20 April 2012

It’s a little like living in the tropics here at the moment, though unfortunately without the heat. Mornings might lull you into thinking that the good weather had returned: throwing open the shutters on a glistening, green world makes your heart sing.

But by one o’clock the sky has clouded over, the lights are back on inside and we’re braced for the downpour – fantastic for the poor parched earth, for the depleted acquifers and for the weeds which are rampaging. But not at all good for getting things done outside. Or for feeling at all springy, despite the constant echo of the cuckoos around here, which sound so forlorn when they’re not an avian accompaniment to long balmy days.

My project up in the hills near here which got off to such a flying start just as the weather was on the turn is now hopelessly bogged down – quite literally. Funny: there was me peering anxiously at the huge lumps of stone poking out of the ground, wondering whether I was going to find that I was making a garden on bedrock, anxiously totting up how much it might cost to bring enough topsoil even for a few bedding plants. As the bulldozer got to work, however, it became obvious that there was plenty of lovely, deep soil between the rocks. But as the first drops fell, what had seemed like fine dry loamy sandy earth revealed its true clay-filled nature. Wonderful – as I told my Irish clients who turned up for a few days to learn the art of skipping through deep clay mud in their shiny new-bought wellies – for the roses which I’m planning to plant everywhere. But terrible for heavy machinery and delivery of truckloads of gravel to the very end of a long rutted track. Very frustrating.

What we did manage to do before the elements got in the way was partially sort out some layers, and begin building walls. I saw my clients looking at me askance when I told them how I was always mesmerised by good digger operators – the way their machinery becomes an extension of their arms. Soon, however, I found them watching, transfixed, too.

Even more bewitching was Mario, the stone mason. I pulled up a chair from inside the house and sat and stared. I have no idea how long I spent like that. He’s an elderly man, of few words, but gentle manners from another age. I don’t think I really saw his face, so bent over was he, always close to the stones. His hands, though, were fascinating: long, thin and sunburnt, they might have been pianists’ fingers, and they stroked the stones as if he were touching live things. His tools consist of a small hammer and a tiny pick. He runs his finger over any stone that doesn’t fit his plan precisely, then, as if he has felt the weak point, taps at it with hammer or pick and it becomes just the right shape. And all the while he sings and whistles and murmurs under his breath. He is, I’m sure, talking the stones.

I have found a new helper for my garden. His name is Indi, and he’s Sri Lankan. We have a few issues to deal with: his appointment-keeping leaves much to be desired but his flights of artistic fancy are even more disturbing. I asked him to clear the brush lining our lane up on the neighbour’s land – getting down here was becoming a difficult task – and left him hacking away at elm thickets. When I went back a couple of hours later he had finished one side… but left a few straggly elms, each of which now has a picturesque little stone wall around its base. I took a deep breath. But I also took note of the fact that he builds good walls, and so moved his operations down on to our land, along the driveway where the iris-and-artichoke bed has always blended very annoyingly into the weedy drive. Now it doesn’t. It is beautifully walled off and is looking splendid. And the irises – all in glorious bloom at the moment – look even better for their exalted position.

I pointed out to him that if he’s going to work without major conflicts for a landscape designer, he’d better think twice before putting his own ideas into place without first consulting me. I think he got the idea.

One day we were surveying wild board damage to the fields and I expressed my very unflattering thoughts about hunters.

“Are you a Catholic, signora?” he asked me.
“No, Indi, I’m not much at all really,” I said, to his obvious disapproval.
“I’m a Buddhist. I don’t kill animals, not even mosquitos,” he told me in his terribly serious way.
“More fool you,” I said. “I kill mosquitos with glee.” He looked shocked, so I eased his mind by telling him that I don’t eat meat, so my heart is almost in the right place.

A few days later, when he was building the iris wall, I rather meanly got my own back when he suggested buying some weedkiller to deal with our messy drive.

“Huh!” I said, “I think you have some explaining to do to Lord Buddha! That stuff kills everything – grass, insects, small animals; I even know someone whose dog died after she used that horrible poison on her garden.”

I’m not sure he believed me completely, but I certainly sowed a seed of doubt. Another successful blow against glyphosate?

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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