2 August 2012

As this drought continues to hold us in its grasp, fire-fear sets in. We leave the windows open at night, to allow the cooler air to wash over us; when the light drags me out of my deep sleep at sunrise, I awaken with a powerful reek of smoke in my nose – an olfactory illusion so far, and let’s hope it stays that way.

Our Canadian neighbours were calmly sleeping through a near-conflagration the other day when Vittorio the gardener arrived and banged and shouted them into a panic. Something had set a rose bed on fire – did the ground-level light in there short? that seems like the likeliest explanation – and flames had destroyed lavander and roses, and were licking up the trunk of an umbrella pine (Pinus pinea) when Vittorio arrived for work. Full of resin, umbrella pines explode like flaming torches when they reach a certain temperature. I dread to think what might have happened had he not intervened in time.

I’ve given up entirely on my lawns. And taken to deep-watering my poor, heat-blighted roses: I’ve dug a hole around the base of each of them and leave the hose to trickle slowly into it, sending the water straight down, I hope, to the roots: it takes up most of my afternoon, shifting the hose from plant to plant.

In past years, it had never occurred to me that the established ones might need a drip system. But this year, they could really have done with it. To date, I have been going on the presumption that a sprinkler on the grass every few days would drop sufficient water on the roses to keep them happy too. But I have been deluding myself. Not only about the amount of water they need, but about the overall effect this might have: part of the leaf-burn they’re suffering is, presumably, due to water on the leaves, despite the fact that all my spraying has been done well on into the evening with the sun well off the plants.

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At my project up in the hills not far from here, I have been having dealings with the dubious character responsible for blighting the landscape with jerry-built dwellings, one of which my clients have bought. The first time I set eyes on this man was last spring, from afar; I was at a loss to say whether I had stumbled into a scene from The Godfather or from a Marx Brothers film. He comes across as the harmless bumbling grandfather: his intentions, though, are invariably self-serving rather than kindly.

The watering system installed for the plants finally planted there a couple of weeks ago had, he informed Maurizio from the nursery, interrupted the water flow into his part of the house (there are four back-to-back in the complex). He was off to the carabinieri to report us for furto dell’acqua – water theft: such a picturesque-sounding crime. After an hour of patient explanation on our part, and endless ramblings on his – on the iniquities of the Italian justice system, on the dreadfulness of politicians national and local and, best of all, on everyone’s lack of appreciation for his own unique contribution to the beautification of the Umbrian countryside – he agreed that we had seen “con i nostri sei occhi” (with our six eyes) that the watering system was not to blame. I don’t know whether he has found the water thief since.

On my next visit he ‘summoned’ me into his office to tell me something terribly important. He has, as he continues to tell me, an engineering degree but also another in agronomy. So what he doesn’t know about planting is not worth knowing. Fine.

“You are the brains here,” he told me, “but you must watch your ‘arms’, your manpower.”
“Oh yes,” I asked, “why?”
“They’re doing everything wrong. They’re taking the pots off those plants.”
I was nonplussed.
“You must never remove the pots when planting plants, signora. You’re an intelligent woman. You must know that.”

And on and on with a long explanation of how to score each pot with a sharp knife to make four crosses around the sides. That, he says, discourages capillaries which, he says, just kill plants because when they get wet the carbon dioxide they produce turns to carbonic acid and corrodes them away. Or something like that.

“Gosh!” I said. It’s pointless arguing. “We do come from different schools of thought!” I clearly left him thinking that my ignorance knows no bounds. But undoubtedly happy that I had confirmed all his suspicions about my ineptitude.

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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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