27 December 2014

1227AToday we awoke to our first proper frost of the year. Up until now, hanging the washing out in the morning has been a chance to feel my back warmed by a wonderfully tepid late-season sun. Not today. My fingers were creaky-stiff by the time I had finished.

On this day after boxing day, it’s a clammy, cloudy cold blowing in from the south. Yesterday the change began from the north – icy blasts from a crystalline sky of stunning clarity.

I often gloat about how welcome winter is, with its comfortable sloth and lack of gardening jobs which just have to be done. But on days like yesterday, there’s nothing more joyous than getting out and working in the sun: it makes your soul feel alive.

I banked up a mix of freshly sifted compost and earth around the base of my artichoke plants (how nice it would be if they finally produced some artichokes next year: they’re still suffering from the unfortunate ‘prune’ they received from a so-called gardener just before fruiting time a few years ago). I mowed the lawn beneath the dead and shedding elms behind the chicken house where the grass was so long that I couldn’t even get the rake tines in to remove leaves and twigs. I wrapped the outside taps in fleece against the extreme cold forecast for the next few days (will it be enough to kill the bugs that lived through our last warm winter to ravage veg and olives this year?) I raked leaves from the orchard and the paths of the vegetable garden, and from the rain drainage channels as the forecast for today was for almost 20mm of rain – difficult to imagine under such limpid skies (and in fact, it hasn’t materialised so far). I picked – hurrah! – big bunches of roses from my wondrous plants which are still blooming, even after Christmas, and broccoli too from the rather straggly plants in orto #2. And I helped L process the wood from the branches he lopped off in his slowly-slowly dismemberment of aforementioned elms – wood destined for the wood burning stoves though I’m finding conflicting data about how useful it is.

The first rule of using elm wood is, apparently, making sure you get it into the fire before spring because that’s when the dreaded elm bark beetle (Scolytus spp) starts making its home beneath dead bark, ready to spread the Dutch Elm fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi as it hops from there on to any handy tree not already ravaged by Dutch Elm Disease – though there really aren’t many of those left about these parts, I’m afraid. You can pull the bark off and burn it separately too, which will lengthen the elm wood’s storage longevity.

The second rule seems to be that it needs to be mixed with other woods. Some people say this is because it hardly gives out any heat at which point I would ask: why bother? But according to others it’s because it’s such a slow burner that it needs a little chivvying along. Estimates of its heat value vary, from poor-to-medium to not-bad-really. All agree that it is remarkably moist and needs to be left to dry out for two years or so; but some of our trees have been standing, dead, for that long and longer. Does this mean they have dried out in situ, their sap having stopped flowing years ago?

Internet chat groups frequented by serious wood-burners are hilarious. They summon up images of disturbingly odd axe-wielding types in log cabins, fresh raccoon skins fashioned into caps to keep their ears warm. But there’s a sub-text of ‘whatever’s convenient for me’ to their debates and conclusions. I suspect that standing dead trees are not as moisture-free as they (and possibly I) would like to think. Which explains why kindling wood from even our oldest DED victim is very very slow to catch.

One kind of comforting thing about elms I have found in my research is that they’re not going to disappear – not around here at least. Quite frankly, I have struggled so much to rid parts of my garden of elms and the infuriating suckers that they push up from roots all over the place that I don’t know why the idea of their disappearing should upset me. But they’re part of the countryside, so it does. According to more seriously reliable sources, however, what I’m finding is that the fungus will only attack larger trees with larger cells for it to get into: plants up to 3-4 years old are more or less immune. Already Ulmus minor in this neck of the woods doesn’t grow to the mighty dimensions you find in more northerly climes. Until some cure is found for DED, they may only survive as smallish bushes. But they will survive. To talk of European elm extinction is very premature.


For Christmas, we sent my Australian sister – visiting from Sydney with husband and son – for two days in Naples. They passed the test.

Naples is an odd place, and divides people. Either you go into shock at the crazy extravagance of it, are overwhelmed and hate it; or you let yourself be swept up in its unique frenzy, go with the flow and love it. You have to be quite careful about recommending it: you could lose friends by doing so. But they, I’m happy to say, passed the Napoli-test. They came back thrilled and exhilarated.


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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