25 April 2011

This post first appeared on my website.


Elderly people of a mystical bent will tell you that the weather ‘si guasta’ – ruins itself – on the day of the passion of our Lord. Naturally. That was the day we visited the Montenidoli winery outside San Gimignano, and that was what wine producer Elisabetta Fagiuoli and her delightful husband Sergio told us. Both had such in-built twinkles in their eyes that it was hard to tell if this was local humour or deep belief. It’s best like that.


Of course, as the date of Easter is calculated on a full moon, then it’s quite normal that the days around Easter should be changeable: we all know that the new moon brings meteorological upheavals. And since Good Friday afternoon it has been grey and overcast and – now – drizzly, but this follows on some truly lovely spring weather. A couple of my rugosa roses have full-blown blooms on them, and there’s a tiny R. Felicia bud opening out.

Elisabetta was quite a character, with her wine philosophy (wines age, even white; if it doesn’t age, it’s not a proper wine) and her waving aside of the fad for all things biological and biodynamic. That’s just the way you make wine, she said; there is no other way. There’s nothing ground-breaking or new about it.

Apple blossom

Crab apple blossom

I’m wondering why, despite the wonderful weather, some things are being so very slow to germinate. Could nature still have some surprise in stall? I have given up utterly on the grass seed I planted at the south end of the house. I have to admit, I succumbed a fit of stinginess and used the remains of a packet I found sitting in the laundry. What is the disconnect between what I do and what I would never ever allow a client of mine to get away with? Why do I even bother? I have now reseeded, having lost three weeks and gained a patch full of weeds to boot: they never seem to have any trouble flourishing wherever. But in my little nursery up on the terrace, tomatoes and tagetes are being similarly slow. Odd.

Also flourishing, much to my delight, are my irises. It was only last July that I dug up one huge clump and distributed the resulting bits of bulb around the garden. I’m so bad on following through with these things that I really wasn’t holding my breath at all. But the grey-green artichoke plants up the drive are now punctuated with tall, waving, dark-violet  irises, and the long bank planted with pale yellow Primo Passo rose is full of them too. Everyone who passes by marvels at the fact that the porcupines haven’t dug them up and devoured them. (I think our banks are too steep for them to bother; they prefer to feast on flat ground.) I marvel more at the extreme generosity of these glorious plants which put on this display without my doing a thing to help them. I could sit and stare at them all day.

This summer, I guess I’ll have a go at the great big blob of them which comes up each year beneath the larger oak tree. The problem is… I’m going to run out of places to put them.

I’m trying desperately to be nonchalant about the fact that my sweetpeas are growing taller by the day. Every year I try: they were my mother’s favourite spring flowers after all, and I do it as a tribute to her. But as I’m sure I’ve said, they are always a bitter disappointment. I shall go on pretending I don’t really care whether they live or die and perhaps that – rather than my usual dancing fruitless attendance – brings them on. I do so hope so.

My latest departure in my drive to make this garden look like it has been made by someone who knows what they’re doing is up the top, in the orchard, aka the Sunset Garden. Sunset Garden is rather a wishful-thinking name for it, as you can barely see the sunset for the jungle of out-of-control elm branches and shoots up there on that top north-facing bank. But we’ve been hacking away at that, raising the canopy high enough to be able to watch the sun sinking without taking away too much of our privacy. Not that there’s anywhere across the valley there from which people might be staring back at us. But we like our Splendid Isolation.

That top layer is where Stefano our builder dumped his materials when we were doing up the house. Now it’s a bumpy patch so full of bits of gravel of varying sizes that even strimming it is dangerous: you don’t know what’s going to shoot out of the long grass and remove an eye. I long ago gave up any hope of being to turn the earth over, clear it out and plant a lawn.  Instead, I’ve had a big pile of tufa sand delivered (dumped, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the rugosa rose hedge when I wasn’t looking) to spread, with manure, as topsoil. I’ve built square beds of old broken bits of brick around the fruit trees. And I’ve mapped out a little platform which one day – soon, hopefully – will have a kiwi-covered pergola and a couple of wooden chairs from which to watch the sun go down. The tufa should fill in the bumps and cover the stones. I don’t want a perfect English lawn… just something I can run the lawnmower over. My dilemma now is: to edge or not to edge? I think the answer has to be yes. And the edging will have to be bucce – the solid oak planks sliced off when huge logs are being turned into beams – because that’s all that I can afford. By the time they’ve weathered, they look acceptable. That way I’ll have at least one lawn on the property which doesn’t fade away into raggedy weediness.

Which has got me thinking about all my lawns: I’m happy with my ‘wildflower lawns’… planted grass allowed to run rather wild but kept cut as if they really were proper lawns. I’m happy with my no-water (well, little and irregular water) policy and the fact the grass looks sear in summer. But I do wish they didn’t all look so patchy and bumpy. I think that gradually edging, in-filling and supplementary sowing is the only answer. It will have to be an on-going policy, a work-in-progress. Gradually, over the next few years, I’ll get there. But not all the edging can be lumpy wood. I think I’ll have to have a word with Francesco the blacksmith and see if we can’t come up with some flexible, modular, discreet, repeatable and inexpensive means to keep my lawn edges in trim.


On our trip to Rome a couple of weeks ago, I finally managed to plant the little garden I have been working on for ages in Ostia. It’s a pretty apartment block, set just back from the sea and very marine in pale azure mosaic tiles. The sea wind which whips through the garden places constraints on what can be planted. And the neighbours upstairs were very chary of letting the owner do anything with pergolas or sunscreens. And of course there’s the big question mark of whether the scrubby bit of land bordering the seaward fence might soon be put up for sale and so purchased and incorporated into the garden too. But pending further developments, this little below-street-level patch is looking good. And the owner’s choice of furniture – brightly coloured items from Ethimo – has made it even more allegro.


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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