15 July 2018

Down here in our valley we don’t have mains gas. We have a thousand litre LPG tank buried in the garden which is filled at great expense when necessary – though I have to say that since having the solar panels installed for heating water, it’s necessary less and less often. When the gas is getting low, I rummage about in the chicken house and pull out the dusty red and white plastic stakes – one with an ugly sign attached – which must, by law, show where the tank is buried. I hammer them into place around the tank’s inspection cap… then try not to be at home when the delivery man comes, to avoid any comment on my perfectly obvious ruse.
Every three years or so the company sends an inspector to fill forms and tick boxes and re-register our tank with the local fire service. This morning he showed up unannounced.
“I just have to check it’s intact and take some photos,” he said as I pointed out the inspection cap to him. I was wittering on about how I’d just removed the stakes temporarily because the garden needed weeding, when he cut me short.
“Do you have them? Because if you haven’t it doesn’t matter. I’ll get some from my car. We can just stick them in for a moment while I take a photo. You don’t want to have those ugly things right by your drive like that.”
The health and safety inspector who brings his own props and worries about clients’ aesthetics. Another reason to love Italy.

Last week I watched a funny little bulbous green-white spider (I’m going to stick my neck out and guess from the depths of my ignorance that it was some kind of  Thomisidae crab spider) suspended from one of my buddleias on an almost invisible strand of silk as it hooked, stunned and subdued a butterfly about four times larger than itself in a matter of minutes.
When I happened across the scene, the butterfly had clearly only just fallen prey to the angling spider because it was putting up a magnificent fight, flapping and contorting and generally doing all in its quite considerable power to escape the spider’s grip. But gradually the fluttering became less frantic, then stopped. The spider began wheeling itself in.
It wasn’t so much the spider-butterfly interaction that held me mesmerised, though, as the silk at the end of which the drama was playing out. It rocked and swayed and – to my eye – seemed to extend and contract in time with the paroxysms at the far end. I found it hard to believe that it could stand up to the strain. How strong can such a gossamer strand be?
The answer, I find, is that its strength is about the same as a high-grade steel alloy, ie phenomenal. But it’s the toughness (ie strength plus extensibility of up to about five times without snapping) that make it truly amazing… that and the hard-to-conceive-of fact that a strand long enough to encircle our whole planet would weigh about half a kilo. Clever things, spiders.

0715F0715GI had stopped in via Borgo di Giano (the street where my Pieve Suites is located) to snap a picture of our third consecutive ‘floweriest street of CdP’ prize plaque when a French acquaintance with a house in town wandered by.
“We’re the most beautiful street!” I said to her.
She turned to give the alleyway a look, and with true Gallic disdain said “it is not the most beautiful!”
“Well,” I said, trying to be conciliatory. “It’s definitely the floweriest.”
“Yes,” she admitted, sounding rather bored, “there are flowers. But it’s not the most beautiful.”
“So where is the most beautiful?” I asked, at which she stared at me as if I were completely stupid.
“Have you never been to Paris?” she said.
It’s hard to please some people.

I realise that the advent of a new compost bin might not seem like the acme of achievement to many, but for me, my long day’s sawing and drilling last Sunday was one of immense fulfilment. For years, that overflow compost heap round the back of the chicken house was precisely that: a heap. Sprawling, messy, spread about the place by burrowing animals –hedgehogs mostly I’d say, looking for a quiet hole to retire to.
Then I took the big decision to fix it up, went and bought the necessary lumber, stacked it in the chicken house and. Did nothing. For months. While grass grew between the stakes and planks and every time I passed by it nagged at my conscience.
But now (with some help from my garden assistant Indi, who drove the stakes into the ground and then was quickly bundled away before he tried to bring his questionable aesthetic sense to the project) I’ve done it – give or take some stakes to be sawed down to the right height and a couple of bits of rebar that need to be hacked off because they’re driven far too far into the ground to be hauled out. I’m rather pleased with myself. Now I just need to tidy the rest of the horribly neglected place.

Last year at this time we were shrivelling up in the relentless heat, dreaming of unsweaty nights and spending our days in darkened interiors. This year, I’m still hard at work. After the spring work-washout, we garden people have been granted a long long planting period right into July to catch up with projects which have been pushed back and back and back.
It’s hot, certainly. But it’s not too hot. Which is good. And not good. My hoped-for summer lull is taking far too long to materialise. I pound up and down motorways and spend days heaving plants about in the sun… satisfying (mostly), gratifying (in many cases). But now I’m ready to stop, just for a bit. That moment too will come.
What was really missing this year was our pre-season sea. There’s generally one weekend in June when we (well, L, if truth be told, for what he calls work) get/s invited somewhere exotic – a luxury resort, a spectacular yacht – from which we launch ourselves into a chilly Med. This year? Well, at the appropriate time it was raining, mostly.
So this year we made up for it with a night in Orbetello. It’s a funny place Orbetello: picturesquely perched on its strand of land poking out towards the presque-ile (is that the correct term?) of Argentario; workaday and lived in in some ways but very much a seaside holiday town in others; not sophisticated enough to be chic but quietly elegant in parts, interspersed with some reconstruction nightmares after heavy WW2 bombings.
We took our bikes with us and pedalled along to the Tombolo della Feniglia, riding through the reserve beneath umbrella pines to a white-sand beach littered with hippy-shelters cobbled together with white-bleached driftwood. The Feniglia was one of our summer daytrip venues through many years when we lived in Rome. During the week, it was acceptably empty though I suspect that those most inaccessible areas where even on high-season weekends we used to find unpeopled stretches are now heaving on summer Saturdays and Sundays. After weeks of rushing and stressing, some salt water and salt air was welcome.

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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