew heavily on the no-dig, straw-covered cultivation method developed by Masanobu Fukuoka. All fascinating stuff, of course. All with its gram of sense and its kilogram of nonsense. And it would have been so much more convincing had this particular adept not looked so scrawny and ill: terrible hair, stooped and skinny and ageless (though probably not out of his 30s). At lunch, as he wolfed food down as if he hadn’t eaten for days, he told me he had a ‘permacold’. He’s not a good advertisement for his own lifestyle.

And we discussed it with three wonderful, cheery, passionate people from the Orto Antico in Chiaravalle, where seeds of vegetables of all imaginable descriptions are collected and stored and cultivated, and the public is invited to participate in experiments with bio-diversity. Hopefully these people will produce seedlings for the orto at Spello. It would solve a lot of problems.

Ooops, almost forgot to say: it rained. Well, drizzled. The day before yesterday. I can’t say it was welcome. But all that cloudless sky was beginning to feel a little weird.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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