16 October 2013

1016AI feel that I’ve made a small but significant discovery in my ceaseless battle against the black and yellow caterpillar monsters which have consumed far more of my cavolo nero (black kale) crop than I have this autumn. If you shake the plants very gently, the pathetic beasts drop straight off on to the ground and roll up, writhing in a coil – perfect targets for a  gloved bug-squishing hand. Of course, I’m dealing with smallish plants here, where there’s a good chance that the caterpillars will slide off their hosts rather than getting caught up in the long, thick, layered leaves. It’s satisfying squashing your enemies.

Today we emerged from a dreary succession of rainy days. It was starting to feel quite wintery, with a fire lit in at least one stove every evening and my cambio di stagione (putting away summer clothes and replacing them with winter ones) done some days ago. But in fact it wasn’t really cold at all – most days reach 20 degrees or just slightly less: it was the greyness and the dark short evenings which make it feel so Decemberish. And now, with big suns on the forecast for the next few days and two satisfying sun-warmed forays into the weed-jungle that was once my garden, it’s all so much more pleasantly autumnal.

The dire state of the garden is due to dreariness, damp claggy soil and superabundance of work, which continues to pour in. There was one 18-hour respite from downpours, towards the end of which I rushed outside to mow the shagginess where the lawns should have been. I love mowing lawns: from one minute to the next, a garden which looks desperately unkempt takes on a manicured air (if you can bring yourself to ignore the fact that most of those plants making your beds seem so lush should by rights be yanked out and heaved on to the compost bin).

But now my reclamation project has moved on, to real weed-pulling in the beds along the drive, not to mention the planting (finally) of a spindly little pomegranate tree in the hole left to the south of the house by by poor martyred bitter orange, so atrociously treated by L after the Big Snow of February 2012, when he sawed it off near its base because he mistook cold-damaged forlorn-ness for irremediable death. (I replanted the root and stump over towards the old trough and though it is still alive, with plenty of bushy twigs coming out of the ground, I’m not convinced it’s ever going to go very far. But having something with which to underscore my own incontrovertible superiority in the garden can be useful sometimes…)

The tree was a present from the little vivaio (nursery) over towards Cortona which planted the first stage of an odd little garden near Castiglione (what, still no website page for that? what inefficiency!) It’s a funny place, Pacelli Piante. It has a seat-of-the-pants look about it, as if it might have sprung up not long ago, but I’m told that the Pacelli family has been purveying plants there since the 1930s. Things appear to be barely under the control of the flock of swarthy women of various ages who emerge unexpectedly from behind foliage but it’s rather well stocked with healthy-looking specimens, and the planting work done by even more weather-beaten Germano, the owner, was prompt and competent. What more can you ask for?

Well Germano obviously expected me to ask for more because he rang, embarrassed, afterwards in what was clearly a fishing-about call to find out what percentage of his earnings I expected him to give to me. He sounded almost as embarrassed when I told him I wanted nothing at all: that I make my clients pay me and don’t take rake-offs from anyone else. I couldn’t tell whether he was more shocked or more relieved. So to appease him, I said he could give me a plant if he liked, and I specified what I wanted.

Does it sound naïve to say that I continue to find it odd, that practise among professionals of creaming something off at every turn? (The less naïve others, of course, will be rich way way before I am…)

At my Roman terrace project, the original idea of having the huge planters for this long thin space made by a blacksmith of my choice was over-ruled, ostensibly because of costs. Now the architect working inside the apartment has taken it upon himself to select and order ready-made metal planters. Part of me wonders whether this is merely a move on his part to ensure that he gets his cut from the planter-supplier. But maybe I’m being unnecessarily cruel. If, on the other hand, my cynical suspicions are correct, he must think I’m some kind of simpleton. Because after an initial phase in which I significantly reduced the number of planters he had requested, I have upped the bottom line again by adding drip-catching trays, and insulation inside to stop my plants frying in their metal coffins. In the end it won’t come in at all that much less than my blacksmith. In any case, I don’t stand to gain… and I don’t see why I should.


1016BI’m back on duty at the stove again, producing autumn jellies and chutneys. The quinces this year have been early and magnificent. I don’t know how many kilos of fruit I removed from my one tiny tree – certainly enough to brew up about six kilos of beautiful wine-coloured jelly using just over half of them. The pulp left in the jelly bag is still sitting in the fridge, challenging me every time I open it to embark on cotognata-making. I must find the time and strength, I must. This evening I turned some of the pulp into quince crumble and it had no need of any added apple to add sweetness or cut the graininess of the flesh: it simply wasn’t grainy at all.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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