9 May 2011

This post first appeared on my website.

        It’s a strange blustery day – a raging tramontana (northerly), with crystaline tramontana light. To think that yesterday I bared my legs and was grateful for the shade of a magnificent oak tree when we went for lunch at Mario Fortunato’s house for the launch party of his new novel. Yesterday it felt like summer. Today large plants are struggling to stay upright and that wind is cold.

I’ve just been up to check my peaches. I have never seen the peach trees quite so laden with fruit. Which is just as well really. My poor little apricot has one single sad fruit on it. Or maybe had one single sad fruit: I didn’t venture that far to see what havoc the wind was wreaking. And the apple and plum trees are truly pathetic. Cherries galore, though, and the damson tree is weighted down already. And if even half the fruit on my tiny quince tree comes to maturity, the thing will probably sink under its own weight as they grow. It is strange, how each year throws up a completely different bumper crop. So far, the tiny little velvety peach-babies seem to be clinging on. I hope this gale doesn’t last too long.

For the past couple of weeks we’ve had our nightingales back. In some ways, they’re even better than the cuckoos. All right, cuckoos signal that spring is here, and that’s a very good thing indeed. But their constant hooting can take on a melancholy air. Whereas the nightingales’ song is pure enchantment. L says that the word ‘melifluous’ seems to have been invented for them. Honey-dripping. That’s what their song is. It even makes sleeplessness worthwhile. I rarely wake in the middle of the night; when I do, I generally lie there so angry with myself for having woken up that I can’t get back to sleep. But if I have nightingales gurgling outside in the woods to keep me company, it’s not so bad.

Apparently they sing all day too, male nightingales seeking mates. It’s just that you usually can’t hear them in the extraordinary bird cacophony of these spring days. There was one in Mario’s oak tree, however,  which sang to us all through lunch. Gorgeous. They winter somewhere in southern Africa. Then they flock to our woods. Then, suddenly, after a few weeks, they’ve gone. Or are they still there but, having found their mate, they’re no longer so hell bent on making their voices heard. I guess the longer they sing, the sadder it is from their point of view: fewer mates and fewer offspring. But I do so love it while they’re at it. And it’s sad when they stop but you know (or at least you hope) that same time next year they’ll be back and the enchantment will begin again.

It’s like peas in their pods or asparagus: things which appear briefly in the shops then disappear when their time is up. Those people who are victims of supermarket living, and frenetic importing, lose that wonderful gift of seasonality. They forget that rarity is what makes things special: the  looking forward, the enjoyment, the reminiscing, and the anticipation once again.

I’m busy – between general, not entirely successful, efforts to keep the weed population at bay – fixing up the orchard… now officially known as the sunset garden. The plan there includes a proper lawn, no easy feat in a stretch of land which our builder, all those years ago, used as his cantiere – the area where he dumped everything from piles of sand to piles of gravel in ever-increasing sizes, right up to the big lumps of rock we used in the drainage channel behind the half-buried part of our house. For decades, or maybe even centuries, before that, that stretch was the aia, the threshing floor: chosen, probably, because it’s the only really flat bit of land we have on this steep hillside property.

When we arrived, there were still the stumpy remains of four brick columns. This was where the straw was stacked, up and up with struts fixed between the columns to hold the packed-down straw in place. Then a thatched roof was placed on top when it was full. We came across one of these structures still in use a couple of years ago in a strange corner lost in time near Piegaro. Our columns were backed into by trucks and battered by well-diggers and even what remained soon toppled. The bricks are now in our front gate posts, in homage to their former place.

All this to say that between one thing and another, the earth in our one flat bit is pretty terrible, and stone-filled, and unmanageable. Only the roughest of weedy scrubby grass grows there.

So my plan is to spread tufa thickly enough to bury the stones, to add sufficient manure to the tufa to make it fertile enough to sow grass on, and to plant pretty corners and create a pergola which is perfectly positioned to sit, glass of wine in hand, beneath fronds of Actinidia deliciosa (kiwi), watching the sun go down on summer evenings.

Progress towards this goal? Well, there’s a huge pile of tufa, delivered by Giuseppe, but it’s on the wrong side of the rose hedge and needs to be shifted in a couple of long long days’ shovelling and wheel-barrowing. I can feel my back seizing up at the very though. Of course, the lawn will just fall away at the edges unless it’s edged, so that’s something that needs thinking through. But what we do have now, in skeletal form, is our pergola.

It’s the simplest of designs: baseboards 2.5m by 2.5m supporting a cube of wooden uprights and horizontals. The block inside the baseboards is a gaping hole: the idea is that we fill it with all the piles of stone all over the property that we don’t know what to do with, then level it out with gravel on the top. Though that, of course, involves ferrying tonnes of stones there somehow, and the pergola is on the top level… the stones would have to be pushed uphill.

I’m just wondering now how long it will be before one of our (so so few) neighbours reports us to the forestale who will come along and demand to see our permit to put up a structure. The rules on this are so vague. It’s completely dismantle-able, which should make it acceptable. And anyway, our property plans show that we have a structure up there – the four old columns which once held the straw – and we pay rates on that non-existent structure, year in, year out. Who knows if we have a leg to stand on? I just hope to finish it, get it covered with vegetation and make it not quite so much of an eyesore. Then maybe one evening, we’ll sit there with our drinks and watch the sky turn red. Though, as L says, when did I last sit in my garden? I’m far too much of a contented potterer for that.

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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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