Gaps have opened up in the garden beds along the terrace outside the kitchen: Ceanothus have inexplicably withered; even well mulched Agapanthus liquified in super-cold weather over the winter. I’ve bought these beauties to fill the voids, but when oh when am I going to get them into the ground? I really can’t remember a more dreadful May.
I’m not sure we quite appreciated what a marvellous April we were having: the hottest, I’ve read, on record in these parts. For two whole weeks there was not a drop of rain, and I was reaching for the sun hats and factor 50+. I had even dusted off my water timers, and purchased new batteries to replace the ones I’ve been recharging for who knows how many seasons.
No need now.
Since 1 May we have had just one day without rain. It’s like being in the tropics. Mornings can be sunny – warm too. But by mid-afternoon at the very latest the occasional fierce water-laden gust of wind nearly blows you off balance, signalling that someone, very close by, is getting drenched. And chances are it’s going to hit you next. Though not necessarily.
Driving up from Po’ Bandino down in the valley the other day, the amount of water cutting in diagonal runnels across the road in front of me was almost frightening, especially as at 20kph – which was about as fast as I could go and still see anything at all – you have all the time you need to appreciate them. This was the situation as far as town. On our side of the hill, 500 metres away, not a drop had fallen. Nothing. Things were looking as dry as they could do given the general swampiness of the area at the moment. But a few hours later, the next bomba d’acqua (water bomb) caught us full on. So far this month we’ve had 139mm of rain. (The May average in Umbria is around 77mm – depending where you look.) The forecast for the foreseeable future is more of the same.
The result of all this on my work is dramatic.
On the one hand I have (understandably) frustrated clients moaning “but it’s just a bit of rain, surely you can work in the rain?” Yes, you can work in the rain, of course. But the rain isn’t the problem. What you can’t do is dig and weed and move earth and build walls and lay pipes in ground which is clinging, filthy, unmanageable mud down to a depth of about a metre.
On the other hand I’m juggling several garden contractors who are fending off frustrated customers and me, poor things. Double demands and a terrible quandary: do you just head out knowing that you can do next-to-nothing, just to show willing, but end up wasting time and petrol? Or do you sit on your hands, mulling over the work-avalanche that you know is going to leave you gasping for breath the moment this meteorological nightmare gives way to proper spring – even summer? It’s a logistical nightmare, with no end in sight.
Yesterday, at a project way along a bumpy but more or less passable white road in the Mugello, east of Florence, my gardening squad (adopting the ‘let’s just go along and see if there’s anything at all we can do, every if it’s probably pointless’ philosophy) arrived to find that someone in their wisdom had tried to fill in the potholes by tipping a truckload of soil on the road. Overnight rain had then turned this into axle-deep mud. By the time I arrived, they had skidded their truck to a half about a third of the way up and were busy trying to work out how on earth to reverse it back down and run away home.
My client had us ferried up to the garden in four-wheel drives. The forecast downpours held off until late in the evening. The tools left in the abandoned truck would have been useful, but the men managed to make do with the ancient intruments left about the property. On this occasion, we were lucky: we were still at the pruning and clearing stage – not the mud-making activities – and we got in a day’s work. A rare triumph in a time of defeats. For the planting, though, all we can do is wait.
Desperately clutching at straws, I have found a couple of silver linings in this dire situation.
Last September I bewailed the effects of an interminably long dry summer on my totally un-irrigated so-called lawn, wondering whether it would ever come back to life. The answer is finally a resounding yes. Sure, I wouldn’t recommend looking too closely at what makes up that marvellous green sward: it’s a fine counter-argument to those spoilsports who condemn lawns as bio-homogenous water-guzzling horrors. But as my mantra goes, if it’s green and (between downpours) you can mow it, it’s a ‘lawn’. For a few lush weeks at least, I will feel like an English gardener.
Unable to rush home from appointments to throw myself into trying to bring some semblance of order into my own waterlogged garden, I’ve treated myself to a couple of nursery visits – places I’ve known about for some time but never dropped by, both of them rose specialists.
I get so infuriated by major vivai (nurseries), the ones who are so full of themselves that when I ask for a variety of a plant that they don’t happen to have they simply peer down their noses at me, barely concealing their contempt for anyone who doesn’t realise that their selection is the ne plus ultra. There’s no concealment at all when I suggest – usually quite peremptorily – that they contact somewhere with a better selection and procure what I want rather than trying to palm me off with something in stock but totally unsuitable.
Which is why I found myself at La Rosa del Borghetto in a most unlikely bit of unspoilt countryside snaking along a narrow arcane-feeling lane unexpectedly near to the centre of Perugia. On that occasion I was looking for climbers for a client – nothing particularly exotic or recherché… just some things that larger suppliers didn’t deign to stock. A delightful source of wonderful plants sold by people with a passion.
It was en route to my Mugello appointment that I noticed that I was speeding past MondoRose, the well constructed website of which is my go-to place when looking for inspiration and guidance in the choice of roses. It’s a kind of bible. But I don’t think I had ever really looked at the address of the nursery, and if I had, I don’t think I would have been able to say where Sieci was. Now I know.
Ambling up and down the rows of lovingly kept plants (they specialise both in old varieties and in David Austin creations) I just wanted to take them all. Instead I limited myself to another R. Munstead Wood, a few beautifully scented R. Yolande d’Aragon – an old variety I wasn’t familiar with but which is a glorious full musty pink – and some dark blue ornamental sages. Now – as I was saying – all I need is a long enough break in this weather to get them into the ground.