29 April 2014

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It’s grey and drear outside the kitchen window, and I’ve had to light a fire. That’s spring I guess: one moment you’re dusting off your shorts and sun hat, and the next you’re back in your thermal vest. But (perhaps because I have one of my extremely rare colds, and am feeling very very sorry for myself), I’m aching for proper spring with endless gleaming days of perfect warmth. It will come.

In fact, the plants already think it’s here: temperatures have been high, and water – in the form of rain – abundant, which for them constitutes dream conditions. I threw a few rocket and radish seeds in the bed among the asparagus just a few days ago and they have sprung up in thick masses – so quickly that even the ravenous ants (which so far are sticking mostly to the garden and leaving the house alone) didn’t have time to spirit the seeds off into their underground vaults.

I also, in a fit of recklessness, put some well advanced tomato seedlings into the ground, far earlier than I usually do. I told my friend Brian about this and he looked very skeptical: there is still the chance of a very cold snap, he reckons. But I have my usual wildly ambitious crop of seedlings in the greenhouse and – as I’m going to be sensible this year and not plant huge squished-in jungles of tomato plants but fewer, properly spaced individuals – I can replace the lot should we be visited by hail or frost or snow. So I’m not feeling too worried about possible impending disaster. If they do behave as I’d like them to, I might this year have tomatoes when I need them: all through summer, rather than just towards the end of the season when guests have gone and we’re sick of salads already. Failure to find time to put the damn things in the ground meant that was what happened for the last couple of years.

(Hopefully my carefully laid plans won’t be scuttled by the horrid tiny slugs which, I realised this week, were responsible for the no-show of many of my seedlings. Peppers (hot and sweet), cabbage, certain flower varieties, lettuce: all appeared to have failed completely. Then I realised that there were leafless stalks in some of the little pots. Very close examination revealed these horrid beasts which had been feasting on my babies. Now I’ve sprinkled ferric phosphate pellets around the greenhouse, and some of those forlorn stalks are already producing leaves. So far, thankfully, the tomato seedlings have proved unappetising.)

Spring is the time when the circularity of life here is most striking. There is the succession of blooms bursting out and dying: the daffodils, the iris and fruit blossom, the guelder rose and china rose – the list goes on. And there’s the reawakening for the nose. Not that there aren’t scents through the winter too: there are, though they tend to be earthy rather than flowery. The slightly stagnant (though none the less welcome for that) smell of the irises is now giving way to wafts from the Choisya ternata, and the Rosa chinensis seems far more fragrant (not to mention of vaster proportions) this year than I remember it being previously. I see that my Philadelphus plants have their first open flowers this morning, and there are one or two rich-smelling blooms on the rugosa hedge up by the orchard too.

For added scent, I’m gamely trying once again this year with sweet peas, in a rather more organised fashion than usual. They have been nurtured in the green house, and planted out lovingly with a proper dedicated net for them to wend around by the car park. But since they went into the ground they have started being – shall we say – recalcitrant. Par for the course.

There are animal returnees too to mark the seasons. Is that the same tit (? – bird-recognition is not my forte) couple nesting in the hole in the wall above the garden tool room door, with yet another gaggle of demanding young? And can the same nightingale be singing to me, night and day, from the oak trees? The waves of negativity that I was sending down to the bottom of the field seem to have driven away the deer that we thought had taken up residence there (though that said, I have to admit I did hear that strange barking noise they make ringing out from the woods just yesterday evening so maybe this is wishful thinking on my part). The pheasants are back in the fields – one couple down below our house and another up towards Mario’s… either that or one very mobile pair is rushing about to confuse me.

But so far, not a single snake. I hope I didn’t destroy the whole colubrine community with my netting last year: much as they make me shudder in disgust, those grass snakes do help keep the mouse population down. They also, I read somewhere, eat ants though if that’s true, they don’t seem to have made much of a dent in our hordes. And they will, I’m led to believe, eat toads too. Well, it would take a pretty ambitious snake to swallow the immense warty Bufo bufo that refused to budge from just where I was weeding on the buddleia side of the front path last weekend. I shrieked like a madwoman when it shrugged itself lazily as I almost plunged my trowel into it. I then worked around it gingerly, while the creature just blinked from time to time and seemed to be peering at me in supercilious fashion.


With local elections less than a month away, it’s daggers drawn up in town. We are a red town – fading to rather frayed pink as they years go by, like all of Italy’s Red Centre, but still more or less toeing the line of The Party, whatever name it goes under these days. But there are a couple of cats among our usual centre-left and centre-right pigeons now, in the shape of the Movimento Cinque Stelle and a local ticket called Pieve di Tutti (Everybody’s Pieve), headed up by the diminutive but redoubtable lady who in the last couple of administrations has provided the town with a cultural programme which was well nigh miraculous given the paucity of funds she had to play with.

The dilemma now is: who’s going to swing which way? Who will steal votes from the left and who from the right? If both the newcomers fish from the centre-left pond will the eternal losers on the right finally be in with a chance? Or have voters who traditionally vote left realised that – however valid the local candidates may be – Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is just a shade too proto-Fascist in its way of doing things for their tastes? And though the Pieve di Tutti list is full of extremely well-meaning candidates, can they really get the town behind them? How much, in the final analysis, does your average pievese care about a cultural programme?

I’m wondering now whether barricades are not being drawn up around bars. Five Star candidates are regulars at the Saltapicchio wine bar; the would-be mayor from the centre-left Partito Democratico holds court at the Café degli Artisti. I’ve yet to flush out the others: perhaps they’re simply not drinkers.

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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