30 April 2018

The manna ash trees have gone beserk. It took me a while to work out what it was. As I zipped round the countryside – something I’ve been doing a lot of lately – I was mesmerised by great clouds of creamy white all over the hillsides, pushing the bright new foliage of the oak forests out of the limelight. It couldn’t be Prunus spinosa (blackthorn) or any of those other outcrops of wild fruit – they just don’t grow tall enough to crest the oaks.

It took me a while to realise that the answer was staring me in the face, in my own home carpark. My crooked little Fraxinus ornus was swathed in an abundance of flower the like of which I’d never seen before.

It’s a pretty tree – comfortingly familiar rather than showy (usually). And it’s the inconspicuous (usually) co-occurring side-kick to the Quercus pubescens (Downy oak) which dominates forests at our altitudes and latitudes. But this year, as I said, the ashes have exploded, and are making sure they’re noticed. Who knew there were so many of them out there?

What I can’t reconstruct in my head, though, is which of them was in leaf first. I should pay more attention because it is, of course, vital.

Phenology (the study of seasonal change in relation to plant and animal life – a new word for me) tells us that, in the UK at least, the ash used to beat the oak regularly  at getting leaves on until less than 100 years ago. Now with rising spring temperatures (we’ve had the hottest April on record here), the faster-reacting oak gets there first every year.

Ash before oak, we’re in for a soak; oak before ash, just a quick dash. (I’ve found an Irish alterative to this familiar bit of rain-forecasting doggerel which says ‘ash before oak, there’ll be smoke [ie it’ll be hot]; oak before ash, there’ll be a smash [high winds]’ – the Irish varying it, presumably, because persistant drizzle is a given.) I’m pretty sure that oak and ash were edging their way out more or less simultaneously here this year. What does that imply for the summer to come?

The rhyme, I’m reading, isn’t a great crystal ball: for all their folksy wisdom our ancients were probably pretty dire at meteorological predictions. In fact, it tells you more about the weather of the preceeding few months – and squelchy, icy late winter was clearly what the ash needed to produce the glories it’s now regaling us with.

It’s tempting, though, to blame this ash activity for the forecast for the foreseeable future. After a couple of glorious weeks being spoilt by temperatures well above the average and days of piercing blue, our forecast has turned abysmal, with biblical downpours and shivery temperatures from tomorrow. Please, let it be as unreliable as the ancients.


In our tiny supermarket the other day, old ladies were lingering more than usual around the checkout. They were taking it in turns to hug the lovely Madonna-faced girl on the till. She’s going away, they wailed to each other. You will come back and see us, won’t you? You won’t just disappear?

She was all quiet sweetness and put the ladies’ fears to rest with a calm smile and a gentle word – so calm and gentle that a tear or two rolled down old faces.

When they had kissed her and stroked her and toddled off, I asked where she was going. Australia? The ends of the earth?

Siena, she said. I’ve decided to go back to university. Fantastic I said. Yes, she said, I’ll be back every weekend.

It’s 91km from here to there – less than an hour and a half in the car. But if it’s robbing them of their favourite supermarket girl, Siena might as well be the end of the world for the ladies.


I have been trying to be good with my asparagus. I only planted it last spring, and managed to force myself to forget it then in order to spare the spears and strengthen the roots.

This year, the experts say, I can take… well, it depends whom you read. The RHS says none at all, others say 50 percent, others anything in between. I think I was good: I don’t think I took more than half of the first crop.

Moreover I weeded the whole long asparagus bed very thoroughly, and nerve-racking work it is. With each tug at an infestante and each gentle prod with my trowel I fully expected to sever one of the precious concealed snub-nosed sprouts. Tip-toeing about, I don’t think I did too much damage.

My novelty crop for this year is strawberries. Not that I didn’t have strawberries already – some large ones in a totally unsuitable place by the carpark where I rarely even find them until after the lizards and other creatures have nibbled them half away; and innumerable wild ones once planted in small quantities outside the kitchen but since eaten by birds with seeds deposited everywhere imaginable. They pop up all over the garden.

But these new ones, I decided, would be far more scientific: planted near the asparagus through very unbecoming white fleece to keep them clean, I would finally get myself a good crop of large strawberries. I might even make jam.

Well, what I now have seems to be a medium crop of strawberries that really don’t taste of much. Am I going to have to start over yet again?


Some weeks ago at an event organised by the great niece (?) of a famous British novelist, I met the granddaughter of a marvelous Swedish writer. This latter later contacted me and asked me to help restore her utterly lovely garden, which I’m doing with great joy.

At her beautiful home, I met the grandson of a great Italian philosopher.

I find it wonderful, moving and utterly charming that in a very down to earth, close-knit way the shadow of an intellectual social crowd of such a different age lives on in quietly beautiful places through descendents who still recognise something in each other.


The other evening as I watered the orto, a nightingale started his glorious song very very close to me. There he was, perched on one of the straggly little oaks just beyond the orto, along the edge of Mario’s field. I cooed at him and thanked him for his song; he gurgled and trilled and paid no notice of me at all, naturally. I was wrapt and thrilled – and quite glad that no one was there to witness me in my over-emotional state. But I don’t think I’d ever knowingly been serenaded by a very visible nightingale before.

Which, now I come to think of it, rather answers my question about which came first. I could see the bird because the oak’s branches were bare. I’m pretty sure that the manna ash was already in its flowery leafy prime by then. Oh dear.



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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2 Responses to 30 April 2018

  1. Thanks Julia. Yes, living immersed in great beauty is definitely good for the soul!

  2. julia fogg says:

    That’s a good piece of writing – takes me back to time living in Italy – although resonates with life here near Provence.
    The ash flowering has been amazing here too – not a word I use liberally usually – along with all April blossoms this spring. We are lucky to be able to enjoy it all.

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