It’s in these very first days of real spring that you begin to realise how inadequate photography – and even words – can be. They can never capture the brilliance of it all. Things seem to be backlit, to an illogical degree and at all hours: gossamer drifts of spiderweb floating by, swarms of glimmering insects hovering, dandelions glowing inexplicably, insanely yellow.
These dandelions have been making me think about yellow, and the way that that colour doesn’t always get the admiration it deserves. So many of my garden-design colleagues – including many whom I admire – turn up their noses and wave it off with disdain. And I have been guilty of following meekly in their wake. Why?
Yellow in spring is such a magnificent new broom, sweeping out the winter damp and gloom. Of course, around here, in the gardens of ugly little suburb-sprawl houses, forsythia is the yellow of choice, and that doesn’t do the colour any favours. It’s a plant with little to recommend it: it forms itself into ungainly shapes, and is nondescript when simply green or bare, ie for most of the year. And I have to admit, its splattery egg yolk yellow isn’t really the sublest of shades. I must also admit, however, that I have two little bushes – well hidden around behind the chicken house – which I prune back hard as soon as the flowers drop off to keep them in their place but when that yellow bursts out against its bleak background it’s like a huge sigh of relief in vegetable form.
There are other instances of yellows-to-love too, such as a distant hillside of Spartium junceum (gorse – and note I said distant) sending its heady high-summer perfume your way; or a bright splash of Laburnum anagyroides (in Italian, laburnum is called maggiociondolo, or May-dangles – beautifully fitting) in an otherwise spring-green-dusted wood; or the large, uncomplicated blooms of a mermaid rose clambering over a fence or wall.
So what, then, is with this anti-yellow thing? Well, yes, granted, a harsh shade of yellow becomes very grating indeed in the glare of an Italian mid-summer day. But if you select your yellows to add a subtly golden flash in a shady spot, or a respectfully pale reflection of the relentless sunlight (I’m thinking here of my long bank covered with Rosa Primo Passo, on which tiny mid-yellow buds open up in the palest of yellows which I like to call parchment) then there is little to dislike.
In order to show that I’m embracing yellow, I shall plant a ‘stream’ of Hypericum calycinum down the new curving strip of garden that emerged when I moved the path from carpark to house. Admittedly, this could owe something to the fact that I love the leaves which go from chartreuse green to almost blue-tinged then russetty, and grow so neatly on their little arching branches. And it could also be due to my plans to overwhelm it with larger overhanging plants (varieties to be decided). Most conveniently of all though, I am doing this because L declared he liked Rose of Sharon and that that was exactly what he’d like planted there – which means that if it ends up looking awful, it can all be his fault. Those rare times when he dares utter a horticultural preference can be terribly useful.
If yellow is my new colour for 2013, acidofile plants are my other exciting novelty. In a project I’m doing nearby, one part of the garden contains what is left of a little wood of Pinus pinea – umbrella pines.These are big old trees and the ground beneath is, I presume, thoroughly acid from decades of pine needles. So for once in this alkaline landscape I can play with rhododendrons and camellias and acid-loving hydrangeas in great big banks. Besides the occasional undemanding hydrangea, I don’t recall ever having planted a single acidophile. I’m reading up furiously and seeking appropriate producers – which of course are very thin on the ground in an area where as a rule you can’t grow them.
Because they know we don’t eat meat, friends – well, Italian ones anyway – sometimes presume that we are food freaks and will follow any odd fad. The other day, one was telling me how his life has changed since he found a yogurt he could eat after dinner without it keeping him awake all night. “They’ve taken out x and y and added z and you can eat it any time! It’s great!”
He insisted I should try but, missing (as I often do) a great opportunity to keep my mouth shut, I muttered something instead about preferring not to eat processed food. It was meant neutrally though I’m perfectly prepared to admit it might have come out with a holier-than-thou edge to it. Cue huff. “Processed? Processed? What do you mean, processed? This is health food!”
A couple of days later L happened to be in the supermarket selling that ‘yogurt’ and – perhaps out of curiosity, perhaps embarrassed at the recollection of my rudeness – he bought some. It tasted yogurt-like, too sweet for me and of an indeterminate ‘fruit’ flavour (I’ll resist the temptation to begin a diatribe on artificial colours and flavours). But the ingredients printed on the back of the tub were enough to make you spit it right back out again. I can’t remember if milk featured: if it did, it was way down the list.
Now, the great thing about yogurt is that it is just milk with friendly bacteria added, with all the goodness of those two ingredients. And if it doesn’t agree with you at night, surely the answer is to eat it for lunch. Or breakfast. Why would you opt to allow multinational food giants to persuade you that a list of chemical-sounding ingredients is ‘health’ food? How do they get away with it?
That said, perhaps I should pin my inconsistent colours to the mast with a description of my rising nausea in the local Coop just before Easter. Italians eat lamb for Easter, the babier the better. I don’t eat meat, but I have no problems with other people doing so. I worry about them consuming industrially farmed, drug-filled rubbish, both for the sake of their own health and for what may have happened to the poor beasts before they reached the plate. But what other people eat is their business not mine, and even if they want to eat it at the table next to me I don’t, as a rule, feel I have any right to criticise or complain.
But the Coop was doing a special deal on whole half lambs, curled up in foetal positions on huge polystyrene trays and covered with clingfilm. Pure unprocessed lamb, and as the Coop has, I think, a rather better record on food-sourcing than most, probably not the worst treated animals in the world. But there was one of these dead babies curled up in every single shopping trolley as I waited at the check-out, and the smell of it was everywhere. For once I felt like a real, crusading vegetarian, my hackles and disgust rising. The queue seemed impossibly long.
So, L and my brother-in-law survived L’Eroica. Miraculously, and with some doubts, at times, in their own minds I suspect, as they struggled to get their bikes up and down 209km of largely dirt track. But when I picked them up last Thursday evening from Gaiole in Chianti they were walking wounded as opposed to stretcher cases, and were perfectly able to do justice to the fantastic new restaurant at La Bandita Townhouse in Pienza – especially after a good dousing under one of the Townhouse’s wonderful showers. The weather was on their side: spring decided to begin round about then.