11 January 2018

0111ALate last night in an idle moment I clicked on Weather Underground and found this. Cue a double, then a triple and quadruple take. I mean, we’ve had our good days and our less good days – some biting cold and some rain but yesterday, for example, it was 13° (55°F) with resplendent skies. Minus 15°? Difficult to get your tired evening brain around.

Shocked, I reloaded the site, and this forecast had gone. The earth had slid back on to its correct axis. Things looked much as they have been – a bit of rain and generally warmer than normal for this time of year. Had the algorhythms gone wild? Or were the people on the other end just having a bit of a giggle? Checking whether anyone was still awake?

L keeps saying he can smell spring, and some of my plants agree with him: the Teucrium fruticans (tree germander) is in extravagant unseasonal bloom and some of the roses have sprouted emerald leaves which look healthier than anything I ever get in summer. I’ve sworn off making springy predictions until well into February: you never know what that fickle month might throw at us around here. But it’s a joy to see the days surreptitiously lengthening. If I could just steer myself outside, there might be some hope for my garden.

It’s distressing how easy it is to pick up bad habits. The long restructuring works on my Pieve Suites project in town – and in particular the final stages where I was personally hauling furnishings and bits and pieces – distracted my attention from all kinds of regular activities. Until then, my more-or-less usual mode of reaching town was a healthy pedal. With the excuse that I had too much to carry, the car replaced my bike. Now it rarely occurs to me not to drive up the lane, polluting the countryside and doing nothing to tone my thighs.

Likewise my garden. Much of my final flurry coincided with our absurdly short spring and grimly hot summer: it was no sacrifice really to find reasons to be inside, fiddling with decorative details. After months and month of easy excuses, though, I’m finding it’s a massive effort to propel myself into some gardening clothes and out the front door. Once I have my trowel and secateurs in hand, it’s a breeze. It’s just getting to that point that I’m finding ludicrously difficult. Which has predictable results on the state of the garden.

0111C
The one area which has partially escaped my agorophobic sloth is the veggie garden, where garlic (though not onions) and peas are now in, and where there’s a mediumly satisfying crop of turnip greens and cavolo nero to save me from horticultural self-loathing and despair. My giant broccoli plants continue to run rampant without the faintest whisper of a head of broccoli. At least, though, from afar they give the impression that it’s a successful and well tended orto.

I’m thinking that perhaps the only way to steer myself outside in any kind of organised way is to plan some bits of makeover. I don’t seem to have any trouble getting out into the gardens of all the various people I’m working for at the moment. Obviously I need a project to draw me into my own. And quite frankly, having grown up in dribs and drabs, with very little overview behind it, it could certainly do with some major shake-ups.

Though in general I loath teaching, and I fought long and hard against pressure to accept the task, it turned out to be an interesting experience, doing a course on garden design recently for our hyper-active Libera Università  (free university). This used to be called the Terza Università (basically adult education, though the connection with terza età, ie the aged, gave it overtones of some kind parking lot for the old and infirm) until some bright spark realised that the median age might plummet if it sounded a bit more rad. And so it did. Well, a bit.

Pulling together all the various strands of my approach to garden design in order to share them with my class focussed my mind very effectively on what I do and how I do it. It’s good to take stock from time to time. And it was a relief to discover that, yes, I do have some kind of method in my approach. You can lose sight of your underlying structure when you’re winging it on auto-pilot.

As I pulled together my lesson plans in a last-minute scramble (of course) and floundered about seeking illustrations to drive home my points, my big takeaways were (1) that garden/ing magazines are full of clever pictures of extremely uninspiring gardens and (2) my own garden served to a worryingly large extent to illustrate mistakes that you should avoid. Not exclusively, I hasten to add: I do love my messy, unstructured space. But it became more and more clear to me why many newcomers to my property react saying “oh, so, you’re, um, a garden designer you said. Um, really?” than with avalanches of admiration. So yes, time to tweak away.


0111B

Christmas seems an age ago. We had fun, just the three of us, wallowing in the pools of hot-spring water beneath the town of San Casciano dei Bagni and tramping the woods around the prehistoric site of Belverde, L and C wearing ridiculous wigs – a Yule tradition they invented a few years ago and show no sign of abandoning. (The few other Belverde visitors greeted us with a straight-faced buon Natale! with no allusion to the headgear. Were they keen not to engage too much with the mad people in the dark woods?)

C decamped to Lesvos and her refugee-spotting even before 2018 arrived, and we went back to our usual work, with the exciting addition of a full house up at Pieve Suites.

But there’s one bit of Christmas that is still to come, and that’s L’s main present – a DNA tester to discover his distant roots.

How on earth it can take from December 15 until January 9 to get a small spit-kit from the Netherlands to Italy, I don’t know. Did someone walk here with it? By the time it arrived I had cancelled that one and another is doing the same route, hopefully more swiftly.

During the wait, though, I heard a radio interview with a 79-year-old who had been given a similar kit recently and whose life had been all shook up by the results. He had always believed, he said, that he was English through and through. But the results came back showing he was over 25% Polynesian islander.

When he told his equally aged sister, her reaction was a laconic “oh, didn’t they tell you you were adopted? I thought you knew.” A very discombobulating thing to learn at 79. (His grandson, he said, had a very different risposte: “now you’ll have to learn to do the haka.”)

So what will we learn about L? The way the postal service is going, we may never learn anything.

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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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