6 February 2013

I have great piles of seed packets neatly arranged on the kitchen table: tomatoes, peppers sweet and hot, lettuce of various types, nasturtiums and marigolds, basil, dill and coriander. If I had anything to plant them in I’d be out in this glorious warm early-afternoon sunshine (odd, because it sleeted briefly this morning…) sowing them and most likely standing over them expectantly, watching for them to push through the soil into the light. It’s the kind of day which makes you expect instant miracles like that. But all my old seed trays, used and reused for the past couple of years, are falling to pieces so I’ll have to wait until the shops reopen to nip out and get some replacements. Let’s hope the sun doesn’t give way to snow again in the mean time: I might lose the urge and move on to some inside chore instead.

I’ve stuck to my resolution, you see, and waited until a more reasonable time to get seeds going, rather than jumping the gun and doing it in December. Which doesn’t of course mean that it may all be plain, increasingly spring-like sailing from here on in. But it does mean that there’s just slightly less possibility of having to start all over again at quite the wrong moment. So I shall keep my fingers crossed.

Things have been going quite awry on the weather front. The giorni della merla – 29, 30, 31 January – which are meant to be the coldest of the year were magnificent. The along came candelora (2 February, Candlemass, Groundhog Day) and we got a bit of everything. There are many rhymes that go with candelora, most of them contradicting each other depending on where you happen to be. But in these parts, they say per la santa candelora dell’inverno semo fora, ma se piove o tira vento nell’inverno semo dentro – if the weather’s good then winter’s over, but if it’s bad then we’re going to get more of it: some say 20 days, some say 40 days more. Take your pick. But we had a day like today: sparkling sunshine, a bit of drizzle, a bit of a frost – a bit of everything. What does that mean? Expect whatever gets thrown at you.


There were voices wafting across the fields the other day from down by Mario’s spring, so I went to investigate. There was Mario, his tractor-with-trailer parked at an improbable angle on a steep slope. And there were his Romanian house-help and her son, hacking at fallen branches and heaving them into the trailer respectively. They were cutting down a hugely tall, spindly walnut tree which – unless you looked up – was barely visible among the reeds and brambles and wild clematis that chokes everything down there in that abandoned but very moist corner.

“It’s dead,” said Mario. Frankly, I had my doubts, but I let it ride. “Do you know any carpenters who need it for chair legs?”  This was a nice idea, but my chair-leg-making acquaintances aren’t numerous. “Last time I cut down a walnut,” Mario mused, “I got L400,000 for the trunk. It was the best tree I ever cut down!”

Now, even in 2002 when Italy swapped the lira for the euro, L400,000 was a decent whack of money: there was a lot you could do with €205 then, and chances that are Mario was reminiscing about decades before that when it would have kept the whole family going for a couple of months. Not that long ago, around here, that was the way people operated: craftsmen knew the value of what the contadini had to offer, and the contadini were never slow to spot a possible windfall – all to everyone’s benefit, and the best possible use of resources. Everything had value, and it was instantly recognised by all.

Now, the walnut will become firewood. Good-ish firewood, walnut, but far too high quality as wood, really, to go up in smoke.

Every year about this time Mario (and all the other oldies around) ‘fortuitously’ find a tree or a couple of huge branches that absolutely have to be lopped off. They get chopped neatly and stacked somewhere, covered with a piece of ugly plastic sheeting and left to dry out so that it’s all perfectly ready for next winter’s fires. I say ‘fortuitously’ in my cynical way, but in fact it’s an excellent practice. If it’s done properly, removing a branch or two from a tree does it nothing but good: if you don’t look after your trees then nature will and you’ll have plants full of dead and rotting wood: far better to get there first, burn it and make it work for you.

(Here I shall avoid the temptation to get into the murky swamp of the ‘wood burning: carbon neutral or not?’ debate – far too many convincing arguments on both sides. Suffice it to say that around here, there are so many woods that need to be husbanded that using the by-product of sensible forestry policy can’t be too harmful.)

Of course we should be doing this too, rather than getting the Faleburle girls down with their stacks of rather expensive firewood. Why on earth are we paying when our trees are so in need of a clean-up? Because even factoring in the hours spent stacking the great mounds that Elisa Faleburle tips on to the chicken house lawn, that’s more time-efficient than sawing, hauling, cleaning, chopping and stacking what comes off trees – ie sheer laziness on our part. We urgently need to rethink our firewood policy.


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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