16 March 2014

aprThis evening I came in from the garden at 6.40. It never fails to take me by surprise, how one moment we’re keeping the cold night out by closing the shutters soon after four, then the next we’re feeling the hot breath of impending summer on the back of our necks and are still weeding at dinner time. Though in fact what I’m feeling on the back of my neck at this precise moment is nasty itchy bites from some insect which attacked me while I was seeing to my willow hedge (of which more later): I feel this will be a salient feature of the coming summer. We just haven’t had enough cold to do away with any of the little pests.

It must have been 20 degrees out there. Lovely. But so terribly dry. As I progressed round the place in my desperate rush to make thing look less jungly, I was turning on watering systems wherever I went. In some places the soil was painfully dry – a concept almost impossible to grasp after a winter in which unimaginable amounts of rain fell. So much of the countryside washed away. And it kept on falling until about ten days ago, then stopped, very abruptly. Even the lawn has a parched look to it now.

I’ve spent much of the past few weeks terrified that Nature was about to play a mean trick on us, and hurl winter back just as everything was putting on buds. It could, of course, still happen, though it’s getting less likely with each day that passes. But the apricot blossom clung on and on with nothing to dislodge it (though I’m not holding my breath for fruit because Mario’s old apricot tree is just now squeezing out a few measly flowers as my blossom falls – the window for essential cross-fertilization is far too small for a healthy crop). And there has been nothing at all to buffet or strip the leaf buds which are bursting out all over. Fingers crossed. As I say, it could still happen and one hailstorm would spell disaster.

The daffodils are looking splendid, there are violets all over, and the tiny wild black iris (Hermodactylus tuberosa) pops up in ever more places from year to year. I noticed this evening, working up behind the chicken house, that my lovely white anemones (are they A. nemorosa, or are they white A. blanda?) are all over the place beneath the philadelphus and the winter jasmine. The winter jasmine, by the way, produced hardly a flower once again this winter, though one plant looks like it may be just about to make up for lost time – they’re huge but definitely not happy enough there to do what they’re meant to do.

All of this, plus my willow hedge is going wild.

Poor willow hedge: I stuck the twigs in the ground and – as happens so often in my haphazard gardening progress – left them mostly to their own devices. Some died; I did make efforts to replace them, but all slightly half-hearted and very rushed. My original plan was for something terribly neat and very impressive, along the lines of the wonderful willow walk that we admired so much at La Chatonnière two years ago. But that requires a bit of skill and a fleet of gardeners, I reckon. It certainly needs more than my on-and-off ministrations. So out of the window go symmetry and order, and in come grace and exuberance. Out goes French-style rigour and in comes Italian meandering (or so I tell myself). My hedge will be a living version of the rather wonderful woven-willow panels made by Anna Patrucco, not the rather pedestrian ones which for some strange reason she gives such a lot of space to on her site but the marvellous curvy, twisty ones she calls ‘random’ which is how I see my hedge ending up. I spent a while the other evening (so absorbed in what I was doing that I didn’t notice the biting insects) lopping off growth that was never going to behave as I wanted it to, and looping other bits in a delicate operation to make them swerve around and stay wedged in graceful swoops. Hmmm. I’m not sure how much attention I’m going to end up lavishing on this new arrangement either. But it’s certainly easier than trying to regiment à la francaise vegetation which is determined to go elsewhere; and it means that if one switch dies and there’s a bit of a hole here and there in my grand design, it really doesn’t matter.

I’ve been mediumly efficient this final weekend of winter, and now have many of my summer vegetable seeds snug in the horrid plastic greenhouse. The tomatoes and one batch of lettuce went in a couple of weeks ago, and are sprouting nicely – no before-Christmas planting for me this year, having realised that it’s much less hassle simply to wait until spring. I’m trying okra again this year: it always fails but you never know, this may just be its year. (Same for lovage, my most-tried, most-failed herb. I’ve stuck a few seeds in, as I always do, but without holding my breath in any way. It’s a shame, because apart from being a  very useful herb, it’s also a gorgeous plant.) And this year I’m trying to extend my flower range.

My style in my own garden (as opposed to other people’s gardens) is so sparse – rather like my house. I like bare earth between beautiful plants (by which, mostly, I mean roses). And I’m too stingy with water for anything froufrou or flouncy to get very far in our tending-towards-thin soil. As for sumptuous borders of glorious complexity, forget it. I have neither the patience nor the desire. If truth be told, my main problem in previous attempts to have a more ‘gushing’ garden have come a-cropper because I have failed to find time to plant my poor little seedlings out: on the whole, they tend to wither and die within the confines of the greenhouse.

Will this year be any different? Boh. I have sown various types of cosmos, some asters and some alyssum, sweet peas (where shall I put them? Can I mix them in with the raspberries?), gaura, monarda… all kinds of things that I will put heaven-knows-where and water heaven-knows-how – unless they give up the ghost before I have to decide.

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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