I’m aching. How can I be so sore? This is what comes of closing your eyes to your garden for months. I’d been gripped by sloth, sticking far too closely to my adage that there’s nothing that really needs to be done in winter. Only the brightest, bluest days have tempted me out and even then, only briefly.
The result? One weekend spent installing a watering system in my new vegetable garden has all but done for me. This is pathetic.
When I had Giuseppe the bulldozer boy dig up part of the top carpark and part of the orchard to make the new vegetable garden, I worried that I was adding a risible amount to my planting area. Extending wasn’t the number one reason for the shift: the real problem with my old orto was that trees and undergrowth on our neighbour’s land had grown so dense that the area wasn’t getting much light. But a few more square metres than this bijou predecessor didn’t seem a bad idea.
Now that the area is surrounded by its Cor-ten borders, it looks vast. Funny how that happens. Each time I survey my creation, and reflect on my status as sole garden-tiller and weed-extractor, I think “oh gawd, what on earth possessed me?”
I’ve done some calculations. The area I now have is just over half as much again as my original vegetable plot and the overflow plot put together. That’s a whole lot of space. Then again, I won’t need to do the kind of intensive, shove-everything-as-close-as-you-can kind of cultivation that I’ve been doing all these years, so the yield may not rise hugely. But that still leaves a lot of potential weed-spree room. I’ve always been terrible at mulching to keep weeds down. I think the time may have come for a new approach.
The old orto is now a carpark. The overflow patch to the south of the house was destined to be returned to lawn (well, grass: lawn is too grand a label for my unruly sward).
But looking down on it from inside the house the other day, I had a vision of those lovely string-tied parcels of chubby asparagus crowns that I pick up and put straight back down again each spring in the contadino supply shop down in the valley. With great self-restraint, I tell myself each year: it’s pointless investing in asparagus crowns if you have nowhere to plant them. (The measly collection of plants I have up near the compost bins yields sufficient spears to make one or two risottos each season; most of them I just snap off and munch there and then.)
So that bed can become my asparagus trench. It’s a wee bit clay-ey down the far end for a plant that doesn’t like having too much water lingering by its roots, but I can work in some compost and create a bit of drainage. If I’m really on the ball, I’ll reserve a small corner of it for another of my vegetable non-starters: rhubarb.
I made the rather elemental mistake of planting rhubarb in dry, rocky soil in the fullest of full sun, where it never really stood a chance. Silly, really, as I love the stuff and it’s something that you will certainly never find on sale in Italy: there’s a rather nasty digestivo liqueur made of it, but the plant is so utterly identified with its traditional herbal medicine role as highly effective laxative that the tipple is difficult for Italians to take seriously.
I love it cut into chunks and gently simmered with a little brown sugar and lots of freshly squeezed orange juice. For the past couple of years a friend has given me generous bunches, some of which I’ve squirelled away in the freezer. That’s the odd thing about rhubarb. When warmer weather and longer days usher in a whole new range of fruit flavours – apricots, cherries, strawberries, plums and peaches –they taste just like spring and summer. Rhubarb, for me, doesn’t: it tastes like something comforting for a winter’s evening – a (so-called) fruit out of sequence.
There are times when my dealings with builders in my house in town might have been scripted by Samuel Beckett.
Builder: I’m a bit worried. (So what’s new? It’s rare to find my depressive muratore in anything other than a worried state.) There’s a big crack, all across the ceiling on the top floor.
This crack has been there, I know, since I bought the place. Through massive building works including removing beams, and through a series of earthquakes – far away but clearly felt here – it has remained unchanged.
Builder: I need to investigate. We need to know whether it’s the plaster or whether one of the brick panels inside is cracked.
Me: And if it is?
Builder: (Deeply concerned look, and shaking head.) I don’t really know. We might have to redo the whole roof.
My face must have given away what I thought of that costly sounding proposal. He changed tack.
Builder: What if there’s an earthquake?
Me: There have been several. And this isn’t a high-risk earthquake zone.
Builder: But what if there is? A big one?
Me: Every time the earth shakes, you tell me that the Big One will bring the whole creaking town down. A small crack seems irrelevant.
Builder: But you have to think about these things. And you have to consider, um, what’s it called?
I wait expectantly.
Builder: You know, um. Gravity.
I think I’m staring in disbelief.
Me: Gravity? Seriously? You really want me to worry about… gravity?
He’s beginning to look sheepish. There are limits to dejection, and even he knows that he’s crossed a line.
Me: Why stop at gravity? Have you thought about continental drift? What happens when the continents collide, eh?
Weirdly, my depressive builder is laughing.
I’m revamping the greenery of a long-established hotel in Positano. The Amalfi Coast is hardly just down the road, but the make-you-gasp beauty of the place compensates for the distances. And anyway, we land-locked Umbrians need a bit of sea air from time to time.
There’s work going on inside the hotel too, and the workers are a variegated bunch of locals, from the wizened sea-dog look-alikes to alarmingly young youths – their look part football rowdy, part character in a renaissance fresco.
On my last visit, one of these boys was creating elegant baroque surrounds for imposing doorways. With nothing more than a regular builder’s trowel and an occasional sweep of a correcting finger, he was coaxing lumpy cement into a thing of remarkable smoothness and beauty. I find that kind of dexterity mesmerising, especially when applied to a craft that has hardly changed at all over the centuries. Were it not for humidity in the building site, and the need to ponder plants, I could have stood there for hours.
I would have liked, too, to linger to watch the lady in one of the houses on the road up to town chopping wood, but it might not have been polite.
She’s wonderful, this particular elderly dame: about the height of my elbow and almost as wide as she’s tall, she can be found pottering around her garden most days clad in startling colours and a remarkable footwear collection – a hand-knitted bright fuschia cardigan and bright yellow crocs, an electric blue sweater and violet crocs, a deep red cardigan and turquoise crocs.
I can’t recall the precise colour scheme as I cycled by on that day last week, perhaps because it was the activity that struck me rather than the sartorial selection. One huge log stood upended on the front path; the head of a massive axe was embedded in it; and the signora was wielding – with a strength and accuracy that you really wouldn’t expect of a lady of such advanced years – a sledgehammer to drive the axe through the log. This was a woman for whom no challenge was too great.