15 January 2013

Yesterday there were two deer grazing watchfully at the bottom of the field. It’s the first time that I’ve ever seen them here. There are innumerable deer across on the Tuscan side of the motorway: they’re getting so frequent that you really have to be careful driving on lonely roads at night. But over here, they’re rarities.

0115COf course I have long had my doubts: sometimes I find the juicy bits nipped so neatly off vegetables in my orto – far too neatly for boar or porcupine who churn things up and squash everything around with their careless feet. Then there was the time, a couple of years ago, when one of the fathers from C’s high-school group who were all up here from Rome for lunch suddenly pulled himself out of his post-prandial stupor at the kitchen table and, sitting bolt upright, said “there was a deer! looking through that window!” Of course we all just gave him pitying “how much have you had to drink?!” looks, but the suspicion remained – to me at least – that it might not have been a simple alcohol-fuelled hallucination.

So there they were, on the qui-vive as usual, their little white tails flicking as they smelt me (heard me?) on the breeze. It’s amazing that anything survives the winter blasting away by hunters down there in that valley. Or maybe the blasting is so much worse across on the Tuscan side that they see our valley as a kind of haven. Just as long as they stay down there rather than coming up here to feast on my vegetables. I don’t want to have to resort to high fences and a constant battle for vegetable survival. That would be dull indeed.

0115AI’ve never made a living willow hedge, much as I like them. So, while we were clearing stray trunks and branches from the beautiful stand of willows down in the field, still partly bowed after last year’s crushing snow, I thought I’d preserve some switches and try. Of course the moment I collected my twigs, it started raining and has never stopped since, so there has been no opportunity for clearing the trench in which to plant them. They’re standing up in the chicken house in a bucket of water, waiting for the right meteorological conditions and me to get my pick out. The great thing about willow is, they won’t mind waiting at all.

When we bought this house, there was a big plastic drum standing outside the front door, full to the brim with rain water and stuffed full of long willow twigs – far longer, I should say, than the rather pathetic specimens I have cut for my fence. They were thin and pliable and, I presume, for making baskets rather than for creating hedges. For months I kept them, toying with the idea of learning to weave but like so many of my good intentions, that one fizzled out beneath a pile of other more pressing things – like, at that time, getting our ruin into some kind of habitable shape. So eventually the willow twigs ended up on a bonfire, but I have often thought about them since.

0115BHow wonderful that even then, in the 1990s (I suspect they had been there for some years… we bought the house in 2001), people were plucking willow wands and weaving their yearly baskets. You didn’t have to be a good weaver for that – they just threw the things together for gathering kindling or hunting mushrooms (loose-woven baskets allow the spores to fall through more easily, for a good crop the following season). I wonder if anyone around here still knows how to do it now. Someone should be collaring all those very old ladies, and giving them a role in life, sharing their arcane know-how with young people. If we don’t act soon it will all die out and we’ll be the poorer for its loss.

My willow hedge (technically, apparently, they’re called ‘fedges’ – a cross between fence and hedge – but that is such an ugly word) will be beyond the vegetable garden, along the border with Mario’s land. It will be a criss-cross affair, with foliage in a fringe along the top. It won’t be a very quick process, because my wands are shorter than they might be – the very longest are two metres but many are considerably shorter. But if they behave like willow should, they’ll be running away from me come spring, and I’ll be able to finish their criss-cross pattern and weave them in and out at the right height at the top. Or so my plan goes. It remains to be seen whether those beautifully coloured twigs won’t meet the same fate as the greying long-soaked ones I found by the front door in 2001. Progress reports to follow.

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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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