How long can one pergola take? Over two years, when I’m dithering over finishing touches. From May 2011 to July 2013. I had all kinds of ideas for the accompanying awning, from drifty chiffon in various colours to one big white sail. But in the end I went for hessian. And I think I made the right decision.
As I explained to her how my pergola was taking on its final form, I found myself in a debate with my sister C about what, if any, are the differences between jute and hessian. The answer seems to be that if they were once separate things, they are now largely interchangeable. In Italian it’s just juta. We could have thrown burlap into the mix: again, a rough textile made from woven from the Corchorus spp. plant. And had we progressed on to uses to which this fabric is put, we could have added gunny sacks. Mine, at any rate, is rather fine stuff, purchased in that wonderful treasure trove, the Ditta Grilli in Arezzo.
Now all it needs is for the grape vines and kiwi plants to grow sufficiently to completely cover and hide the metal mesh that sits on top; the mesh extends beyond the awning and my intention is that the vegetation will cover it completely and dangle picturequely over the edges. L hates the mesh, and is dying to change it for something else, or at the very least paint it. But I want it just as it is, because if (when) things grow it will become invisible. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will happen sufficiently swiftly for him to understand the concept.
It’s a constant battle for me, at home, but more importantly in my work, to try to communicate what something in a garden will be, rather than what it is. When I plant a garden, I tend to be quite blind to what’s really there. So it can come as a surprise to me when a client seems less than impressed with the blobs of small plant set amid a sea of freshly turned earth. “Is that it?” is a dispiritingly common reaction. Well, yes and no, because a garden is a process and a progression: it can never be static. But the person who has to write the cheque is not always as good at projecting.
I’ve had this twice in the past few weeks, in both instances not far from lake Trasimeno. One very small garden, of which I have only worked on half so far, belongs to an American with a cooking school. The place will remain very contadino – there are too many olive trees set in rough grass to change its nature – but this works well with the field-to-table ethos of the place. My aim out the front was to use beds to create some privacy and an area when people might feel tempted to sit out on the grass and enjoy the rustic setting. For the time being, however, privacy seems a little ambitious. The plants will grow though (I hope) and the feel of the place will be transformed. Curious neighbours will be no longer be able to keep tabs.
(Here, incidentally, I also placed a pergola which took far, far less time than my own, and one that I’m rather proud of. The carpenter refused part of my design – I wanted it suspended on pins sunk into the ground at the bottom rather than metal cups for it to stand in – saying that my much more elegant idea contravened earthquake regs. I’m sure he was making that up. Still, it looks good all the same and will look even better once it has a textile awning and lots of lovely plants tumbling over it.)
The second, much larger, project is also near Castiglione (funny how things keep popping up around there these days) and there too I have only planted one part of it, though this time it is because the rest is an excruciatingly slow-moving building site. This upper area, away from the danger of workmen’s boots and equipment, is more than 1000 square metres, and dotted with many towering Pinus pinea (umbrella pine) trees, so even the medium-sized plants I had put in there look very diminutive in comparison. Peering at the cypresses which had seemed so tall in the nursery, my client could barely believe they were the same ones. And he seemed quite incredulous that the blobs in the beds (which he feared were too small) would ever be more than pinpricks on the landscape. But they will: they already cover about one fifth of the whole area, and in my mind they cascade gloriously over the walls down to the lower layer and clamber beautifully up pergolas and blend gloriously with the existing trees. I just need my vision of the place to become reality.
This second garden made me realise quite how pleasant it can be to work with Muslim men. I know, on the whole, that Muslim men don’t get a great press where their relations with women go. But whereas the other males around the place as we planted – the Italian and eastern European ones – had great expanses of beer and/or pasta gut tumbling rather disgustingly over low-slung trouser belts in the melting sun, the sweet, smiling, polite Moroccan boys were immaculately and fully dressed in front of me. I appreciate the respect. And the respite from the unappealingness of everyone else around.
That moment of the year when you realise that most meals contain a large-ish proportion of things out of the garden is always so satisfying. And when you suddenly find yourself with so much that you’re having to freeze it too, that’s even better.
My beans are slowly going into the freezer. I prefer to do small amounts, whenever I realise that we’re never going to be able to consume what I picked earlier in the day. Four minutes in the steamer, a quick plunge into cold water, then dried off and into bags and straight into the freezer. Small quantities have the advantage of not bringing down the freezer temperature too: they are frozen through in no time.
But most of my harvest goes straight on to our plates. After weeks in which my friends B&L made me feel very behindhand by offering me the fruits of their courgette glut, we finally ate our first courgettes today, still warm from the garden. There are cucumbers galore, and so many strawberries – huge ones thanks to the rain which keeps falling from time to time. The new raspberry plants that L planted in the spring seem to be a summer variety; the old ones, on the other hand, are autumn-fruiting which means in effect that we now have fruit on the canes from May until October.