16 February 2015


I’ve decided that tomato-seed-sowing day is my birthday, towards the end of February – for no reason more scientific than that I can probably remember that date. I’m determined not to rush it this year as I have in the past, finding myself with thriving seedlings far too early for planting them out without fear of frost. Nor do I want to leave them too late – another problem I’ve caused myself some years – only to have a tomato-less summer when the house is full of hungry guests, and a huge glut come late August when everyone has gone home.

Another problem I’m not going to create for myself this year is the compost+slug one. Last year, I decided that my very own compost, mixed with sand and a variety of other goodies, was the perfect thing for potting – so much better than shop-bought stuff which might have been fiddled about with in any number of nefarious ways. It isn’t. My compost is a slug palace. And though I did (when I could be bothered) sift it before use, I still filled my greenhouse with a regular army of the beasts.

My sweet little seedlings would poke their heads above ground during the day, only to have their leaflets gnawed straight off overnight: the mangled stumps left the following morning were heart-breaking. So this year it’s sterile potting compost straight from the garden shop for me and no questions asked. Plus generous sprinklings of iron phosphate non-toxic slug zapper everywhere.

Up in the orto, I’m making with the ash from our wood-burning stoves in a desperate attempt to keep slugs from devastating peas and broad beans as they did in 2014. I say desperate because the beds are already full of compost straight out of the bins, and therefore of slugs. But the potassium in the ash is good for my legumes, and some say that slugs baulk at the feel of it under-slime, so I’ve filled the grooves between the hillocks in which the peas and beans are planted (a ploy to keep them from getting waterlogged) and all around the wooden edges and we’ll see if that will stop them in their tracks. I’m not holding my breath.

Last year, it should be said, was an unrepresentative year for pests: it was so warm and wet that they had the time of their lives.

It wasn’t only the animal kingdom that benefited from it. Fungi of all sorts thrived too, blighting my poor roses which went through most of the summer with blooms, yes, but with hardly a leaf except the pile of miserable ex-greenery that carpeted the ground beneath them far quicker than I could remove it. In fact, it wasn’t ex-greenery, technically speaking, because it was never really green: leaves opened up with great black marks all over them and soon fell to the ground.

This state of affairs went on for months. I thought that the fact they went on flowering so beautifully (not huge blooms, but lots of them) must mean that they weren’t suffering too much. This was undoubtedly wishful thinking. Now as I prune them (my heart in my mouth, hoping that taking advantage of our recent run of lovely days won’t backfire on me because it is very early) I’m seeing the damage: so much dead wood, so many spindly offshoots and very few nice chunky unblemished new branches.

How dreadful it would be if they don’t pull themselves together: I would be devastated if I had to rip out all my rose banks. Because of course I couldn’t simply replace them: roses planted where a rose has been previously never take. I would have to depart on some quite different rose-free tangent and that would be unbearable.

So I’ll just keep watch, and feed and spray as much organic stuff as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that I don’t lose them.

Ditto for the fruit trees which didn’t seem to suffer quite so much from last year’s wet but also didn’t produce much in the way of fruit.

I have decided this year to get someone else in to prune them. It’s usually me who attacks them, and in theory, I know exactly what I should be doing. But in practice I find that cold feet often work alongside laziness to produce a result that doesn’t really end up doing the trees a whole lot of good. Part of the problem is that what would do them good, production-wise, would be a thorough clean-out, taking them back to a hugely simpler structure. But that would also mean having miserable-looking trees for months, if not for a couple of years. My quandary is aesthetic more than practical. So my new resolution is to let someone else have a go at them every few years – not that they’ll have carte blanche to massacre them or anything so drastic because I’ll make very sure they don’t overstep any of my stringent limits. But at least that way the plants might benefit to some extent from a different eye/approach – someone without my hang-ups. That’s my theory.

Arguably the biggest 2014-hangover worry around these parts are the olives. Whenever and wherever they meet, people ask each other in terrified tones “has it been cold enough?” To kill off the olive-destroying bugs, that is – the ones that buried deep into the fruit last year and turned it bad, reducing the harvest by some unthinkable percentage. My answer is, I just don’t know.

We have had the occasional dusting of snow, but it hasn’t lain for more than a couple of hours, if at all; and there has been a bit of frost on very few days way down at the shady end of our field. But the norm is well above freezing. I haven’t had to scrape ice from the windscreen once (admittedly I haven’t done very many early morning drives); and only once has the ice on the zinc bowl outside the kitchen where my mini water lilies come up miraculously every summer been so thick I couldn’t poke my finger through it in the morning – something which in winters past happened week after week.


Animal problems, again. I planted a tiny patch of broccoli in the top vegetable garden. It has gone through the winter, working hard on a few heads which promised to be huge. But each time one gets almost ready to pick, some animal stretches its neck over the netting fence I’ve put around it and delicately nibbles it off. Deer, I can only presume. Such a major pain.

Still, a hungry deer is better than the wolf that my friend S has to contend with. I have been hearing tales of wolves for months now. People say that they’ve been brought in to deter and decimate the boar which are over-running us since the number of hunters declined. (Declined? You wouldn’t say that on the average shoot-em-dead hunting-season weekend morning around here.) Whether this is true, or whether the animals have simply moved down from the mountains to take advantage of easier prey – like suburban foxes in the UK – I don’t know. But I have long thought that perhaps there was a large element of illogical primordial terror and a very small one of truth in these tales.

But S has seen one trotting past her living room window several times – not quite stopping to peer in and see what she is up to, but pretty close to that level of familiarity. I’m not sure that I’d like that very much.


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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