30 January 2013

0130AThere’s something about a brilliant, blue winter day which is more exhilarating, even, than a perfect spring day or an autumn day filled with special light and colour. The blue day in the middle of winter feels like such a gift, coming as it does between leaden skies and endless, exasperating mist.

We had two of them in a row at the weekend. The wind was nippy, I’ll admit, but the sun – if you could stay out of the wind, and keep moving – was splendid. I spent two long days pottering in the garden… another special treat. When I said, not long ago, that there’s nothing you really have to do in the garden in winter, that this was the time to sit back and enjoy your guilt-free sloth, I didn’t mean there was nothing you could do. On the contrary. Around here things are looking very unkempt and very much in need of some loving kindness indeed. It doesn’t, however, worry me unduly.

0130BIf I had one of those gardens that some clients of my want – the type which is packed solid with evergreens to give year-round verdure – then dilapidation might fill me with gloom or angst. But I actually cherish the lumpy bare earth, the bedraggled whisps of last year’s growth, the few clinging dead flower heads. I love the feel of winter and dormancy: I like its pared-back feel, and the way it makes the rebirth all the more wondrous.

So going out and pottering was a joy, and brought those kind of wonderful surprises that you just don’t expect in January: the miniscule green spouts hiding beneath the matted mass of last year’s comfrey remains; the tiny spears already emerging from the stands of iris leaves which somehow I never got around to removing; the chaenomeles which, improbably, is already squeezing out electric pink flower buds; not to mention leaf buds all over my poor brave roses.

At a certain point I caught myself thinking “so this is it – spring is coming early.” Winter sun does that to you: it lulls you into a false sense of security. I began repeating my not-so-fast mantra: February 2, February 2. We had 50cm of snow on February 2 last year, and another 50cm on February 9. February, here, is the cruellest month: anything can happen but you can be pretty damn sure it won’t feel much like spring.

As I weeded and cleared, our neighbour Ettore dropped by for a chat. He wanted to discuss his new comitato, the one which is going to keep the town council on its toes and make sure they stop all the wild parking that is turning CdP into an uninhabitable chaos. It’s true that our well meaning but inconsistent town council could often do with a guiding hand and/or a kick in the butt. However… I don’t like to pour too much cold water, and of course Ettore is right to a point, and there’s always room for improvement.

But I tried to make him see that we mustn’t become traffic nazis just because we have nothing worse to cope with in our rather idyllic CdP lives. While he enlightened me about canne.

When he arrived, I had just managed to gouge a bit out of my cheek as I carted a pile of mouldering Aruno donax canes – the ones my tomatoes and beans grew up last year – to the top carpark for burning. When I told him how I’d inflicted the injury, he looked briefly concerned, but then seemed to laugh at himself.

The old people around here used to say they were poisonous he said quite sheepishly, but there was no need to look as if they didn’t know what they were talking about: it is toxic, I have discovered, or at least it is sometimes toxic but only if you eat it – not, apparently, if you scrape your cheek with it . More interestingly, he said they also believed that if you hit someone over the head with A. donax, that person stops growing. Which given the abundance of the great reed around here, and the tendency of locals to be remarkably short, might just be a case of putting two and two together and coming up with five or six. These Umbrians are nothing if not inventive.


My willow hedge experiment got a boost during those sunny days. I have now finished – give or take some pine bark – the first, longest stretch… after which I ran out of anti-weed plastic to plant the twigs through and so I gave up. It’s all very on a wing and a prayer, made up as I go along. And it looks rather sad and far too flimsy ever to come to anything. But my friend S assures me that that’s exactly what the Prince of Wales’ willow fences looked like when they were first planted. So – pitiful as it looks, I’m in good company it seems.


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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